'The whole thing has become such a circus'

Originally Published: December 8, 2004
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Punches have been exchanged, video played and, now, charges filed.

For the Indiana Pacers, it's been a long three weeks since a brawl with Detroit fans scarred the image of what was once considered one of the NBA's model franchises.

Five Pacers players and seven fans were charged Wednesday for fighting in the stands and on the court on Nov. 19.

Pacers Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, David Harrison and Anthony Johnson all were charged with one count of misdemeanor assault and battery, and could face up to three months in jail if convicted. Three-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal was charged with two counts of assault and battery.

Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh has called the brawl one of the low points in sports and in the franchise's history. Johnson said the melee was "unfortunate, because it's definitely a team built around turning the corner and challenging for a championship, and at the same time being comprised of good guys."

"Definitely, the image of this team will take a hit after what happened in Detroit -- that, combined maybe with the behavior of the past two or three years," Johnson said in a veiled reference to Artest's troubles in recent seasons.

The shocking images broadcast on a seemingly continuous loop since the fight broke out have tarnished the team's image. Artest was suspended for the rest of the regular season, Jackson for 30 games and O'Neal for 25 for their roles in the melee.

Center Jeff Foster still struggles to understand why a skirmish between Artest and Pistons center Ben Wallace escalated into one of the worst cases of player-fan violence in U.S. sports history.

"For whatever reason, that night -- the way the game was going, what the score was, the rivalry between the two teams -- the crowd and the team met at a point that unfortunately it happened and hopefully never will again," Foster said.

"The whole thing has become such a circus. Something that no team's ever dealt with before. Everybody's just trying to put it behind themselves and just go on to playing basketball."

They've had little luck with that. The injury and suspension-depleted Pacers have lost five games in a row, the longest streak under second-year coach Rick Carlisle.

"Speaking for myself, sitting on the phone with lawyers for an hour-and-a-half or two hours basically every other day, that kind of gets frustrating and it can be a distraction," Johnson said. "You've got to try to eliminate as much as possible, but it is definitely there and it is definitely a focus each and every day."

The team is trying to move forward, leaning on loyal fans that have supported the Pacers since the fight.

"Obviously anything of this sort isn't good for anybody's image or the league as a whole," Foster said. "But I think the fans are so behind us that they're going to understand that hopefully this is just an isolated incident and any other team put in the same situation probably would have reacted the same."

Added Johnson: "We kind of lost our heads a little bit collectively as a unit. It's unfortunate because it's been played over and over and over again and we're shown in a bad light. It overtakes all the good things we do for the organization and the community, as well. If we could turn back the hands of time I'm pretty sure we would handle it differently."

Carlisle said he doesn't think the franchise's image has been ruined.

"I still see this franchise as one of the real shining pillars in this league," he said. "In my mind, this situation, and how we get through it, is going to prove that again."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press