Judge Clears O'Neal Return to Pacers

Thursday, December 23rd 2004, 8:32 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Jermaine O'Neal will be back on the court on Christmas for the Indiana Pacers' rematch against the Detroit Pistons. He'll soon be back in federal court, too.

A judge cleared the way for O'Neal to return Thursday, upholding an arbitrator's decision to reduce the Indiana forward's suspension for fighting with fans during the Nov. 19 Pacers-Pistons brawl.

Judge George B. Daniels ruled from the bench 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 the 25-game suspension imposed on O'Neal by NBA commissioner David Stern. The ruling 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.

``While we disagree with the court's decision today 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.

``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 set for Dec. 30.''

Daniels said he ruled before deciding the merits of the case because to make O'Neal 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. ``It's the fair and right thing to do.''

Jeffrey Mishkin, a lawyer for the league, suggested that upholding the arbitrator's ruling would threaten 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.

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.

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 2 inches over the boundary line,'' he said.

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

During the 12-minute brawl, 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 an arbitration hearing at a Manhattan law office.

``I'm extremely happy,'' O'Neal said. ``It's been a tough process. Now I can play the game I love so much. I'm ready, but I have to find a way to bottle up the energy and use it in a good way. I have to make sure we win games, and when Stephen Jackson gets back, we can win a championship.''

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.

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.

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.''