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National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern's harsh punishment of professional basketball players involved in last week's melee in the stands at an NBA game was the right move to make as a first step in protecting the league and its fans.

Stern's litany of fines and suspensions was harsh, but anything milder would have been a disastrous reaction to an outrageous incident. While equally strong steps must be taken to crack down on abusive fan behavior and to protect the majority of spectators in the stands, the initial message had to be a strong one directed at players. Stern's message was appropriate and clear: No one is bigger than the game.

The fight itself has been described rightly as the most disgraceful demonstration of unprofessional behavior in the history of the NBA. It was provoked by beer-throwing fans. There were no winners at this Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game in the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan.

What started as a garden-variety player dispute -- Indiana star Ron Artest fouled Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace, who returned the favor by shoving Artest in the face -- quickly escalated.

It appeared the last two Defensive Players of the Year were about to come to blows, but the normally demonstrative Artest simply stretched out on the scorer's table near the stands. A fan hurled a cup of beer at him and Artest charged, unwisely, into the stands. Players and fans started fighting with each other as the melee expanded. A chair was thrown, along with the punches.

The commissioner, appropriately, was angered by the incident and moved, as he should have, to regain control of the game by reacting strongly. Artest has been suspended for the remaining 72 games of the season -- at a resultant loss of $5.5 million in salary. His teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal have been suspended for a combined 55 games. For Detroit, Wallace received a six-game suspension. Five other players from the teams got lesser suspensions.

Just as importantly, Stern has made it clear that fans who did not act properly would be barred permanently from attending NBA games, and that the league would re-examine security at all 29 arenas.

The suspensions of the players will mean millions of dollars to each. In addition to Artest's millions, O'Neal would lose $4.1 million. The players' union will appeal the suspensions, arguing undue harshness for a provoked reaction to unacceptable fan behavior.

The price the players must pay is indeed high, but the cost to the game could be even higher if this kind of misbehavior is seen as even marginally condoned. The NBA is acting in self-preservation. For the sake of the game, and of the greater majority of fans who want to enjoy professional-level basketball, the league and its commissioner had no choice. Stern reacted quickly, and well.

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