Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - Page 23 News List

Pistons and Pacers about to butt heads

NATIONAL BAD BOYS ASSOCIATION As Indiana and Detroit prepare to meet before a sold-out crowd, the biggest draw seems to be a lingering threat of violence

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA

As Monica Foster prepared her stuffed beef tenderloin on Friday and wrapped her remaining presents, she debated what would be the most suitable outfit to wear with her family around the dinner table this Christmas.

The black T-shirt with large block letters reading Suspend Stern or the gold T-shirt with the message, Indiana Subs vs. Detroit Thugs Christmas Day 2004.

"I know the gold one is probably better for this occasion," said Foster, a Pacers season-ticket holder and a public defender who represents prison inmates on death row. "But with the way I feel right now, I think I'll be more comfortable in the black one."

So much for Christmas sweaters Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse, where the Detroit Pistons will play the Indiana Pacers for the first time since Nov. 19, when they participated in one of the nastiest brawls in sports history. The fight consumed the court and spilled into the stands, resulting in eight suspensions covering 132 games, and 12 criminal charges handed out against five Pacers players and five Pistons fans.

Now, the two teams are expected to co-star in the NBA's A Christmas Story. A sellout crowd and a national television audience will be watching, not necessarily because the Pacers and the Pistons were Eastern Conference finalists last season, and certainly not because they are both 12-12 this season. Rather, the biggest draw will probably be the lingering threat of violence.

Even though the temperature dropped well below freezing in Indianapolis on Friday, a foot of snow had covered the area and many local churches had canceled services, the Pacers still expected a packed house on today. They have issued 50 extra news media credentials for the game and recently installed a tarpaulin over each entrance onto the court to protect players from fans.

"This is an unpredictable situation in a lot of ways," Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said Friday. "The most important thing about this game is that it just needs to happen. It needs to happen because what went on Nov. 19 can never happen again. I think it's all going to come off and there aren't going to be any problems. It is important for everyone in our sport that this game happens in a way that shows integrity."

As Carlisle spoke, Jermaine O'Neal shot jumpers on the Pacers' practice court, beneath a list depicting Detroit's roster. The last time O'Neal was an active member of the team, he was punching a fan at the Palace of Auburn Hills. But since a judge decided on Thursday to uphold an arbitrator's decision to reduce O'Neal's suspension to 15 games from 25, his return becomes all the more dramatic. He is back early, he is back for Christmas and he is back for the Pistons.

O'Neal is trying to bring a message of warmth and peace, apologizing to the entire states of Michigan and Indiana for the events that started when Ron Artest fouled Ben Wallace on Nov. 19, and still have not ended.

"Everybody wants to give their opinion on who we are as people and who we are as a league," O'Neal said.

"They're saying the NBA is too hip-hoppish. Come on now. A lot of good things happen in this league and there are a lot of good people. Like any other incident in any other sport, you have to eventually let it go. Let this go."

For at least one more day, public fascination will be fixed on the Pacers and Pistons, and afterward, the fight will likely remain more significant than the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal feud or the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. When ESPN began planning coverage of the game, there was an immediate understanding that it could not be billed as a potential battle royal, but should be handled with heightened sensitivity.

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