Final decision expected Dec. 30

Updated: December 24, 2004, 1:22 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- Indiana forward Jermaine O'Neal can play against Detroit on Christmas after a federal judge upheld an arbitrator's decision to reduce the forward's suspension for fighting with fans during the Nov. 19 Pacers-Pistons brawl.

Tim Legler's Analysis
The return of Jermaine O'Neal to the Indiana Pacers is huge. It may not seem like much with him coming back 10 games early, but the next 10 games could've been brutal for this squad. The Pacers play San Antonio, Dallas, Milwaukee, Memphis and twice against Phoenix during that stretch. Those were going to be extremely difficult games to win without O'Neal's low post presence. This team was probably looking at going 3-7 or 4-6 at best without him, but now could easily go 7-3 or better. He makes this team a top-five team in the Eastern Conference and a threat to win its division.

He's going to make the game easier for the Pacers shooters by giving them the interior presence that they've been sorely lacking since his suspension. David Harrison has tried to fill that void, but he's a young player and doesn't have the experience yet. O'Neal makes guys instantly better. Now the shooters on this team are going to get open looks that they couldn't create for themselves.

The Pacers should be slightly worried about O'Neal's conditioning and bring him back slowly to get him properly conditioned. During his first three games back, he should be the first guy off the bench to get him playing time and to get him back into basketball shape. It's going to take a couple games for him to get his timing back in terms of catching the ball and executing his low post moves, but no more than a couple of games. By the end of these ten games, he should be the 20-10 guy that the Pacers are used to seeing.

Tim Legler, an NBA analyst for ESPN and former NBA 3-point champion, is a regular contributor to Insider.

Judge George B. Daniels issued a temporary restraining order Thursday after listening to arguments by lawyers for the NBA and the players' union and watching a brief videotape of O'Neal punching a fan during the brawl.

The union asked Daniels to temporarily uphold an arbitrator's decision Wednesday to knock 10 games off a 25-game suspension imposed on O'Neal by NBA commissioner David Stern. Bans on Ron Artest and two other Indiana players were upheld.

Daniels said he ruled in O'Neal's favor before deciding the merits of the case because to make the player serve a punishment that may not be upheld could have "irreversible consequences for the player, the team, the player's future and the league itself."

"We're delighted," union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said. He called the ruling "a great Christmas present for Jermaine O'Neal and all Pacers fans. It's the fair and right thing to do."

O'Neal, a three-time All-Star and eight-year veteran, is now eligible to return Saturday when the Pacers host the Pistons in the teams' first matchup since one of the most violent melees in NBA history.

Even before the suspension reduction was upheld, Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said O'Neal would start against Detroit.

"I think it will be great for Jermaine to be back on the floor," Carlisle said. "That will be important to him and certainly to our fans. When you're without your best player for a long time, it's tough."

All parties will be back in the same court, before the same judge, at 2 p.m. on Dec. 30. It is possible that a final determination on the issue will come then.

Pacers executive Donnie Walsh stopped short of calling the ruling a victory for the team.

"I just know it's the best news we've had in about a month, since the incident occurred. It's the only good news we've had," Walsh said. "We still support our players. We still feel bad about Stephen and Ronnie being in the position they're in."

Jeffrey Mishkin, a lawyer for the league, suggested that upholding the arbitrator's ruling would threaten the Stern's authority to control conduct during a game and, ultimately, the league's image.

"The purpose is to give the commissioner authority over the game," Mishkin said during arguments Thursday.

He said the commissioner needed to protect his powers and show "that we have our house in order." He also suggested that letting O'Neal play might make it more difficult to provide security at Saturday's game.

Mishkin declined to comment after the ruling.

Roger Cossack's Legal Take
Although Federal Judge George B. Daniels set another hearing date for more arguments between the players union and the NBA, his ruling indicates that he favors the arbitrator's decision that cut 10 games off Jermaine O'Neal's suspension.

Since the arbitrator decided that O'Neal should be playing by Christmas, and since the next hearing is not until Dec. 30, the judge clearly wants O'Neal not to lose any more games this season.

Judges traditionally do not issue temporary orders unless they believe that after all of the evidence and arguments are heard, the decision will pretty much turn out to be the same as it is today.

Roger Cossack is a contributing legal analyst for ESPN.

The league did not participate in the arbitration, contending the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union leaves punishment for on-the-court behavior solely in Stern's hands.

Thursday's arguments focused on whether the fight with fans was considered on-the-court activity solely under Stern's disciplinary control or something else that would permit an arbitrator to review the penalty.

The judge left that issue and others to be decided when he hears arguments next Thursday.

"While we disagree with the court's decision and expect that ultimately Judge Daniels will find that the arbitrator had no authority in this matter, we will, of course, abide by the ruling of the court," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said in a statement. "Since Jermaine O'Neal has already served 15 games of his suspension, he will be eligible to participate in the Pacers' games, at least until the next court hearing date."

Kessler said the brawl was "one massive riot incident that was not part of the game."

Mishkin countered that the activity occurred during a televised game that had not yet been suspended.

"The purpose is to give the commissioner authority over the game. It's irrelevant whether your toe is two inches over the boundary line," he said.

The ruling by Daniels was on a request for a temporary decision letting O'Neal play while the judge considers the merits of a lawsuit brought by the NBA challenging arbitrator Roger Kaplan's authority to hear the grievance.

In a 28-page decision Wednesday, Kaplan upheld Artest's suspension, along with those of Stephen Jackson (30 games) and Anthony Johnson (five games).

During the 12-minute brawl last month, 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.

Five Pacers players and seven fans face criminal charges.

The union had asked for substantial reductions in the penalties during a six-hour arbitration hearing at a Manhattan law office.

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.

O'Neal served the 15th game of his suspension Wednesday night when the Pacers lost to Philadelphia.

Indiana has lost 10 of 15 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.

"You're getting your franchise player back. It's self-explanatory right there," Indiana center David Harrison said. "He's gonna give our team a dimension that we haven't had since the Detroit game."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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