I spent the better part of the past week talking to NBA people about John Stockton with the intentions of writing a bunch of nice words about the league's all-time assists king for today's column...

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I spent the better part of the past week talking to NBA people about John Stockton with the intentions of writing a bunch of nice words about the league’s all-time assists king for today’s column.

The good folks in Salt Lake City are retiring his No. 12 jersey tomorrow, which seemed to be a perfect time to extol the virtues of all that was once good and right about the NBA.

But then, mayhem erupted on the Palace of Auburn Hills’ floor on Friday and the NBA doesn’t seem all that virtuous anymore. Perhaps, it never was.

I was going to examine Stockton’s career and try to make sense of how someone so small and scrawny carved out a reputation as one of the toughest, meanest and dirtiest players the game has ever seen.

At his worst — and believe me, Stockton was a masterful cheap-shot artist — Stockton wasn’t half the menace that Ron Artest has become. He was booed and jeered at opposing arenas, but never did he elicit the venom that Artest brings out in the opposition.

“There’s being tough, which is something that Stockton was, and there’s being something entirely different, which is what’s going on in some of these other players,” New Jersey Nets guard Jason Kidd said. “No one ever called Stockton a thug.”

Breaking down the breakdown

Following is a look at how the brawl in Friday’s Pistons-Pacers game unfolded:

Indiana’s Ron Artest fouls Detroit’s Ben Wallace as he goes in for a layup with 45.9 seconds left and the Pacers leading 97-82.

Wallace wheels around and delivers a hard, two-handed shove to Artest’s chin, which leads to pushing and shoving with several players near midcourt.

Artest lies on the scorer’s table with his hands behind his head, looking relaxed. Wallace tries to get at Artest, but is held back by teammates and coaches.

As players shout at each other, Wallace throws a wristband toward Artest, who stands up briefly before lying back down on the scorer’s table.

An unidentified fan near midcourt hits Artest in the face with a cup filled with ice and a beverage.

Artest storms into the stands and attacks a fan that he thinks hurled the cup at him.

Indiana’s Stephen Jackson joins his teammate in the seats and starts throwing punches.

David Harrison, Eddie Gill and Fred Jones of the Pacers, Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace and former Piston Rick Mahorn try to break up the fight between Pacers and fans, who land their share of punches.

Back on the court near Indiana’s bench, Artest punches a fan wearing a Pistons jersey who walks toward him. After another fan tries to tackle Artest, Jermaine O’Neal runs toward the fan and lands a vicious right hand to his face.

Pacers players and coaches leave the floor and are showered with beer, popcorn and assorted debris, including a folding chair.

Indiana’s Jamaal Tinsley tries to go back on the court, holding a metal dust pan over his head, but is turned back to the locker room.

The Associated Press

Behold the new NBA, where the so-called tough guys charge into the stands to pursue an assailant throwing a cup of beer only to ignite one of the most senseless displays of violence inside an American sports arena.

I’m not sure what scares me more, Artest rampaging in the stands or the number of NBA players, coaches and executives who quietly condone and applaud the actions of his idiot teammates who followed him into teeth of the melee.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, but the one thing I can tell you is that I’m absolutely standing by my players,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said immediately after the five-minute brawl. “Absolutely, 100 percent. They did nothing to instigate this incident.

“Now, I haven’t even seen the tape yet, so I’m not about to get too specific about anything. But obviously, I was there first hand. I saw what transpired. And from what I saw, my players were not in the wrong. They were clearly provoked.”

Yesterday, I spoke with a dozen or so representatives of the league, who at one time or another laced up their sneakers on the big stage. At some point in the conversation, each of them talked about being targets on and off of the court. They didn’t mention either incident specifically, but you could hear them talking about the crazed lunatic who stabbed tennis star Monica Seles years ago and the drunken father-and-son tandem who attacked a Kansas City Royals first-base coach at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.

“Some things you’re supposed to take and you can’t respond to or at least you’re not supposed to respond to,” Sonics coach Nate McMillan said. “I can’t say what I would do if I was to be in that situation because I don’t know. I may go crazy. Or I may just look at that guy and walk away. You just don’t know what’s going to set you off.”

What if an insensitive jerk hurled racial slurs in your direction? Does that give you the authority to spit in their face like Charles Barkley did? Or what if a loudmouth lout cruelly joked about the death of your unborn child? Can you choke the life out of him the way Vernon Maxwell nearly did?

NBA commissioner David Stern began doling out the suspensions yesterday, and arrest warrants and lawsuits are likely. But if we’re to learn anything from this fiasco then we must answer this question: Is it ever OK for athletes to leave the court and charge into the stands? To listen to the ESPN commentators, you’d think Artest was justified.

“My thing is this, if I’m at work, meaning playing ball, then I got to take it, take all of the abuse and whatever because that’s part of my job,” said Gary Payton, one of the league’s notorious trash-talkers. “But if I’m out and about, in public, at a club or whatever, and some fool throws a beer on me, then I feel I have a right to defend myself.”

I am not sure if I agree entirely with Payton’s logic, but he’s right about keeping your cool on the court.

I’ve heard the arguments that say Artest was justified in going after the fan, but I’m not buying it. It’s about restraint.

You’re telling me he had the wherewithal to keep from charging at Ben Wallace, who shoved him in the face and neck, but the second a fan douses him with a beverage, Artest goes bananas?

Nah. I don’t understand that. If he can walk away from Big Ben, then he can walk away from a moronic fan. I don’t see how pummeling a man in the face is justified because he threw a cup of beer. That’s not justice, that’s foolishness.

However, I have little sympathy for the hooligans who ran on the court. They got exactly what they deserved.

What I’m proposing is simple. Fans stay in the stands, and players, regardless of what’s being said or what’s being hurled at them, remain on the court.

When those lines are crossed, we all lose.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com