In a decision that could threaten NBA commissioner David Stern's authority in terms of handing out future suspensions, a U.S. District Court judge yesterday upheld the ruling of a New York arbitrator who on Wednesday had trimmed 10 games off the 25-game suspension of Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal.
The ruling by Judge George B. Daniels will allow O'Neal to play in tomorrow's nationally televised game against the Detroit Pistons at Conseco Fieldhoue in Indianapolis. O'Neal was one of five Pacers and four Pistons suspended for their part in a brawl with fans at The Palace of Auburn Hills during a Nov. 19 game.
An attorney for the NBA said the decision by Daniels not to order a temporary injunction against arbitrator Roger Kaplan's ruling undermines Stern's autonomy.
"The purpose [of the current structure] is to give the commissioner authority over the game," said Jeffrey Mishkin, adding that Stern will need to find a way to protect his powers to show that "we have our house in order."
The National Basketball Players Association claimed a significant victory.
"We're delighted," said Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney for the players' union. "[It's a] great Christmas present for Jermaine O'Neal and all Pacers fans. It's the fair and right thing to do."
Daniels made his ruling after hearing arguments from lawyers for the NBA as well as the players union and watching a tape of O'Neal punching a fan during the brawl.
In his own 28-page decision, Kaplan had cited O'Neal's history of good behavior as part of the reason for cutting the penalty. Kaplan had denied the appeal of Pacers forward Ron Artest, who was suspended for the season, as well as guard Stephen Jackson, who was suspended for 30 games, and guard Anthony Johnson, who was suspended for five.
"I'm extremely happy," O'Neal said in a statement. "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."
The return of O'Neal, a three-time All-Star, will give a huge lift to the Pacers, who have lost 10 of 15 games in his absence and fell dramatically after having the best record in the Eastern Conference at the time. The Pacers are 12-12 entering tomorrow's game, as are the Pistons.
"You have to look at it that Jermaine O'Neal is one of the top 15 players in the league," said Hubie Brown, who will resume his broadcasting career on Saturday after resigning recently as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. "You're not just talking about an All-Star, you're talking about an All-NBA performer.
"Immediately now, that upgrades their ballclub. ... Even if Artest does not come back, Jermaine O'Neal and the rest of the cast ... by the end of the season, they should be right up there with Detroit and Miami."
Yesterday'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.
Before the ruling was announced yesterday, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said he was going to start O'Neal against the Pistons.
"I think it will be great for Jermaine to be back on the floor," said Carlisle. "That will be important to him and certainly to our fans. When you're without you're best player for a long time, it's tough."
Said rookie center David Harrison: "You're getting your franchise player back, it's self-explanatory. He's going to give our team a dimension that we haven't had since the Detroit game."
NOTES: Pistons coach Larry Brown was fined $15,000 yesterday by the NBA for verbally abusing an official after his team's 89-82 loss to the Chicago Bulls at home Wednesday night. "The guy [referee Anthony Jordan] wouldn't talk to me during the game, and I can't understand that - I wasn't being discourteous," Brown said after the game. "Well, maybe I was at the end, and I suppose I will hear about it." Apparently he did.