O'Neal's return bolsters Pistons-Pacers rematch
Friday, December 24th 2004, 3:54 pm
News On 6
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Like most players involved in Saturday's rematch between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, Jermaine O'Neal just wants the game to be over.
``It's extremely important for both teams to come out and play a nice, hard game that stays on the court,'' O'Neal said Friday. ``Nobody has any bitter feelings between each other personally.''
O'Neal will be playing for the first time since being suspended for his role in an ugly brawl with Detroit fans back on Nov. 19.
The shocking melee led to commissioner David Stern suspending Ron Artest for the season, Stephen Jackson for 30 games and O'Neal for 25. An arbitrator reduced O'Neal's suspension by 10 games, a ruling upheld by a federal judge Thursday, which allows O'Neal to play while the judge considers a lawsuit brought by the NBA challenging arbitrator Roger Kaplan's authority to hear the grievance.
O'Neal said he thought Stern's punishments were too severe, even though he accepted responsibility for his role in the fight.
``You have to accept that punishment if you've been involved with it, right or wrong,'' said O'Neal, who will start against the Pistons. ``I didn't think it warranted a season (for Artest). I didn't think it warranted 30 games or 25 games. That's a lot of games for the situation that was collectively just out of control.''
The All-Star apologized for his role in a brawl that has put a black eye on the league and its players and said he was eager to get back on the court to help his struggling team, which is 5-10 since losing its top three players to the suspensions.
This is a great league and for something like this to happen and for people to kind of step back and say 'The NBA is too hip-hoppish,' c'mon now,'' O'Neal said. ``There's a lot of good things that are going on in this league.''
Both teams expressed a desire to move on, hoping that an incident-free rematch on Saturday would go a long way toward making that happen.
``It's like a cloud hanging over this team, their team, and to some extent, the NBA,'' Pacers forward Austin Croshere said.
``I just hope we can get past this and go back to focusing on basketball,'' Pistons coach Larry Brown said. ``I hate what happened and I hate what it has done to the league. How do we explain to the kids what happened? My son is afraid to come to the games.''
Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince said there is added pressure because ``everybody is going to be watching to see what happens again.''
``I can't wait to get this game played,'' Prince said. ``Not just because it is on Christmas, but because of everything that happened with the brawl. It's been tough on us, but there are always things to overcome in this league.''
O'Neal certainly knows that. He's had to sit and watch his team lose 10 of the 15 games since he, Jackson and Artest were suspended.
``I welcome the discipline part with open arms because I was part of it. As a man, you have to do that,'' he said. ``Watching my team struggle, that was the hardest part outside of being home everyday and not being able to come to the arena.''
Both teams have struggled since the brawl and enter the game at .500, badly needing a win to keep pace with Miami and Cleveland in the East.
``Both teams lost a lot that night,'' Pacers guard Reggie Miller said. ``And I'm sure both teams have pent-up issues because since that night both teams haven't played well. I don't know if it's because of that, but we both haven't found our stride.''
O'Neal will have plenty of incentive when he returns to the court, as will the Pacer fans, many of whom feel the Pistons got off easy by only losing Ben Wallace for six games.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said he expected the fans to be energized, but not unruly.
``It's going to be important for everyone in our game that this game happens and it happens in a way that shows the kind of integrity that our league is about and that these two teams are about,'' Carlisle said. ``This game's gotta happen because what happened Nov. 19 can never happen again and we know that.''