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12-23-2004, 10:29 AM

Pistons, Pacers gather for holiday

Fans in Indiana are intense and security will be tight, but no one wants trouble

By Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

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AUBURN HILLS -- The NBA, the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers would like you to know this: If you plan to watch their nationally televised basketball game Christmas Day because you think there will be a repeat of their Nov. 19 brawl, you will be disappointed.

"I am sure people are going to be watching this game for a lot of the wrong reasons," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. "The biggest reason anybody should watch this game is because last year we were the best two teams in the Eastern Conference and we have a great rivalry.

"It got out of hand this year with the incident at The Palace, and I am sure the TV ratings will be about that. But I don't expect anything to happen. It's just going to be another hard-fought basketball game."

Neither the league office nor the Pacers will comment on what, if any, extra security measures will be in place Saturday.

"We will fully comply with all NBA security guidelines," said David Benner, director of public information for the Pacers. "We never comment on security measures. To do so would be a breach of security."

Since the brawl at The Palace, all NBA arenas have increased the number of security personnel and armed police at games. Both benches are now protected by police, as well as team security officials.

That is expected to be the case Saturday.

Still, the Pistons probably will get their usual rude welcome to Conseco Fieldhouse -- something they figure might be only slightly more intense than normal because of the brawl.

"I'm not worried about that," said Rasheed Wallace, who was booed mercilessly by Pacers fans in May after he guaranteed a Pistons victory before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. "It's just going to be a normal game. I mean, it's going to be intense, definitely, from what happened last time, but it'll be a normal game."

Ben Wallace agreed.

"They are going to treat us the same way they treat everybody," he said. "Any time you come into somebody else's arena and try to beat their team, they are going to do what fans do -- they are going to boo and they are going to talk about you. They are going to do whatever they do. They're just fans. That's the nature of the business."

As for any fear about playing there, Wallace said: "Not at all. I don't expect fans to be a problem. You're talking about one incident (Nov. 19) that got blown out of proportion. I don't expect people to be running on the floor or anything like that."

He agreed that the game would be tougher to play, but not because of the brawl.

"It's tough playing on Christmas Day," he said. "It's going to be a tough game for that reason alone. It's just one of the things we need to get through and find a way to get a win."

The Pacers faithful say their response will be loud but lawful.

"It'll be nothing more than vocal," said Pacers fan Dennis Fulkerson, 63, of Indianapolis. "Bobby Knight is out of the state, so we don't throw chairs."

Fans could be unhappy just the same because they will be forced to watch their team without two and possibly three key players suspended by NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Several factors should help maintain relative order:

* Two of the more volatile combatants in the brawl -- Pacers Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson -- remain suspended.

Jermaine O'Neal's suspension was reduced by an arbitrator from 25 to 15 games, making him eligible to return Saturday -- but only if the judgment stands up in court today.

The only active players who had more than incidental roles in the brawl are Ben Wallace and Pacers Anthony Johnson and David Harrison.

* The game starts at 12:30 p.m. That should help keep alcohol intake at moderate levels.

* Both teams, sincerely embarrassed, humbled and damaged by the original incident, aren't exactly eager to repeat their offense.

"I don't think we will ever get over that," Pistons Coach Larry Brown said. "I have seen what it's done to the Indiana franchise, I've seen what it's done to our franchise, and I've seen the impact it's had on our game. I would like to think we've all learned from that mess."

* Both teams have more serious basketball-related issues.

"I don't think Indiana-Detroit is a compelling story, not with what's happened with our teams," Brown said. "When they originally put us on Christmas Day, it was because Indiana had the best record in the league (last season) and we won the NBA championship."

The Pacers and Pistons, unsettled by injuries and suspensions, have been muddling around .500 all season. Both are 12-12.

"It's only going to bring back those terrible five minutes," said Brown, referring to the brawl. "I don't like that. If anybody watches our game because they want to see a repeat, one, they don't know our team, and two, they don't know Indiana."

Brown was taken aback by the suggestion that the NBA actually profits from incidents such as the brawl and from personality conflicts such as the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant feud, which also will play out on Christmas Day.

"We shouldn't even be on Christmas," said Brown, offering the teams' records and the Heat-Lakers matchup (3 p.m., Channel 7) as evidence. "We're the JV game."

Plus, the notion is that those two incidents will spur greater interest and higher television rankings.

