WATCHING Untold: Malice at the Palace on Netflix, it brought me back to one of the most infamous melees in sports history.
While I knew much of what happened as someone who keenly followed the events, what was interesting was to see the various people involved in the now infamous brawl speak out.
I was a bit surprised that the documentary people left out also the ill-fated US men’s olympic team which finished with a bronze medal just two months prior to the Malice at the Palace.
As I recall, people were tiring of a National Basketball Association (NBA) landscape that had changed from the glorious 1980s of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to the Chicago Bulls’ dominance of the 1990s.
The face of the NBA was the swag and petulance of Allen Iverson and of the crotch grabbing Larry Johnson and Shawn Kemp, Kobe Bryant was embroiled in a rape case and had just come off a feud with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. And then the US team to the 2004 Athens Olympics was a miscast one of young stars who didn’t have a clue. As a result, you had Iverson and Stephon Marbury in charge.
So NBA basketball wasn’t in a good place at that time. Which is why in the aftermath of the Malice at the Palace, many sports analysts threw the word “thug” into the discussion. I believe that people weren’t enamored of this street, hip-hop and thug culture that had crept into the NBA.
And in my opinion, the withering criticism mollified then NBA Commissioner David Stern who laid all the blame on the players—namely the Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O’Neal, Anthony Johnson and David Harrison, and the Detroit Piston’s Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Derrick Coleman and Elden Campbell.
For some reason, the fans who started the melee and who clearly exacerbated the situation, and the Palace of Auburn Hills organization, and the NBA were not held accountable.
I thought that the documentary did not mention how many sports journalists called out the fans for starting the brawl. As I recall, Stephen A. Smith, the late John Peterson Saunders and former player turned analyst Tim Legler pointed to the fans.
A poll taken by ESPN at that time (I voted in that poll) saw 46 percent of fans blame the Detroit fans.
Some say that Artest’s lying down on the table made him a target. That is an easy thing to say except Artest previously did that when trying to cool down.
Nevertheless, I can understand how Stern arrived at that decision because he was consistent in making the NBA palatable to families and away from a mostly male demographic. He had clearly looked at Major League Baseball’s success in bringing families to America’s National pastime.
And yet, I thought then as in today, had that cup of water not been thrown by John Green, there would have been no fight. Had there been more security instead of the measly three assigned to game, it would have not happened. Had fans not gone on to the court, there would have been no further fighting.
Watching the NBA closely that year, I honestly believed that year was for the Indiana Pacers to lose.
Following the lengthy suspensions of Artest, Jackson and O’Neal, the Pacers finished third in the Central Division with a 44-38 record and lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals, 4-2… to Detroit of all teams.
Incredibly, Indiana had one last gasp as they led the series, 2-1, before losing their next three games. The unavailability of Artest was clearly felt.
Reggie Miller retired after that season and the next year’s Artest was gone. Two years’ time, Jackson left for the Golden State Warriors. Only O’Neal, Jeff Foster and Jamaal Tinsley were left.
They slid into mediocrity and only picked themselves up during the 2011-12 season under coach Frank Vogel (Foster was the only one left from the team that played during the Malice at the Palace).
In my opinion, the harsh penalties levied on the Indiana Pacers hurt them as a team (and their chances of vying for the championship) and Jermaine O’Neal’s career. The latter was made clear in the Netflix documentary.
I thought that Stern’s decision was inequitable. He clearly overlooked other aspects. Whether on purpose or not, we will not know as he has shifted this mortal coil.
While clearly, a brawl of this proportion must not happen again, so must these decisions of one also be avoided.
We must think there isn’t any malice involved, right?