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Artest, others testify in appeal case
NEW YORK -- Ron Artest took the witness stand and described, in his words, one of the worst brawls in NBA history. Teammates Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O'Neal and Anthony Johnson did the same, and a union attorney and one of O'Neal's bodyguards also testified.
It went on for six hours, with none of the witnesses being cross-examined by anyone from the league office.
One of the strangest grievance hearings in NBA history unfolded Thursday at a Manhattan law office just three blocks away from league headquarters, with arbitrator Roger Kaplan hearing arguments on the brawl-related suspensions issued by commissioner David Stern.
The NBA, contending the arbitrator had no jurisdiction, declined to participate. At least a half-dozen chairs sat vacant inside the conference room at a Manhattan law office as the hearing took place.
"We (introduced) evidence that we would have put on had the NBA been here; it just means that the arbitrator got to hear our side and not any opposition or rebuttal that the NBA would care to introduce," union director Billy Hunter said.
The union asked for a "significant" reduction in each of the suspensions, though union officials would not specify what alternative penalties they suggested.
Kaplan indicated he would not issue a ruling for at least a week.
Stern, citing a clause in the collective bargaining agreement giving him authority to impose discipline for on-court behavior, suspended Artest for the remainder of the season, Jackson for 30 games, O'Neal for 25 games and Johnson for five -- penalties the union contends were excessive.
Each of the players testified for at least a half-hour, and union attorneys submitted three lines of argument on the issue of jurisdiction, challenging the league's position that the players' only avenue of appeal is through the commissioner's office.
The union cited a 1995 modification to the collective bargaining agreement allowing for appeals in cases where the financial penalty to the disciplined played exceeds $25,000. The union also argued the definitions of what constitutes "reasonable" punishment and "on-court behavior."
"If, for example, a player were to go and stand in the center of the court and moon the fans, as far as we're concerned that's not on the court," Hunter said. "That has nothing to do with the game itself. That's kind of an off-the-court thing, because on the court actually means flow, the basketball game, the rules and regulations that control the tempo and how the game is played."
The arbitrator also reviewed videotape of the entire 12-minute brawl, in which 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.
"When you look at it all together, you see the bigger picture," union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said. "You can see the entire context."
None of the players commented as they left the hearing.
Kaplan must issue two rulings -- whether he had jurisdiction to hear a grievance, as well as the actual grievance itself. If he were to rule in favor of the union on both counts, the players would likely sue in federal court to have Kaplan's judgment enforced.
The NBA has already filed suit against the union and the four players in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, contending they are pursuing a grievance before an arbitrator who has no authority to intervene.
That lawsuit remains pending, with the league having decided earlier this week not to seek a temporary restraining order that might have prevented Thursday's hearing from going forward.
Kaplan said he would try to issue a ruling before the latter part of next week, though he cautioned that might not be possible.
Johnson has already served his suspension, so the best he could hope for is the return of lost salary. Artest, Jackson and O'Neal were to serve the ninth game of their suspensions Friday night at Milwaukee.
The NBA issued no public comments Thursday regarding the hearing.