The Malice at the Palace was a strange day in the history of the Detroit Pistons, the Indiana Pacers, the NBA, and even in all of sports. What started out as a little bad blood between two rival teams mushroomed into a commentary on athletes, hip-hop culture, the "decaying" city of Detroit, and if the link between athletes and fans was irrevocably damaged.
Basketball is basketball, and this incident started in a way all too familiar to basketball watchers. Rivals playing a hotly contested game. Things get chippy and hard fouls are plenty. It could have ended there.
Then, with the game decided Ben Wallace gets a hard foul to the back of the head from Ron Artest. Wallace could have let it go but didn't and rushed after Artest, shoving him forcibly.
It could have ended there. But instead both teams rush to protect their players. Both sides jawed at each other while others tried to corral both sides and get them back to their respective benches. It could have ended there. But instead Artest, knowing he needs to calm down, jumps on the scorers table and goofs around -- better to be silly than angry, right? It could have ended there but a fan throws a beer from far, far away and it happens to hit Artest. And we all know that it didn't end there.
Watching the video again it is amazing how long everything lasts and yet it seems to be over in a flash.
Nobody came out unscathed. Two proud franchises with great reputations suddenly had footage playing on a never-ending loop of players in their jerseys fighting fans and running into the stands. The Pistons had to deal with some player suspensions, but also with endless questions about the fight. The Pacers lost their best player and their chance at an NBA title.
There were few heroes and many villains; some blamed Ron Artest, some blamed Ben Wallace, some blamed Stephen Jackson, some blamed a collective of 20,000 fans, some blamed a lack of security, and some blamed all of the above. Everyone saw the same shameful incident, but everybody, naturally, had a different perspective.
And that is what makes Grantland's piece on the incident so fascinating. Jonathan Abrams put together an oral history of as many of the principle players as possible. There are comments from Artest, Jackson, Jermaine O'Neal, Ben Wallace, Darvin Ham, Mike Brown, officials, fans, executives, personnel from the league office, and even David Stern.
Trust me when I say that 13,000 words never seemed like such a breeze to read through. And Abrams passes no judgement, and as much as it is an oral history, he is no simple stenographer. He puts things in perspective and adds asides the enrich the story. You might know a lot about the story of the brawl between the Pistons and Pacers, but you will never have a better handle on the perspective of those involved.
Below are the 15 best quotes found in the piece in no particular order. They are the most enlightening in the facts they uncover, what they say, what they don't say, and what they reveal about the person who said them.
Stephen Jackson (guard/forward, Pacers): [Toward] the end of the game, I recall somebody on the team told Ron, "You can get one now." I heard it. I think somebody was shooting a free throw. Somebody said to Ron, "You can get one now," meaning you can lay a foul on somebody who he had beef with in the game.
Jackson: Ben was the wrong person [to foul] because, if I'm not mistaken, his brother had just passed and he was going through some issues. I was guarding Ben, I let him score. I was trying to let the clock run out. And Ron just came from out of nowhere and just clobbered him. I'm like, "What the hell is going on?" I had no clue that was about to happen. When that happened, everything just happened so fast, man.
Tom Wilson (CEO of the Detroit Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment): When he laid on the scorer's table, it took the natural barriers away. There's nothing between you and the crowd. Normally, there's the player's bench. Or you'd have to climb over chairs or climb over the scoring table - it requires that instant that keeps you from doing something crazy or gives people a chance to grab you.
Jackson: Me and Rip are close buddies, real good friends. But at the time, the emotions were so high. They were upset 'cuz they were getting dragged. We were beating them by [15 points]. They were real upset, so they were kind of egging it on like they wanted it. So I said at that time, "If you want it, you can get it."
Jim Gray (sideline reporter, ESPN): The Pistons were the problem. It was the Pistons who initiated this, the Pistons fans and Wallace were the guys who were the aggressors here.
Ron Artest (forward, Pacers): I was lying down when I got hit with a liquid - ice and glass on my chest and on my face. After that, it was self-defense.
Jackson: People don't understand how it feels to be with a guy who you call your teammate and you're with more than your family during the course of a season. How do you expect me not to go help him, even though he's wrong at the time? Going in the stands is totally not right. As a youngster, you learn to be there for your teammates, but you're never taught to go into the stands. I never thought I would be in a situation where I would have to go into the stands and actually help my teammate fight fans. But at that time, there's no way I could have lived with myself knowing that my teammate is in the stands fighting and I'm not helping him.
Wilson: Our staff, which is pretty well trained, went after them immediately to try and get them back on the floor. They were trying to grab Jermaine O'Neal, and you have to give them a lot of credit because these are normal-sized individuals who are in most cases 50, 55, 65 years old who are risking themselves against athletes who are incensed. I remember one guy named Mel, who was probably 60, wrapped around O'Neal's waist and being tossed around like a rag doll.
[Mike] Brown [(assistant coach, Pacers)]: It was a lot scarier being in the middle of it because everywhere you turned, you felt like you were going to have to fight. There were thousands of people against 20 people. That probably wasn't the case - 99.9999 percent of the people there were just as scared and just as appalled as you were - but it seemed like everybody was against you.
[Mike] Breen [(that night's play-by-play commentator for ESPN)]: They were finally able to get [Artest] onto the other side of the court. He turned around and he had a look in his eyes like he was gone. He had completely lost it. That's what the look said to me, that he was in a bad place. His mind was somewhere else and he had that crazed look.
Breen: He couldn't have been any more than 4 or 5. He was crying and his older brother, who wasn't that much older, had his brother cradled in his arms, kind of like patting his head, saying, "It's going to be OK. It's going to be OK." And the little boy was just so upset. It was horrible to see the boy like that, but it was also touching to see his older brother. It just showed you the raw emotion of the whole thing.
Jackson: When we got in the locker room, Ron said this: "Man, I didn't know we had this many real n----- on our team." We had a lot of guys who came up hard, that beat the odds. I was out of high school. Jermaine was out of high school. Jonathan Bender. Jamaal Tinsley had a hard life. Ron had a hard life. A lot of us had similar situations, so a lot of us really didn't think at the time. But I don't ever expect him or anyone else to say thank you for being there for him. That's something that I chose to do as me being my own man.
[Chris] McCosky [(Pistons beat writer, Detroit News)]: The coverage of it went on for months, and you would think people actually died or whatnot. People kind of lost sight of how it started and who was actually involved and who was a peacemaker. It just became another ugly mark on Detroit.
[Darvin] Ham [(forward, Pistons)]: I think [the media] twisted it. Out-of-control NBA players were at the forefront of the story as opposed to fan behavior. [Fans] talk about a player can't shoot or can't dribble, that's one thing. But I've seen things in the past when fans start talking about a player's kids, their wives - to even cross the line furthermore, to throw something, I don't think that particular part of the story was addressed properly or as extensive as these "wild black guys playing in the NBA." It's unfortunate, but that's the society we live in.
[Donnie] Walsh [((CEO and president, Pacers)]: A lot of the players stood up for Ronnie [during the melee]. Jermaine got suspended, Jack got suspended. A lot of guys got punished. When he stood up and said he wanted to be traded, that really put the team in a whole different situation. They felt like he wanted to walk out of there after he had really hurt the team.
H/T to DBBer -PS- who had it first.