During last night's Western Conference playoff matchup between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trailblazers, former-Pacer Ron Artest (who is really the catalyst for that entire team now that Tracy McGrady is gone) jumped into the home crowd stands while diving for a loose ball. While in the stands, fans patted Artest on the back, cheered his name, and one even offered him a beer. Artest, ever the affable player, took a seat in one of the crowd chairs and "took in the moment."
This scene is in stark contrast to the scene which occurred in the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan nearly 5 years ago. Back then, after Ben Wallace thugged his way into a personal foul by nearly de-capitating Artest during the final minutes of the Indiana Pacers blowing out the Detroit Pistons, Artest rested on the scorers table in an attempt to collect himself. The game had been physical, harsh, and typical of Pacers v. Pistons games back then. In addition, the crowd at Auburn Hills was getting restless and close to uncontrollable. Incompetent or lazy security did little to control the crowd as they watched the Pacers cruise in the final seconds to a blowout win.
While on the scorers table, a Pistons fan with a criminal record tossed a beer at Artest. It hit him in the chest as he lay on the scorers table, his eyes closed at the time.
The act would set off a chain reaction that the NBA still has not recovered from.
Artest jumped up, beer dipping down his jersey. Panic and rage in his eyes, he jumped into the stands and began swinging his fists at the person who he thought tossed the beer at him. Turns out the person who did the act was not the man Artest was engaged with. Artest's action prompted more fans to jump in and begin fighting. This prompted Pacer players to jump into the stands and help Artest. Some Pacers, like then-SG Stephen Jackson, starting battling with Detroit fans as the Indiana players and security tried to pull Artest out.
As more players jumped in, more fans reacted by also jumping in. Fans ran onto the court and began fighting with Pacer players who were not in the stands or part of the initial brawl. Pistons players, shocked by the event, tried to step in and keep the piece, but by then it was too late. Auburn Hills security finally managed to pull Artest and other Pacers out of the crowd. As they escorted them out, fans rained trash, beverages, and other projectiles down on Artest, security guards, and others as they exited the arena.
The fallout from this incident saw Artest get suspended for the rest of the 2004 season. Several other Pacers players received lengthy suspensions, including Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O'Neal, and Jamal Tinsely. Only Ben Wallace of the Pistons was suspended, for initially starting the incident by flagrantly fouling Artest.
As a result of Artest's suspension, Detroit gained homecourt over the Pacers, and went on to beat them n the playoffs. Detroit went on to the NBA Finals, losing in Game 7 to the San Antonio Spurs. Reggie Miller retired after 2004, and though Artest returned to the Pacers in 2005, he was suspended by the team and later traded for Peja Stoyachovich. Then-Pacers coach Rick Carisle was eventually fired, and then-PAcers GM Donnie Walsh left to become President of the NY Knicks. From Artest's trade onward, the Pacers went into a long, slow, downward spiral. Off-court incidents involving Jamal Tinsely, Stephen Jackson, and others affected the team's performance on the court. Since 2005, the Pacers have not returned to the playoffs.
Artest played in Sacremento for a few seasons before settling with the Houston Rockets two years ago. This year, because in large part to Artest's play, the Rockets are in serious contention to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. Artest's former coach, Rick Carlisle, is now the head man in Dallas, and his Mavericks just eliminated the Spurs from the playoffs.
So, when Artest jumped into the stands last night, it seemed (in many ways) to heal a few of the lingering wounds that "The Brawl" still has on the fabric of the NBA. After the game, Artest joked with reporters about being in the stands, resulting in thunderous laughter from teammate Yao Ming and from reporters present.
Despite "The Brawl"; despite the suspensions; despite the nasty words and harsh statements Artest made about the Pacers following his re-reinstatement; despite the trade to Sacramento and the years of losing since, I know many Pacers fans still have a big heart for Ronnie. It's hard not to. Despite his many flaws, Ronnie is someone you root for.
Maybe, last night's little moment will help heal the self-inflicted wounds "The Brawl" left on the NBA. For me personally, as long as David Stern is still running the NBA, it won't receive a dime from me. If the Brawl taught us anything, it taught us that the NBA is not interested in protecting its small market teams. It taught us that David Stern is more interested in assessing blame and deflecting criticism than actually working to solve the problems of the NBA, a league in serious financial trouble right now.
In the end, it might all turn out rosy. Ronnie is helping the Rockets make a playoff push. Rick Carlisle is coaching the Mavericks to success. The Pacers are young, exciting, and rebuilding a positive image. Remember, it was Ron Artest who said, many moons ago, that Danny Granger was a stud. Meanwhile, Detroit never won another championship after 2004. They are now in full rebuilding mode after getting swept by the Cavaliers in the playoffs. They have Allen Iverson sulking on their bench, and both the franchise and the city of Detroit are in a financial crisis.
So maybe, in the end, karma comes back to bite the asshats in the crotch after all.
From me, since my Pacers are not in the playoffs, I'll be rooting for Ronnie's Rockets, hoping the kid from QB can take one home for their appreciative and classy fans.