- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Sorry, but . . .
It was not the darkest day in league history. It was not a permanent black eye that will make fans stop going to games. It was not doomsday for the NBA, as it will be described for the next several days, weeks and maybe even months.
Downright shameful on so many sides?
Certainly. Without doubt. All of the above.
But let's be clear here.
The reality that no one wants to hear is that interest in the Detroit-Indiana rivalry, and this entire season by association, will inevitably skyrocket in the wake of Friday night's fights. Sorry again, but that's what happens in the entertainment business. Movies and records made by actors and musicians embroiled in controversy always get more pub and profit. That's how it will happen now in the hoops world, no matter how unsavory or unsightly the driving force was.
You have to go all the way back to 1979, when several Boston Bruins went into the stands at Madison Square Garden to tangle with Rangers fans, to find an incident of player-fan violence comparable to what happened at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Yet that and similar incidents that followed never came close to destroying the NHL -- that threat is only coming now, 25 years later, from widespread financial trouble and a lockout with no end in sight. The initial wave of moral outrage stemming from messes like Friday's, you see, never lasts as long as you think it will at the moment of impact.
How do I know?
Go ahead. Convince me otherwise. Try to convince me that you're not looking forward to Christmas more than ever.
That's the next time Detroit and Indiana meet. Which means that the first-ever showdown between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant later that afternoon -- what Shaq has predicted to be the "highest-rated game in the history of sports television" -- might not even be the highest-rated NBA game that day.
None of the above is meant to downplay the severity of Friday's melee. It was as horrific an on-court scene as the NBA has witnessed since Kermit Washington slugged Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977. And beyond any damage it did to the league as a whole -- amid concerns about how negatively some segments of the public already perceive NBA players -- the way this brawl spilled over into the stands underscores one of the biggest quandaries faced by David Stern. No major sport allows the fans to get as close as the NBA. As we've all just been reminded, there's a serious risk factor attached to that irresistible intimacy, one that must be re-evaluated.
However . . .
I have no doubt the league will emerge stronger from all this, after the waves of shock and anger.
You can be sure that the commissioner will immediately hand out some of the harshest-ever punishments to Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and maybe another Pacer or two for leaving the floor to go into the crowd, since there is never a justification for crossing that line. That's true no matter how far over the line some Palace-goers went to provoke the Pacers' retaliation, and without forgetting that Ben Wallace's overreaction to a foul by Artest in the final minute triggered everything.
You can expect organizational sanctions for the Pistons, whose fans -- not all of them, of course, but far too many -- behaved disgracefully. Much of the behavior was actually worse than soccer hooliganism, because soccer hooligans are often plain, old hooligans who pretend to be soccer fans just to have an outlet to cause trouble. Friday's culprits threw bottles, liquids, foods, a chair and God knows what else at Pacers players to escalate the chaos to an all-time high. Or low.
You can likewise expect improved security measures in arenas leaguewide, to protect the players from provocation and outright danger.
Yup. You can see it from here. By acting decisively, after all the forthcoming cracks about how Artest is going to get that month off he's been wanting and countless other forms of residue, the NBA is eventually going to be praised for how it rebounds from this volcano, with an even more compelling season waiting on the other side.
Don't believe it when you hear that this regrettable eyesore was the NBA's doomsday. Don't believe that a season off to such a promising start, with scoring up significantly and no clear-cut favorite for the championship, has been irreparably ruined.
The league has seen far darker days, be it the drug scandals of the 1970s that nearly put the NBA out of business, or the lockout of 1998-99 that cost Stern's kingdom its distinction as the only major professional sports league in the United States to avoid a work stoppage.
"I'm just embarrassed for our league," Detroit coach Larry Brown said afterward.
"There's going to be a lot of ramifications to this."
Believe it or not, like it or not, attracting more interest to future chapters of Pistons vs. Pacers is one of the ramifications. That's entertainment, folks. The pattern for many of us, after expressing our disgust and disappointment, is to keep following along, desperate to see what happens next.
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