It was a surreal scene, 22 floors above a midtown Manhattan street. The four Pacers involved in last month's brawl -- Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson and Anthony Johnson -- pleaded their cases Thursday for six hours before an independent arbitrator, hoping to get their suspensions reduced.
The hearing was conducted in the law firm of the NBA Players Association, Dewey Ballantine, three blocks from the league headquarters. No representative from the NBA attended.
"The fact that the NBA has elected not to participate was somewhat of a shock," said Billy Hunter, the executive director of the players union.
Artest was suspended for the season (73 games), Jackson for 30 games, O'Neal for 25 and Johnson for 5.
The arbitrator, Roger Kaplan, said it would be at least a week before he would rule on each player's case.
The league has said that an arbitrator has no jurisdiction to hear an appeal and that commissioner David Stern has the sole authority to determine punishments and hear an appeal about on-court incidents.
"It just means that the arbitrator got to hear our side and not any opposition or rebuttal that the NBA would care to introduce," Hunter said.
"They obviously have taken the position that they would challenge him in US District Court, assuming he ends up ruling in our favor."
The two sides will likely meet in federal court after Kaplan makes his rulings on both the suspensions and whether he had the right to hear the grievance in the first place.
The players gave their testimony along with Joe Smith, a bodyguard for O'Neal. A video was played isolating the players' actions from different angles of the Nov. 19 brawl that erupted late in the game against the Detroit Pistons and spilled into the stands.
Five players and five fans were charged Wednesday with misdemeanor assault and battery. One fan was also charged with a felony for throwing a chair.
"You can see the context of why people fear for their safety, why players feel for their own safety and why they feel for the safety of their own players they are trying to protect," said Jeffrey Kessler, a partner at Dewey Ballantine.
Hunter said Stern punished the players to make a point, and that he was influenced by what Hunter called the "shadow of alleged player image in the NBA."
"He wanted to demonstrate to both the fans and to the sponsors that he was not going to permit the NBA to implode," Hunter said. "That somebody was in charge. If it meant that one or two players had to be sacrificed in order to get that message out there, he was inclined and willing to do it."
Hunter said Stern did not have the sole right to hear an appeal because the brawl did not have to do with the "flow of the game."
For example, Hunter said, if a player exposed himself in the middle of the court, that would constitute an off-court incident because it had "nothing to do with the game itself."
In 1995, the collective bargaining agreement was amended to give the union an opportunity to appeal Stern's suspension regarding the "preservation of the integrity of the game" in a situation where the financial impact on a player is US$25,000 or less.
All four Pacers were suspended without pay.
The union's lawyers argued that the commissioner did not make a "reasonable" ruling in protecting the integrity of the game.
The only precedent for a player being fined for a violent incident with a fan was in 1994 when Vernon Maxwell was suspended 10 games and fined US$25,000 for going into the stands after a fan.