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Fight! Fight! Fight!

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Posted Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2004, at 3:16 PM PT - If I had to reconstruct what happened during Friday night's Pacers-Pistons game based solely on the reactions of sports columnists, I'd probably come up with something like this: Ron Artest beats his own coach with a club, Stephen Jackson shows a homemade sex tape on the Palace's Jumbotron, and Jermaine O'Neal grabs a mike and makes disparaging remarks about John Wooden, Mother Teresa, and "the troops."

Luckily, I saw everything happen with my own eyes. I was in a bar on Friday night when the fight began streaming in an infinite loop. Many of us had been primed for the highlights by enthusiastic cell-phone calls. When it finally came on, most every patron in the establishment enjoyed, thoroughly and loudly, all of the hot-and-heavy action. That's right, we loved it. Sure, it was wrong for Artest to run into the stands, and wrong for Jackson to run in after him throwing haymakers, and wrong for the fans to douse the Indiana players with beer. But when a crazy basketball player charges into the stands and tries to pounce on some drunk jerks, I don't fly into a rage on behalf of the nation's children. Nope, I just kick back and enjoy the spectacle.

In the bar where I was watching, I don't recall seeing anyone weeping inconsolably about the stain on the NBA, sport, and human civilization. If anyone was crying, it was from laughing so hard after seeing that rotund, souvenir-jersey-clad fan run onto the court and try to show Artest who was boss. (Connoisseurs should also note that one of the first peacemakers onto the scene, running in from Artest's left, was a clown. Another was, of all people, Rasheed Wallace.) The very few people in the crowd who weren't interested in the fracas seemed like the kind of people who refuse to be entertained under any circumstance.

Immediately after the brawl, the talking heads on ESPN's NBA Shootaround all said that disgusted fans would stop watching NBA games in droves. At this exact moment, millions of people were talking, probably for the first time in history, about a regular season NBA game. Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee wrote that "drastic and perhaps even draconian" measures were now required to salvage the NBA's image. But this once-in-a-lifetime brawl has, quite obviously, increased fan interest in the league. The fight was still the lead item on the local news last night—and I live in Brooklyn. When was the last time you remember your co-workers, your parents—anyone except Bill Walton—talking about the NBA in November?

Rather than acknowledge that the brawl was a freak occurrence—and a funny one to boot—the sports commentariat have heralded the apocalypse and rapturously praised NBA Commissioner David Stern's predictably harsh suspensions. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News wrote that the fight "was more than just a black eye. It was Stern's Black Sox scandal." No, this was his Disco Demolition Night. Not that I disagree with Sterns's actions, or think that the players or fans behaved admirably. (Except for the clown; he is a hero.) Stern wasn't "a great commissioner when we needed him to be," as Lupica wrote, just a competent one. The fans drank too much and made a scene and Stern made a sanctimonious speech about how society is in decline. That's it.

The biggest lesson that we can take away from this mega-fight is that Ron Artest is really, really loony, just like Dennis Rodman was loony, and Vernon Maxwell was loony. This is a guy who, after becoming a national villain, appeared on the while decked out in gear promoting his rap album. Rather than herald a plague of sports-related violence, the Pacers-Pistons brawl has just reinforced how rare this kind of behavior is. Now it'll be even rarer because the mental and physical boundaries that keep fans and players apart will be far stronger. I bet you'll think twice about tossing a beer the next time you go to a basketball game.

I haven't met, nor can I even imagine, someone who actually feels harmed by what happened. If the players had beaten somebody bloody or unconscious or worse, everyone in the bar would have stopped cheering. That we're thrilled by the occasional flash of violence in sports doesn't mean we're one step away from prime-time cockfights. Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote that the fight showed that "America in general and American sports in particular" are at the same stage as Rome when it was overrun by the "lean and hungry subjects of the Empire." If this is the first sign of the apocalypse, then the ride to hell will be pretty smooth.

Ben Mathis-Lilley is a writer in New York.

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