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ON BASKETBALL

Face to face with Pacers, Stern holds ground

The commissioner of the NBA, the man who last November summarily destroyed the very legitimate NBA aspirations of the Indiana Pacers, got a first-hand look at his fin de saison handiwork last night.

Not surprisingly, David Stern chose to see the Pacers in Boston. Not surprisingly, the Pacers say he has not been to Conseco Fieldhouse since he suspended Ron Artest for the season, while also whacking Jermaine O'Neal (25 games) and Stephen Jackson (30 games) for their roles in the hideous Nov. 19 brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich. O'Neal's suspension was reduced to 15 games by an arbitrator, not by Stern.

"I don't think he wants to come to Indiana," Jackson said before last night's game. "He's here to see some good basketball, to see two teams at the top of their game. He's not going to see anything crazy. We all regret what happened. But he's the boss. He has to do what he has to do."

Before the game, Stern had a long and very public chat with O'Neal on the floor. The subject of a minimum age for NBA players -- which O'Neal has objected to -- came up. Asked later if he could have sent a better message by attending Game 3 or 4 in Indianapolis, Stern said, "It never came up one way or the other. I had a nice visit with Jermaine, but I haven't looked at the schedule that closely."

This is a man who misses nothing. Jackson is right; Stern isn't wanted in Indiana, except, perhaps, for franchise-cide.

"I'd like to think of a better legal term for it, but that's basically what it probably was," Pacers president Donnie Walsh said last night. "But it was a difficult decision for David to get out of."

Stern recently acknowledged that his relationship with Pacers owners Herb and Mel Simon was not as close as it once was, although he backtracked on that last night, saying that he met with Herb Simon at last week's Board of Governors meeting in New York and "I think he understands a little better."

Sure he does.

The commissioner continued, "It's painful to do something that hurts an asset that an old friend and a loyal league supporter has. If you're not prepared to do what's right, then you've got a problem holding this job. You don't expect that everyone will think it's right. This is something that reasonable people can disagree about. But you've got do what you've got do."

Stern didn't hurt the Pacers -- he eviscerated them. And he gave them no chance to win a championship this season. This wasn't the Hawks or the Hornets he was dealing with. This was a team that could have won it all -- and now has what Reggie Miller correctly calls a "puncher's chance" to merely get out of the first round.

Walsh said he made two trips to New York in an effort to get the suspensions reduced. Basketball boss Larry Bird accompanied Walsh, but not even his luminary presence -- as in, he helped save Stern's league 20 years ago -- made any impact.

While no one condones what Artest, Jackson, and O'Neal did on that night, as Bird put it recently, "It was like we took the brunt of everything that happened. Our players went into the stands. They should never do that. [But it] seems like everything was thrown on us. It's hurt our franchise. It's something that's going to be hard to overcome."

In immediate basketball terms, it's impossible. The Pacers began the season as a very serious title threat. The suspensions basically ended their season of high expectations, if not their season altogether. Jackson is back. O'Neal is back, although he's hurt and reluctant to practice until he feels 100 percent. Artest is, well, who knows where Artest is? He is allowed to travel and practice with the team, but he can't go to games. (The league graciously granted him a reprieve to attend last Wednesday's regular-season finale in Indiana honoring Reggie Miller.)

"He does help us during practice," said Walsh. "He's in great shape."

No one can say what a healthy, contributing Artest would mean to the Pacers (although do you think he would have helped hold Paul Pierce to fewer than 33 points last night?). Chances are they still wouldn't have enough to beat the Pistons or Heat (or maybe even the Celtics), especially with O'Neal's sore right shoulder and Jamaal Tinsley's left foot. The fans in Indiana aren't convinced, but Stern had nothing to do with those.

Stern also had nothing to do with Miller's decision to call it a career. It's just a shame that after so many great seasons, Miller is leaving with no real chance to win his first title when, on Nov. 18, he had an excellent chance. Stern made his decision. He had to do something and he had to do it in a forceful way.

But the message still could have been delivered had he reinstated Artest after the All-Star Game. Or after the trading deadline. Or for the postseason.

One of these days, Stern will make it back to Conseco and the Pacers might not have to call out the Indiana National Guard for extra security. The guess here is that the good folks of Indiana will show him a measure of forgiveness that he refused to show Artest.


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