And so this morning, like a boxer standing before the mirror after his handlers have gone home, we examine our face to see how badly we are bruised.

Black eyes everywhere. On the athletes, on the fans, on the sport and, yes, on our city. There were extra security guards at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Sunday night, but they were as superfluous as an umbrella after a rainstorm. This deed is done. This stain is in the fabric. Players have been suspended for chunks of the season, one for the entire season, and police are investigating everything and everyone. You can rail all you want about “who started what,” but in the end, it’s all about what people remember. And they will remember this:

“Malice at Palace.” “Basket-Brawl.” “Friday Night Fights.”

Oh, sure, had we lived in an era before videotape, the encounter between Detroit’s Ben Wallace, Indiana’s Ron Artest, several of Artest’s teammates, and a handful of delusional Pistons fans might have faded away.

But we do not live in such an era. Instead, the ugly, flailing video — beer being dumped, punches being thrown, a chair flying into the swarm of bodies — will replay every time the Pistons and Pacers meet, every time some news network turns its focus to fandom, every ESPN Top 10 Bad Behavior, and, sadly, every time people sum up our city. Never mind that Auburn Hills is to downtown Detroit what Newark is to New York City. People won’t take time to distinguish.

And we can’t complain about respect.

Fact is, respect is what started this in the first place.

Oh, not real respect. Real respect has traces of kindness. Real respect is deferential, like a young apprentice and his patient mentor. Real respect knows, at its core, humility.

I’m talking about the bastardized “respect” in today’s sports world — where the word means nobody does anything to you that you don’t like, want, accept or appreciate.

Or you let them have it.

A series of mistakes

Ben Wallace felt “disrespected” by Artest’s hard foul late in an already decided game. So instead of shrugging if off, he had to whirl and shove Artest in the neck. Artest, “disrespected” by Wallace’s retaliation, couldn’t just shrug and say “sorry,” he had to jaw back, then argue, then ultimately lie on the scorer’s table as if it were a Barcalounger, mocking Wallace in order to even the “disrespect” ratio.

Some idiot fan, who felt “disrespected” by Artest’s mocking of Wallace, was compelled to throw beer on Artest, to teach him a “respect” lesson. And Artest, instead of shaking his head at the fan’s insanity and asking security to deal with the situation, had to show that such “disrespect” would not be tolerated, so he thundered into the stands — over a table and a railing and seats — until he found someone whom he could punch, even though he had no idea if this were the culprit.

The chain reaction continued. Artest’s teammates couldn’t let the “disrespect” go on, so they joined him and found others to punch. More fans, emboldened, couldn’t let the Pacers “disrespect” them, so they confronted several on the floor, where fans should never be. And those confronted players couldn’t allow such “disrespect” — after all, they had egos to protect — so they swung away.

On it went, through more shoving, grabbing, yanking and tumbling, through a shower of beer and popcorn that was dumped on the Pacers as they entered the tunnel.

And on it goes today, tomorrow, next week and next year.

“You know, a few months ago, people were talking about our crowds as the envy of the league,” said Joe Dumars, Pistons president of basketball operations. “It just goes to show you how one foolish moment can change things.”

Black eyes everywhere.

The high price of justice

That one foolish moment, compounded by another and another, will mean a mountain of games missed. Artest is gone for the season. Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal, who both went into the stands and began swinging, are out for 30 and 25 games, respectively. Wallace is gone for six. Others, with assorted shorter suspensions, bring the punishment to a whopping 143 games.

And you know what? It’s appropriate — particularly for Artest. He has become the NBA’s crazy uncle, you never know when he’ll go from amusing to dangerous, and if such severe punishment can salvage him and his enormous talent, the league has to lay it on now. Artest, unlike the other parties, had three chances to avoid this ugliness. The first was not to foul Wallace with less than a minute to go in the game. The second was not to lie on a scorer’s table as if the whole night were a prop for his one-man show. And the third was his deliberate decision to enter the stands. Without that, this is nothing more than an ugly shouting match.

