"Assessing the team’s latest meltdown

Say what you want about the Pacers’ Stephen Jackson and the incident last week at a Westside strip club, but there are certain things that we just don’t know yet.

As they say in the TV news business, here is what we know at this hour:

• Jackson hasn’t hit an important shot in five years, so his attacker was never in any danger of being harmed.

• If criminal charges are eventually filed against Jackson, though, he’s going to have a difficult time at trial, because Jackson has never been able to defend against anybody.

• Anyone whose evening at the strip club ends in gunfire lacks the kind of judgment that is needed to succeed in any profession.

• It’s a good thing that Jamaal Tinsley didn’t fire any shots, because they probably would have landed 5 miles away.

Honestly, though, the incident outside Club Rio was a godsend for newspaper columnists and comedians, because the jokes just write themselves. Now I know how Jay Leno must have felt when he heard about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

But as someone who’s loved the Pacers since the day they entered the NBA, and who lives and dies by the team’s fortunes, it’s just another stain on the reputation of the team that used to be known as the classiest in all of pro sports.

Remember, it was only a little more than two years ago that the Pacers were seen as real contenders to become world champions. They had the veteran leadership of Reggie Miller, the enthusiasm and intensity of Ron Artest and the front-office leadership of Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh.

They almost beat the Detroit Pistons and went to the 2004 NBA Finals and would have won, if Tayshaun Prince hadn’t blocked a layup attempt by Miller in a key game.

Now, in 2006, where are the Pacers? Even the most optimistic fan doesn’t see them doing any better than eighth place in the Eastern Conference and some are predicting a season where the team will win no more than 20 of their 82-game schedule.

Jackson may have missed his attacker when he fired his nine-millimeter pistol, but he was very successful at blasting five holes through the heart of the franchise. Even Ron Artest, for all of his failings, spent his nights practicing on the court or recording his rap songs, not hanging out with strippers and getting into gunfights.

If a documentary were made about my social life, I’d hope it’d be closer to Girls Gone Wild — Indianapolis Edition than Boyz N The Hood.

The first thing that needs to be investigated about this incident is what in the hell were four millionaire NBA players doing at a strip club? If I were single and had the millions that Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley have, the last place I’d be would be a strip club.

The strip club would be coming to me. I’d have my own stripper pole installed in my rec room, I’d be running the sound system and I wouldn’t be paying overinflated prices for my drinks.

No offense to the ladies who work at Club Rio or any local strip club, but if I had NBA-caliber money, I’d be popping bottles with models and eating large steaks on large estates. I certainly wouldn’t be hanging out with broke strip-club patrons. There’d be room for only one male in the Hammer strip club: me.

Now that this incident has become public knowledge, many people are saying openly what they’ve been saying privately for years. Jackson and Tinsley are team cancers and need to go. Immediately.

If Artest mouthing off to a reporter earned him a trade to Sacramento, then surely Jackson blasting off shots from his gun outside a strip club has earned him a trip to the worst team in the NBA. Unfortunately, right now, there might not be any worse team than the Pacers.

All of the money the Pacers spent on their promotional campaign this summer is now wasted and the fans seem to be angry. Maybe Bird should have spent that money on supplying Jackson and Tinsley with strippers, or at least sending Jackson to the gun range for some practice.

It’s way too easy to pile on Jackson. Remember, he hasn’t been charged with any crime and may have escaped with his life after being attacked. He may well have been justified in firing at his attackers.

But, nevertheless, the Pacers were guilty of extreme bad judgment on several levels. Jackson, Tinsley and the others were guilty of boneheaded behavior by thinking they could chill at a strip club without being accosted. And the Pacers were guilty of stupidity by keeping Jackson and Tinsley on the roster.

There are far worse offenses than getting into a gunfight at a strip club. Like, say, misleading the world about weapons of mass destruction. Or a congressman who was a sexual predator and pedophile and who was protected by his peers for years.

Let’s not overreact. Stephen Jackson is not the Boston Strangler. But he exhibited extremely poor judgment both on and off the court. He makes Artest look like an advocate for nonviolence.

Being an Indiana Pacers fan means that you are accustomed to having the team break your heart. I won’t stop cheering for them because of one incident.

But I want to make sure I can see Jackson’s hands at all times. There are many causes for which I’d gladly take a bullet, but rooting for the Pacers isn’t one of them.

It will be an interesting season.