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Arbitrator will not issue ruling for at least a week

NEW YORK -- Ron Artest took the witness stand and described,
in his words, one of the worst brawls in NBA history. Indiana Pacers teammates
Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O'Neal and Anthony Johnson did the same, and a union attorney and one of O'Neal's bodyguards also testified.

It went on for six hours, with none of the witnesses being
cross-examined by anyone from the league office.

One of the strangest grievance hearings in NBA history unfolded
Thursday at a Manhattan law office just three blocks away from
league headquarters, with arbitrator Roger Kaplan hearing arguments
on the brawl-related suspensions issued by commissioner David
Stern.

The NBA, contending the arbitrator had no jurisdiction, declined
to participate. At least a half-dozen chairs sat vacant inside a
wood-paneled conference room at a Manhattan law office as the
hearing took place.

"We [introduced] evidence that we would have put on had the NBA
been here, it just means that the arbitrator got to hear our side
and not any opposition or rebuttal that the NBA would care to
introduce," union director Billy Hunter said.

The union asked for a "significant" reduction in each of the
suspensions, though union officials would not specify what
alternative penalties they suggested.

Kaplan indicated he would not issue a ruling for at least a
week.

Stern, citing a clause in the collective bargaining agreement
giving him authority to impose discipline for on-court behavior,
suspended Artest for the remainder of the season, Jackson for 30
games, O'Neal for 25 games and Johnson for five -- penalties the
union contends were excessive.

Each of the players testified for at least a half-hour, and
union attorneys submitted three lines of argument on the issue of
jurisdiction, challenging the league's position that the players'
only avenue of appeal is through the commissioner's office.

The union cited a 1995 modification to the collective bargaining
agreement allowing for appeals in cases where the financial penalty
to the disciplined played exceeds $25,000. The union also argued
the definitions of what constitutes "reasonable" punishment and
"on-court behavior."

"If, for example, a player were to go and stand in the center
of the court and moon the fans, as far as we're concerned that's
not on the court," Hunter said. "That has nothing to do with the
game itself. That's kind of an off-the-court thing, because on the
court actually means flow, the basketball game, the rules and
regulations that control the tempo and how the game is played."

The arbitrator also reviewed videotape of the entire 12-minute
brawl, in which Artest sprinted into the stands and confronted a
fan he believed had thrown a drink at him. Jackson also went into
the stands and exchanged punches with fans, while O'Neal and
Johnson punched fans who came onto the court.

"When you look at it all together, you see the bigger
picture," union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said. "You can see the
entire context."

None of the players commented as they left the hearing.

Kaplan must issue two rulings -- whether he had jurisdiction to
hear a grievance, as well as the actual grievance itself. If he
were to rule in favor of the union on both counts, the players
would likely sue in federal court to have Kaplan's judgment
enforced.

The NBA has already filed suit against the union and the four
players in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, contending they are
pursuing a grievance before an arbitrator who has no authority to
intervene.

That lawsuit remains pending, with the league having decided
earlier this week not to seek a temporary restraining order that
might have prevented Thursday's hearing from going forward.

Kaplan said he would try to issue a ruling before the latter
part of next week, though he cautioned that might not be possible.

Johnson has already served his suspension, so the best he could
hope for is the return of lost salary. Artest, Jackson and O'Neal
were to serve the ninth game of their suspensions Friday night at
Milwaukee.

The NBA issued no public comments Thursday regarding the
hearing.