Pacers' nightmare has life of its own
Once a contender, Indiana can't shake fallout from brawl
Duane Burleson / AP file
When Ron Artest, above, went after a fan in the stands, and was followed by Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson, the Pacers' season went south, writes columnist Mike Kahn.
By Mike Kahn
Updated: 7:11 p.m. ET March 8, 2005
People forget the Indiana Pacers had the best regular-season record in the NBA a year ago.
People forget the Pacers had the eventual champion Detroit Pistons on the ropes in the Eastern Conference finals until All-NBA forward Jermaine O'Neal began playing on one leg late in the series because of a dilapidated knee and point guard Jamaal Tinsley's hip rendered him incapable of playing at all.
And yes, people forget the Pacers were battering the Pistons in the Palace of Auburn Hills on that notorious November evening. What they haven't forgotten is when all hell broke loose off the court in a brawl that fractured the Pacers for what appears to be the rest of this season.
"I remember all of it," Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said. "Everything about it. We were contenders to win last year and contenders to win this year. It just hurts."
The operative word being “were.”
You see, the Pacers are a broken team at the moment, and it's a lot closer to becoming an unequivocal fact than a mere presumption. And it's not because Tinsley is hurting again and O'Neal is on the injured list with a sprained shoulder.
The brawl of Nov. 17 undermined their entire season, fair or not, and it won't be easy to battle back from it even next season. When the dust settled, All-Star forward Ron Artest was suspended for the season, O'Neal was suspended for 15 games and Stephen Jackson was out for 30.
Anyone who hasn't seen at least a clip of what transpired on that Freaky Friday has either been living on Mars and doesn't own a television. In brief, Detroit's Ben Wallace went after Artest in the closing seconds of the game following a hard foul. Wallace was ultimately ejected and while Artest laid down on the scorer's table to calm down, a fan threw a drink at him. He rushed the stands, Jackson later went into the stands to defend him and O'Neal punched out a fan who had run onto the floor. Others were involved, but those were the stars. It was hideous, for the players and the fans.
It's been downhill for the Pacers ever since.
At the time of the incident, the Pacers were 7-2 and right on target as one of the favorites to not only win the Central Division again and perhaps the Eastern Conference, but compete for the NBA title.
A month later, they were at .500 and have been struggling to get above that mark ever since.
"The entire situation went from surreal to very real," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "A lot of guys stepped up and have been very good, but when you lose your best players like that, you're going to suffer the consequences."
The reality is stark for now, with a lot of people in and around the NBA wondering and perhaps hoping that the unexpected might happen.
Hoping that after meeting with Artest last week, NBA commissioner David Stern will allow him to play in the playoffs.
Hoping that Tinsley and O'Neal will get healthy soon and be healthy the rest of the season.
Hoping that once the playoffs start, retiring uber-shooter Reggie Miller will make one last stand as one of the great clutch shooters in playoff history. And that Artest will return a mature player and man, ready and willing to attack a role that will be sane and consistent to the team concept.
And yes, that the Pacers will be a frightening opponent come playoff time.
Then again, that's assuming a lot. It's assuming that the Pacers will actually make the playoffs, which is no longer a given considering they are right in the middle of a dog fight with the Philadelphia 76ers for that eighth seed in the East.
"Our goal from Day One was to win the title this year," Walsh said. "The brawl killed us. There's no getting around it. We lost players and it hurt our psyche in the big picture. Everybody is trying to fight through it. Sometimes, we do, and sometimes we don't. But first thing's first and we have to make the playoffs."
It won't be easy.
Carisle, in only his fourth season as a head coach, has proven to be one of the top coaches in the league. The Pacers play aggressive defense every night and are capable of scoring in bunches. O'Neal and Artest were arguably the best forward combination in the game.
At the moment they have neither, with O'Neal's shoulder on the mend.
The concept of Jackson and Tinsley in the backcourt was a solid one, too. Although not the same caliber as O'Neal and Artest, the young guards are potentially a lethal duo on both ends of the floor.
And in the middle, it looks as if the Pacers got a steal at the end of the first round with Colorado 7-foot center David Harrison as one of the bright spots of this season. Even without him, they have veterans Jeff Foster and Scot Pollard to help the stars.
On paper, the Pacers are title contenders.
If ever there was an example of why it doesn't matter what a team looks like on paper, the 2004-05 Indiana Pacers are it. Broken dreams and disjointed perceptions dominate the landscape from the events of Nov. 19 with the Pistons and their fans in the nightmare brawl. But all the bad stuff surrounds the Pacers, a franchise steeped with history in the old ABA and one of the best in the NBA the past decade.
And yet, memories of the brawl linger like food poisoning.
"We'll battle through it," Walsh said. "There's nothing to compare it. It hurts the team, it hurts the fans and it hurts the league. We'll just do the best we can and see how it turns out."
This too shall pass and people will forget. But for now the Pacers nightmare has a life of its own.
Mike Kahn is a contributor to NBCSports.com and a free-lance writer in the Seattle area.