Judging from tickets prices and what the performers are being paid these days, fans should expect a good return for their hard-earned dollars from professional athletes.

For those parents fortunate enough to afford to take their children to a pro basketball game, they're expecting to see the best athletes in their sport, performing at the top of their game. What children don't deserve is to see a professional athlete re-enact a street crime on the court.

That happened last Sunday in Los Angeles when the Lakers' Ron Artest, no stranger to violence on the court, violently swung down with his arm after dunking the ball in an emotional gesture, striking Oklahoma City's James Harden on the temple. Harden crumpled to the floor, suffering a concussion from the blow.

Artest was ejected from the game.

It was 35 years ago on the same floor that another NBA big man, Rudy Tomjanovich, almost died after being leveled by a punch thrown by Kermit Washington. That dark moment in NBA history was chronicled in author John Feinstein's revealing book, "The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever."

After the near-fatal blow, Tomjanovich suffered a cerebral concussion and broken jaw and nose. The bone structure of his face detached from his skull and he could taste the spinal fluid leaking into his mouth. He later stated that at the time of the incident, he thought the scoreboard had fallen on him.

A doctor who worked on Tomjanovich said he had seen many people with far less serious injuries not make it. He compared repairing Tomjanovich's facial injuries to Scotch taping together a badly shattered eggshell.

Kermit Washington was fined $10,000, and suspended for 60 days. He missed 26 games, which at the time was then the longest suspension for an on-court incident in NBA history. Tomjanovich missed the rest of the 1977 season with his injuries.

Artest is fortunate that Harden was able to get back up after last Sunday's blow to the head. When a 6'7", 260-pound man violently swings his arm around and his elbow connects with your skull, the results could be life-threatening.

This is not Artest's first case of on-court violence. In 2004 he received an 86-game suspension for jumping into the stands to fight a Detroit fan who he thought had thrown beer on him. That sparked one of the ugliest brawls in sports history and the league.

It appeared that Artest had reformed in the last several years. He changed his name to World Peace, devoted a good deal of his time to charity work, and last year even won the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, particularly for his work in mental health awareness.

After what fans in the Los Angeles Forum, and millions of television viewers, witnessed on Sunday, it's hard to imagine Artest's name being mentioned in the same sentence with the word citizenship. It appears, however, that given his history of on-court volatility, a mental health issue could be involved.

We're especially concerned about the youngsters who viewed the game. With so much emphasis these days on school bullying and school violence, this is not the kind of scene our youngsters need to see from their sports stars.

Artest, with a professional resume filled with misconduct, has written his own sentence. For the sake of all the impressionable young fans, a true zero-tolerance message would be to ban him from ever again playing in the NBA.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com