Final decision expected Dec. 30

NEW YORK -- Indiana forward Jermaine O'Neal can play against Detroit on Christmas after a federal judge upheld an arbitrator's decision to reduce the forward's suspension for fighting with fans during the Nov. 19 Pacers-Pistons brawl.

Judge George B. Daniels issued a temporary restraining order Thursday after listening to arguments by lawyers for the NBA and the players' union and watching a brief videotape of O'Neal punching a fan during the brawl.

The union asked Daniels to temporarily uphold an arbitrator's decision Wednesday to knock 10 games off a 25-game suspension imposed on O'Neal by NBA commissioner David Stern. Bans on Ron Artest and two other Indiana players were upheld.

Daniels said he ruled in O'Neal's favor before deciding the merits of the case because to make the player serve a punishment
that may not be upheld could have "irreversible consequences for
the player, the team, the player's future and the league itself."

"We're delighted," union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said. He called the ruling "a great Christmas present for Jermaine O'Neal
and all Pacers fans. It's the fair and right thing to do."

O'Neal, a three-time All-Star and eight-year veteran, is now eligible to return Saturday when the Pacers host the Pistons in the teams' first matchup since one of the most violent melees in NBA history.

Even before the suspension reduction was upheld, Indiana
coach Rick Carlisle said O'Neal would start against Detroit.

"I think it will be great for Jermaine to be back on the
floor," Carlisle said. "That will be important to him and
certainly to our fans. When you're without your best player for a
long time, it's tough."

All parties will be back in the same court, before the same judge, at 2 p.m. on Dec. 30. It is possible that a final determination on the issue will come then.

Pacers executive Donnie Walsh stopped short of calling the
ruling a victory for the team.

"I just know it's the best news we've had in about a month, since the incident occurred. It's the only good news we've had," Walsh said. "We still support our players. We still feel bad about
Stephen and Ronnie being in the position they're in."

Jeffrey Mishkin, a lawyer for the league, suggested that
upholding the arbitrator's ruling would threaten the Stern's
authority to control conduct during a game and, ultimately, the
league's image.

"The purpose is to give the commissioner authority over the game," Mishkin said during arguments Thursday.

He said the commissioner needed to protect his powers and show
"that we have our house in order." He also suggested that letting
O'Neal play might make it more difficult to provide security at
Saturday's game.

Mishkin declined to comment after the ruling.

The league did not participate in the arbitration, contending the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union leaves punishment for on-the-court behavior solely in Stern's hands.

Thursday's arguments focused on whether the fight with fans was
considered on-the-court activity solely under Stern's disciplinary
control or something else that would permit an arbitrator to review
the penalty.

The judge left that issue and others to be decided when he hears
arguments next Thursday.

"While we disagree with the court's decision and expect that
ultimately Judge Daniels will find that the arbitrator had no
authority in this matter, we will, of course, abide by the ruling
of the court," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said in a
statement. "Since Jermaine O'Neal has already served 15 games of
his suspension, he will be eligible to participate in the Pacers'
games, at least until the next court hearing date."

Kessler said the brawl was "one massive riot incident that was not part of the game."

Mishkin countered that the activity occurred during a televised
game that had not yet been suspended.

"The purpose is to give the commissioner authority over the
game. It's irrelevant whether your toe is two inches over the
boundary line," he said.

The ruling by Daniels was on a request for a temporary decision
letting O'Neal play while the judge considers the merits of a
lawsuit brought by the NBA challenging arbitrator Roger Kaplan's
authority to hear the grievance.

In a 28-page decision Wednesday, Kaplan upheld Artest's
suspension, along with those of Stephen Jackson (30 games) and
Anthony Johnson (five games).

During the 12-minute brawl last month, 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.

Five Pacers players and seven fans face criminal charges.

The union had asked for substantial reductions in the penalties
during a six-hour arbitration hearing at a Manhattan law office.

In reducing O'Neal's ban, Kaplan cited O'Neal's "character,
community involvement and citizenship" while also deeming Stern's
punishment "excessive."

"This should not be viewed as condoning what O'Neal did. He did
punch a fan. The 15-game suspension is a significant penalty. The
NBA cannot tolerate such conduct," Kaplan wrote in his decision, a
copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.

O'Neal served the 15th game of his suspension Wednesday night
when the Pacers lost to Philadelphia.

Indiana has lost 10 of 15 games since the brawl, using patchwork
lineups in an effort to make up for the loss of three of the team's
five leading scorers.

"You're getting your franchise player back. It's
self-explanatory right there," Indiana center David Harrison said.
"He's gonna give our team a dimension that we haven't had since
the Detroit game."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.