With it, it’s international news.

So Artest deserves the hardest slap.

But if fans think Artest’s ignition gives them license to floor the gas, they are dead wrong. Any fan discovered on tape to have instigated anything should be both prosecuted by law and banned from the Palace forever. Yes, forever. Attending sporting events is not some unalienable right. It says on most tickets the arena reserves the right to eject people. Consider them ejected. Permanently.

Season-ticket holders? Revoke them. Who cares if it seems severe? As much as Artest crossed a line when he leapt into the seats, the fans crossed a line when they went from observers to participants. Understand something, folks: You do not have the right to be a part of the game. Doesn’t matter how much money you paid. Doesn’t matter how much you think you know sports. Doesn’t matter how many fantasy leagues you’re in or how many radio talk shows you listen to. You do not count. Get it? You are not part of the game.

Oh. And by the way. Maybe the league wants to notice that the beverages being tossed Friday night were distinctly amber and pungent: as in beer. The hypocrisy of selling alcohol all night, then complaining when people behave like drunks, is beyond comment. Who says you have to sell booze at sporting events? Show me one law. Show me one mandate. David Stern, the NBA commissioner, can get high and mighty, but he surrenders credibility when he wags one hand at drunken behavior but hugs the beer companies’ money with the other.

Black-eyed P’s. Pistons. Pacers. Palace People. It’s funny. While I’m sure he didn’t invent it, Isiah Thomas was the first person I ever heard use the phrase “our house.” It was back in the late 1980s, and Isiah was doing the prideful athlete thing, sticking out his chest at the Boston Celtics and talking about what they couldn’t do “in our house.”

Friday night, I heard fans utter the same thing. Our house! Our house!

Get over it. The Palace isn’t the fans’ house. The Palace isn’t the players’ house. The Palace is a place of business where customers and workers are rightfully expected to follow rules and demonstrate restraint. Who would behave like that in their own house anyhow?

Only fools who are deluded about “respect.” That word is not something you lose when someone does something you don’t like, and it is not something you gain with a fist. Respect comes by behaving respectfully.

Under that measure, nobody earned any Friday night. And just as a black eye discolors the boxer’s face, the deed now spreads across the landscape, and we’ll be paying for it, sadly, for years to come.

SUSPENSION HISTORY

Longest suspensions in NBA history for on-court incidents.

•73 games: Ron Artest, Indiana Pacers, announced Sunday (for the remainder of the season) for fighting with fans in the final minute of a game against the Pistons on Friday.

•68 games: Latrell Sprewell, Golden State Warriors, (for one year) after physically assaulting coach P.J. Carlesimo during a practice, Dec. 4, 1997.

Arbitrator John Feerick overturned the Warriors’ termination of Sprewell’s contract and reduced his one-year suspension by five months, ending July 1.

•30 games: Stephen Jackson, Indiana Pacers, on Sunday for fighting with fans in Friday’s incident.

•26 games: Kermit Washington, L.A. Lakers, (60 days) for punching Houston’s Rudy Tomjanovich, 1977.

•25 games: Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers, for fighting with fans in the final minute of Friday’s game.

•11 games: Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls, and fined $25,000 for kicking a courtside TV photographer, Jan. 17, 1997.

•10 games: Vernon Maxwell, Houston Rockets, for going into the stands and hitting a fan, Feb. 6, 1995.

•7 games: Nick Van Exel, L.A. Lakers, and fined $25,000 for shoving a referee, April 10, 1996.

•6 games: Ben Wallace, Detroit Pistons, on Sunday for shoving Indiana’s Ron Artest after a foul led to the 5-minute fracas Friday.

•6 games: Dennis Rodman, Chicago Bulls, and fined $20,000 for head-butting a referee, March 18, 1996.

MITCH ALBOM will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Borders Express in Novi’s Twelve Oaks Mall and at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble on Telegraph in Bloomfield Hills. Contact him at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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