IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

NBA's justice swift, but perhaps too light

WashPost: Artest got what he deserved with season-long suspension, but Jackson, O'Neal got off light
Indiana Pacers v Detroit Pistons
Indiana's Ron Artest may have received a suitable suspension, but his teammates may have gotten off too light, argues Michael Wilbon.Allen Einstein / Getty Images

Ron Artest wanted some time off to promote his new CD, to try to help his girl group go platinum, and now he's got it. Artest has the month he had asked for, the month after that, the month after that and every month for the rest of this season. For charging into the stands in Detroit on Friday night and turning what could have been only an on-court scuffle into a riot, Artest was hit with a rest-of-the-season suspension by NBA Commissioner David Stern that is not only just but necessary.

It's too bad Stern stopped at 30 games for Artest's Indiana teammate Stephen Jackson, who should have been kicked out for the rest of the season, too. Whatever Artest got, Jackson should have received — plus one game. Jackson didn't get hit in the face with a cup and he wasn't provoked when he went into the stands. And when Jackson got there, he didn't try to restrain Artest. He didn't seek to make peace or restore order. Jackson went in swinging his fists. Artest, while his defense for going into the stands is weak, at least has one.

Jackson has no defense and probably got off comparatively lightly, as did Jermaine O'Neal, whose most egregious work might not have been captured on videotape. O'Neal, according to sources familiar with the ongoing criminal proceedings in suburban Detroit, is being investigated for allegedly having hit a police officer during the brawl. So just because the NBA gave O'Neal 25 games doesn't mean that's all he will get for his role in the melee.

But Artest gets the stiffest penalty because Artest has a history of being at the center of trouble. While his foul on Ben Wallace, which precipitated the whole thing, was a ticky-tack hack unworthy of being called flagrant, the fact is Wallace overreacted because it was Artest who fouled him, because everywhere Artest has been the last few seasons he has brought trouble with him. Remember when Michael Jordan's second comeback was delayed for a couple of months? It was because his ribs had been injured by Artest in a summer pickup game. While he has been a troubled soul since childhood and acknowledged his need for counseling, he has also acted willfully as a grown man. In effect, Artest is simply reaping what he has sown.

Stern admitted as much when he said during an appropriately grim news conference at Madison Square Garden last night, "I did not strike from my mind the fact that Ron Artest has been previously suspended for the loss of self-control."

Artest's rest-of-the-season suspension is essentially a third-strike punishment, or in Artest's case, a fifth strike. By now, everybody knows Artest charged into the stands and grabbed the wrong guy. He ran right past the person who had hit him with the cup, underscoring the point that players cannot run into the stands. That was what Stern had to hammer home with his suspensions and in his first public comments last evening. While 50 games might have been more appropriately punitive for Jackson and O'Neal, Stern probably did enough to back up his contention that "we cannot tolerate a repetition of what occurred Friday night in Detroit. Players cannot lose control and go into the stands."

The commissioner essentially issued a warning when asked about the possibility of another such brawl happening, he said, "Whatever doubt there was [among players], the line is drawn and my guess is it won't happen again." And he followed that by saying of fans, "Maybe we have to lose some fans, and that's all right with me."

And there was the obligatory talk about beefing up security, as if 50 more armed guards could have stopped somebody from throwing beer on a player.

Stern sounded all the right notes, including when asked about the possibility players will be separated from fans by some sort of barrier. "I would like it not to come to that," he said. "That would be an unacceptable result." He even addressed cutting off beer sales earlier in the games, but given the amount of money the beer companies have invested in the NBA and its television partners, I'll believe that when I see it. Still, cutting off beer sales at halftime would go a long way toward making sitting through a game tolerable.

But sounding all the right notes and actually repairing what's wrong with his league right now are two different things. It's not just the NBA, of course. Baseball had its chair-throwing, players-in-the-stands incident in Oakland during a key division game. NHL fans are disgusted that they have no season, while more than 200 players have gone off to play in European leagues.

But the NBA was known, rightfully so, as the fan-friendliest league from the early 1980s through the late 1990s. But along the way, some time after Jordan's second retirement in 1998, it began to sour. No small number of Americans who would describe themselves as NBA fans openly rooted against the U.S. players — all of them NBA stars — during the Athens Olympics.

Stern and his lieutenants are going to have to figure out when this resentment of NBA players started to increase, why it has become so open, and what to do about it. Suspending Artest, O'Neal and Jackson won't begin to address that.

All Stern has done so far is what he had to do immediately, which is get the aforementioned Pacers away from the court. Even that is problematic for the league's bigger picture. The Eastern Conference, which has been a basketball blight since the Bulls were broken up at the end of the 1998 season, entered the season with only three viable teams: the Pistons, Pacers and Heat. And now the Pacers' season is done.

That doesn't mean, however, that this episode is over. In fact, this is just the beginning. Prosecutors in Michigan continue their work. Fans who were punched, trampled, soaked in beer, and shoved under chairs are scheduling visits with their lawyers. The NBA season is only three weeks old, yet this brawl and all it exposes guarantees the league is headed for one long winter.