"I don't believe that's the case," Brown said. "There is interest in this league because of great young players like Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire, Emeka Okafor, and even Shaq and Kobe. That's why this game is huge. We've got great players. and we have a lot of exciting things happening that we unfortunately don't always focus on.

"The reason for people to watch (the Pistons vs. the Pacers) is that at one time, these were the two best teams in our conference, and could be again. It's not to see a repeat of what went on (Nov. 19). I hope that's never seen again, on any level in any sport."

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DREW SHARP: Brown unhappy as Pacers loom

December 23, 2004


Larry Brown is like a weather vane in the breeze, always changing directions, always subjecting his emotions to the whims of the prevailing wind.

And, right now, he's unhappy.

That's not exactly a news flash for someone who's considered the MVP of the moving van industry.

"I didn't want to go back to work," the Pistons coach told ESPN on Tuesday. "I never thought I would feel that way about my sport."

It has gone downhill for Brown ever since the Pistons won the NBA championship. There was the Olympic disappointment, the physical torment of his hip surgery and, of course, the emotional anguish of The Brawl.

And he had to be restrained from going after one of the officials Wednesday after yet another loss.

The defending champions stumble along. They're 12-12 after losing to the Chicago Bulls. Yes, those same Chicago Bulls who lost their first nine games of the season and suddenly are displaying a zest and determination that once described the Pistons.

The Bulls won their fifth straight game, 89-82, leaving the Pistons scratching their heads for answers.

"It's on me," Brown said afterward. "It's my responsibility to get us to play better. It's not like they're not trying."

Everyone's waiting for somebody to flip on the light switch, but the Pistons remain in the dark. They don't understand that, as the reigning champs, they're going to get every team's maximum effort.

Early lethargy isn't uncommon for the defender, but unlike previous champions, the Pistons lack that one star capable of carrying his team through the inevitable slump. They need somebody to emerge and take charge from the vast supporting cast that earned such glowing accolades last summer.

"We know that this is a team that doesn't have superstars," Chauncey Billups said, "and we understand that. We need everybody to contribute and play well for us to win."

They're hoping that a Christmas Day visit to Indianapolis might be what the players and their coach need to get out of this funk.

The Pistons can't wait until they're done with their first trip to Indiana since the ugly spectacle at the Palace on Nov. 19. They insist that they don't think about the potentially volatile crowd reaction awaiting them.

But how can they not have it in the backs of their minds?

"It has affected our team," Brown said, "because that's all that anybody wants to talk about. I don't know what to expect, but as far as I'm concerned, the damage has been done. It hurt the league. It hurt the two teams."

Indiana would dispute the degree to which both teams have suffered.

At least the Pistons have all of their players available.

But the Pistons sleepwalk because they know they don't have to awaken until later in the season. The fight's aftermath pretty much rendered useless the Pacers, the Pistons' toughest competition in the East.

Miami is obviously improved with Shaq and is perhaps the Pistons' lone legitimate competition in the conference.

Cleveland? Not just yet.

New Jersey? The Nets didn't leave anything remaining in their frontcourt in their procurement of Vince Carter from Toronto last week.

The Pistons were not intimidated with the No. 3 conference playoff seed last year, so there's little motivation right now to blast through the schedule to ensure themselves of a home seventh game in the conference finals.

"We're not playing at the level we should be," said Brown, "and that's disappointing. We're not matching the intensity of our opponents."

Brown's future is always a tenuous situation, because it seems whenever he starts a new job he already has positioned one foot out the door.

He boasted a renewed vigor when he returned to training camp, but the ugliness of Nov. 19 has taken a personal toll. One of Brown's greatest thrills was having his son, L.J., at home games as a ball boy. But his son tells him that he's scared to come back after what happened. He hasn't returned to the Palace since.

"I think everyone just wants to get this over with so that we can move on," Brown said.

Is it purely coincidence that ESPN has only modestly promoted The Rematch?

The game was scheduled well before the season when nobody envisioned that both the Pistons and Pacers, the two Eastern Conference finalists, would hover around the .500 mark 25 games into the season. And who would have predicted the ramifications of Nov. 19 at the Palace?

Brown said the idea of two struggling teams taking the league's Christmas Day stage made him sick. He's not having fun because the answers aren't coming as easily as in past seasons.

But he needs to realize that despite all he has accomplished in his brilliant career, he's new to this defending champion stuff as well.