INDIANAPOLIS - The bone-chilling breeze down Pennsylvania Street yesterday morning pushed the 10-degree temperature even lower. It was a good day to stay in, stay warm and enjoy the holiday.
But several fans in a building across from Conseco Fieldhouse, knowing the Detroit Pistons would be coming down that street on their team bus to play in the arena, couldn't resist opening a window to display a banner that read: "Pacer fans play fair. Won't throw a chair."
Fair, indeed. Yesterday's game between the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers looked like just one of 82 regular-season contests, Detroit winning, 98-93. The fans were fair but fervent, the players aggressive but not antagonistic, the refs strict but not restricting, everybody on their best holiday behavior. And chairs were used strictly for sitting on.
That was hardly the case the last time these two teams met, on Nov. 19 on the Pistons' home court, The Palace of Auburn Hills. On that night, in the final minute of play, a shoving match between Indiana's Ron Artest and Detroit's Ben Wallace escalated to a full-blown, benches-emptying, punches-thrown confrontation between the teams. Then, it exploded into a battle between Pacers and fans, both in the stands and on the floor, a chair flying before it was over.
Indiana forward Jermaine O'Neal, who punched a fan on the floor, was suspended for 25 games, but arbitrator Roger Kaplan cut that to 15 games, allowing O'Neal to return for yesterday's game.
There were signs of that night in yesterday's afternoon game. The sellout crowd of 18,345 loudly cheered O'Neal's return and booed Wallace every time he touched the ball. There were security personnel everywhere - Pacers officials wouldn't reveal the extent to which security was bolstered - and the media numbered 85, more than double the normal number for an early regular-season game.
But those looking for the ugly or the sensational were disappointed. Opposing players embraced, bumped knuckles and wished each other a happy holiday before the opening tip-off.
O'Neal exchanged greetings with Detroit coach Larry Brown, for whom he had played in an Olympic qualifying tournament.
"We apologized to each other," O'Neal said, "told each other that what happened the last time should never happen again, and wished each other a Merry Christmas and a good game."
Oh, there was one incident between a player and a fan, with the fan winding up with a bloody nose and swollen lip.
But it was purely accidental. Pistons forward Antonio McDyess, chasing a bouncing ball into the seats, crashed into Linda Taylor of Indianapolis, leaving her with the bruises. But the next time play was dead, McDyess went over to the sidelines to apologize.
"I told her how sorry I was for running her over," McDyess said. "I wanted to do whatever I could to make her feel better. I didn't want [the game to turn into] anything near what it was the last time."
Led by the scoring of Richard Hamilton (25 points) and Chauncey Billups (20) and the rebounding of Wallace (11), the Pistons held off a late charge by Indiana to move over .500 at 13-12. The Pacers got 24 points from Reggie Miller, 21 from O'Neal and 16 rebounds from Jeff Foster, but still dropped below .500 (12-13) for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
When the final buzzer sounded, Brown breathed a sigh of relief that was repeated throughout both locker rooms.
"I'm glad it's over," he said. "I thought the crowd was real courteous. That was great. I thought the players didn't do anything except play and try to win the game. I think that was great. Now, we can go home and celebrate the holidays and be glad this mess is over."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.