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Hearing scheduled for Thursday

NEW YORK -- Jermaine O'Neal might be home for Christmas,
back on the court with the Indiana Pacers when they play the rival
Detroit Pistons.

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 a 28-page decision, Roger Kaplan upheld Ron Artest's season-long
suspension and the penalties given to Stephen Jackson (30 games)
and Anthony Johnson (five games).

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."