Blame the frightening melee in Detroit – perilously close to escalating into a full-blown riot – on the players, the fans, the NBA and the times.

It’s the latest in a series of increasingly ugly incidents in sports, raising fears that the worst is yet to come.

Blame the Detroit Pistons’ Ben Wallace for the first angry shove Friday night, the Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest for crossing the line by climbing into the stands, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal for the reckless punches that followed.

Blame the fools in the crowd who threw beer, ice, a chair and punches of their own, and the ones who took to the court to confront the Pacers.

There’s blame aplenty to account for the brawl in the final minute of Indiana’s abbreviated 97-82 victory at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. It started with Artest’s hard foul from behind on Wallace and should have ended there. Instead, Wallace wheeled around and pushed Artest in the face to set off a tussle.

When that settled down, Artest, no stranger to roughhousing and controversy, retreated to neutral territory and sprawled on the scorer’s table.

Then came a full cup from the stands that hit him. Artest jumped up in a rage to pummel the offender – though he mauled the wrong guy. Jackson went to help his teammate. Then another seemingly confrontational fan strolled onto the court. That set off O’Neal, flinging punches.

By the time it was over, children were crying, police resorted to pepper spray, and a half-dozen people were treated for injuries – none serious.

“I felt like I was fighting for my life out there,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.

Pistons coach Larry Brown picked up a microphone to try to calm the crowd but put it down in disgust.

“I’ve just never seen anything like that,” Brown said. “I didn’t know what to do myself.”

Blame the security, or not enough of it. Blame drinking, or too much of it.

Blame the thuggish image of players the NBA has cultivated and marketed.

Blame the zooming costs of tickets and the attitude by some fans that they can get their money’s worth by heaping endless abuse – verbal and physical – on players.

Blame our violent times – the streaming images of war and terrorism on TV, the edginess of daily life – and the continuing decline of civility.

NBA commissioner David Stern called the brawl, one of the worst in league history, “shocking, repulsive and inexcusable” on Saturday, when he suspended Wallace, Artest, Jackson and O’Neal indefinitely.

That’s a smart first step. A month’s suspension wouldn’t suffice, even if it means the injury-depleted Pacers won’t have enough healthy players left to finish a game.

The next step is a police investigation, possible charges against players, most probably lawsuits.

What will it take to prevent a death, a stampede, a riot the next time tempers get out of control?

In basketball’s early days, courts were surrounded by chicken wire – hence, the players’ nickname of “cagers.” Must the game construct new barriers between players and fans?

Must baseball build bullpens away from the stands to avoid a repeat of the Texas Rangers’ Frank Francisco’s chair-throwing incident that broke the nose of an Oakland Athletics fan?

Must police in riot gear be stationed at every game?

It’s bad enough when players attack each other, such as in March when Vancouver Canucks star Todd Bertuzzi was charged with assault for a sucker-punch that broke Colorado Avalanche center Steve Moore’s neck. Bertuzzi’s trial is set for January.

We’ve come to expect violence in hockey, learned to grudgingly accept that parents of Little Leaguers set bad examples for the kids by verbally, sometimes physically, abusing umpires.

Even on Saturday, Clemson and South Carolina football players brawled late in the game, with skinny 67-year-old coach Lou Holtz diving into the pile as peacemaker in his regular-season finale with the Gamecocks.

And last week in the NFL, Cleveland’s William Green and Pittsburgh’s Joey Porter were ejected and fined for spitting at each other and fighting – before the opening kickoff.

There’s more at work here than just a few isolated incidents on the field, the courts and the ice. There’s a disturbing increase in player violence and player-fan confrontations:

– The bullpen brawl involving New York Yankees pitchers and a groundskeeper cheering for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway last year in the playoffs.

– The father and son who burst onto the field at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 2002, slammed Kansas City Royals first-base coach Tom Gamboa to the ground, punched and kicked him.

– And, most famously, the 1993 courtside stabbing in Hamburg, Germany of top-ranked tennis player Monica Seles by a deranged fan of Steffi Graf.

We live in strange and dangerous times, sport no more separated from the violence of the world than any other endeavor. The brawl in Detroit was as bad as the NBA has ever seen but there’s no sense that we won’t see more in the future.

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