Hearing scheduled for Thursday
An arbitrator on Wednesday knocked 10 games off the penalty O'Neal received from commissioner David Stern for fighting with fans during the Nov. 19 Pacers-Pistons brawl. Three other suspensions were upheld.
O'Neal's suspension was reduced from 25 to 15 games, making him eligible to return Saturday in the nationally televised rematch -- but only if the judgment stands up in court.
The league and the union were expected to argue the matter Thursday morning in U.S. District Court.
"We have consistently maintained that the arbitrator has no legitimate role in this matter," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said. "While we obviously agree with Mr. Kaplan's decision upholding virtually all of the suspensions, we don't agree with his conclusion that the conduct did not occur on the playing court, and we have no choice other than to challenge it in federal court."
In reducing O'Neal's ban, Kaplan cited O'Neal's "character, community involvement and citizenship" while also deeming Stern's punishment "excessive."
"This should not be viewed as condoning what O'Neal did. He did punch a fan. The 15-game suspension is a significant penalty. The NBA cannot tolerate such conduct," Kaplan wrote in his decision, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
The union had asked for substantial reductions in the penalties during a six-hour arbitration hearing at a Manhattan law office. The NBA declined to participate, saying Kaplan had no jurisdiction to arbitrate penalties for on-court behavior -- an area in which the league contends the commissioner has sole discretion.
Kaplan ruled that he had jurisdiction to hear the case, and that Stern had just cause to issue the suspensions he gave to Artest, Jackson and Johnson.
"It is generally understood and indisputable that the riot that ensued was one of the worst, if not the worst, in the history of sports," Kaplan wrote.
The arbitrator pointed out that O'Neal did not enter the stands and was trying to protect a teammate during the fracas.
"O'Neal's previous conduct in the NBA is vastly different from Artest's," Kaplan wrote. "He is the recipient of a couple of awards attesting to his character, community involvement and citizenship. His one punch of a spectator, while excessive, was clearly out of character."
Indiana has lost nine of 14 games since the brawl, using patchwork lineups in an effort to make up for the loss of three of the team's five leading scorers.
O'Neal, a three-time All-Star and eight-year veteran, served the 15th game of his suspension Wednesday night when the Pacers played Philadelphia.
"It's good news," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "It would have been great to get some good news on the other two -- Stephen and Ron -- but that didn't happen. But again, Jermaine's situation is far from resolved and we know that. We'll just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.
The NBA has already filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging Kaplan's authority to hear the grievance, a complaint that remains pending before U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels.
At Thursday's hearing, the union is expected to ask the judge to issue an order granting immediate enforcement of Kaplan's ruling, thereby making O'Neal eligible for Saturday's game.
Each of the players testified before Kaplan during the arbitration hearing, and union attorneys submitted three lines of argument on the issue of jurisdiction.
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."
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.
"What happened here was conduct that occurred in the stands and not 'on the playing court,"' Kaplan wrote. "A literal reading of those words would not encompass any activity which occurred in the stands."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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