SEATTLE – It began with a telephone call to Antonio Daniels at the Toronto airport, where the Seattle SuperSonics had gone after beating the Raptors earlier on the fateful night of Nov. 19.
The caller was Daniels’ brother-in-law. Had Antonio heard about the melee in Detroit involving Pistons fans and several of the Indiana Pacers?
Daniels, who happened to be walking through the airport with Sonics coach Nate McMillan at the time, said he had not.
His brother-in-law, who knew that Daniels had been a teammate and friend of Indiana’s Stephen Jackson in San Antonio three years before, described what had happened. Daniels was stunned, and his disbelief grew when the Sonics arrived in Boston and he saw the shocking film footage for himself.
“It made me sick, really,” he said Saturday. “It put a knot in my stomach. It was just really unfortunate to see that because I know Stephen and I know the kind of (good) guy that he is.”
Elsewhere in their team hotel, other Sonics were also getting their first look at the terrible brawl that led to Ron Artest being suspended by the league for the rest of the 2004-05 season, Jackson being suspended for 30 games and teammate Jermaine O’Neal for 25 games.
To Sonics guard Ray Allen, the entire incident “was embarrassing. I felt that way because you know this was not just a reflection on Indiana and Detroit. When something like that happens, it is a reflection on all NBA players. It reflects on the whole league.”
“That’s exactly what (commentator and former player) Charles Barkley was saying on TV,” Daniels agreed. “He was saying that this is something that affects all of us in the league, and not just the teams and the players that were involved.”
Now, a little over a week has passed, and for the first time since that ugly night in Detroit the Pacers are heading back on the road. Their initial stop is Seattle, where the Pacers will take on the Sonics at 6 p.m. tonight at KeyArena.
For Indiana, the absences of Artest, O’Neal and Jackson would seem to be a crippling blow to a team that had a league-best 61-21 record last season and reached the Eastern Conference finals. Artest, after all, was leading the Pacers in scoring at 24.6 points a game this season and adding 6.4 rebounds. O’Neal was second in scoring at 22.6 and was the top rebounder at 9.6. And Jackson was the third-leading scorer at 15.3 and contributed 5.0 rebounds a game.
Though the Pacers should probably be plummeting in the standings, they have instead managed to win three of four games since the suspensions were announced. Indiana did lose at home to Orlando the night after the Detroit game (with only six players in uniform), but then defeated Boston 106-96 on Tuesday, Minnesota 106-102 on Thursday and Charlotte 82-77 on Friday.
“Y’all (in the media) might have counted us out,” Indiana guard Fred Jones told the Indianapolis Star newspaper. “But the people in this locker room, we knew what we had. We were looking forward to this challenge.”
No one could have anticipated how well the team would respond, he added, “and I don’t think anybody can explain it. There are no words. None.”
Jones, who wears Jackson’s wrist band as a tribute to his teammate, has taken over much of the scoring load, along with fellow guard Jamaal Tinsley and center-forward Austin Croshere, and together the Pacers seem to have used their adversity to develop a newfound spirit and unity.
“You just can’t undersell the importance of a group of guys coming together to play for each other,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle told the Star. “Our guys,” he added, “have a lot to be proud of.”