NEW YORK – A federal judge ruled Thursday that Indiana All-Star Jermaine O'Neal (search) does not have to serve the final 10 games of his suspension for fighting with fans at the end of the Pacers-Pistons game last month.
The ruling makes permanent the temporary decision U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels made last week, which allowed O'Neal to return to action even though he had not served all of the 25-game suspension imposed by NBA commissioner David Stern (search).
The league went to court after arbitrator Roger Kaplan (search) said O'Neal's penalty should be cut to 15 games, citing the player's "character, community involvement and citizenship."
The NBA challenged Kaplan's authority to hear an appeal of Stern's punishment.
Before rendering his decision, Daniels and lawyers for both sides portrayed the fight during the Nov. 19 game between Indiana and Detroit as unprecedented.
Daniels said he did not believe the players' union or the league had imagined a scenario like the brawl when they created player contracts over the years.
"I don't think they expected a riot or a melee to occur," he said. "It's clear to me nobody expected something like this to happen at a basketball game."
Hours of legal arguments this week and last week focused on whether the brawl could be considered on-court or off-court behavior. Language in player contracts seemed to indicate on-court behavior is punishable by the league commissioner and cannot be appealed to an arbitrator.
League lawyer Jeffrey Mishkin argued that the fight with fans was on-court behavior, especially when players were "wearing an NBA uniform on national television."
Union attorney Jeffrey Kessler argued that it was not.
In his ruling, the arbitrator reduced O'Neal's suspension and upheld Ron Artest's season-long suspension, along with those of Stephen Jackson (30 games) and Anthony Johnson (five games). Other players were also suspended, but the union did not appeal those penalties.
During the brawl, Artest sprinted into the stands and confronted a fan he believed had thrown a drink at him. Jackson also went into the stands and exchanged punches with fans, while O'Neal and Johnson punched fans who came onto the court.
Five Pacers players and seven fans face charges.
O'Neal served the 15th game of his suspension on Dec. 22. During the stretch, Indiana lost 10 games.
He returned to action Saturday, playing in the Pacers' 98-93 loss to the Pistons.