David Stern has shown a compassionate side before. You'll recall that the Minnesota Timberwolves, originally docked five future first-round draft picks when they reached an under-the-table contract agreement with Joe Smith, eventually had two of those two draft picks reinstated by Le Commish.
But this is different.
Stern and the NBA were never going to drop their protests of the reduction in Jermaine O'Neal's suspension. No matter what a judge said Thursday, and no matter how close we are to Christmas.
The league will let O'Neal play in Indiana's next two games because it has no choice. Then Stern and his legal team will try again to convince the presiding judge that the Pacers' All-Star forward still has 10 more games to serve for his part in The Malice of Auburn Hills melee Nov. 19.
Some of you are undoubtedly wondering why the league won't just let it go now. Especially since the suspensions of Ron Artest (for the season) and Stephen Jackson (30 games) were not shortened by the arbitrator who ruled that O'Neal's ban should be reduced from 25 games to 15.
Would it be so terrible just to concede now and let the Pacers have one of those three guys back?
To Stern, it's an unthinkable concession. And overall authority, to the commssioner, is far bigger than principle here.
Stern has believed from the start that no outside arbitrator should have any input on his suspension power, based on the language in the league's current Collective Bargaining Agreement. If Stern didn't keep fighting Thursday's ruling that reinstates O'Neal, a precedent would be set that league-issued suspensions can indeed be appealed to a third party ... which would certainly give the union a stronger hope of changing that language permanently in the next CBA expected to take hold next season.
Stern is trying to avoid that, despite how much fairer it seems -- to players and folks like me -- to say that any suspension deserves a third-party appeal. It's also true that Stern, as mad as he was when the Wolves were caught in the Smith case, was much more outraged by the brawl participants than by what Minnesota did. Overreaction or not, Stern was intent on handing out punishments designed to deter any player from ever even thinking about charging into the stands again.
Fair? Pacers People, of course, don't think much of anything has been fair lately, but all of Indy should be happy with Thursday's outcome ... provided the latest ruling stands. If O'Neal is back for good, the Pacers get him back early having lost exactly zero ground in the standings to hated Detroit. In the shallow East, the No. 2 seed in the playoffs is very attainable, and Miami's hold on No. 1 is far from dead-bolted.
Yet the saga is far from over, and surely that can't surprise you. Knowing Stern like we do, it's tough to imagine even the faintest of smiles from him Christmas Day, regardless how good the ratings will be now with two O'Neals in play.