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Ball Don't Lie

A ‘Malice in the Palace’ oral history reminds us we’re way better off in 2012

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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The Pacers and Pistons brawl from 2004. This was the tame part (Getty Images)

There's no overstating the impact emanating from the brawl between Indiana Pacers players and Detroit Pistons fans on Nov. 19, 2004. The Pacers franchise, effectively, went from a 2005 championship contender to also-ran in 2006 to lottery dweller in 2007. The Pistons, as a team, continued apace; but the team's fans suffered both literal and figurative blows that were more than well deserved. And the NBA, just a few weeks into what eventually became a Renaissance year, took in perhaps its biggest (or certainly most focused) public relations hit to date.

Before, there were rumors or arrests or suspensions and bad behavior spread out over several teams and dozens of players. Here? It was one terrible fight, in a nationally televised forum (unlike Kermit Washington's devastating punch delivered to Rudy Tomjanovich over a quarter-century before), with cornrows and tattoos for middle America to judge and a whole lot of suspensions lying in wait.

Grantland's Jonathan Abrams has put together the definitive oral history on that night in Detroit, and it's the must-read or second-read that you'd expect. Perhaps someday Ron Artest (now known as "Metta World Peace") will agree to speak at length on record about the incident (to say nothing of Reggie Miller, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace; who all declined through some intermediary); but for now this is a fantastic document and one that points to just how far Ron Artest has come in the seven-plus years since the incident.

In Abrams' history, time and time again Artest is criticized not only for diving into the stands after committing a needless hard foul on Detroit's Ben Wallace or to tackle a fan he thought (incorrectly, it turns out) threw a cup of soda and ice on him, but for his strangely diffident behavior following the game. Artest's then-teammate Stephen Jackson, not unkindly, calls Artest "a moron" in his re-telling, and his actions in the locker room after the brawl speaks to someone who was clearly removed from reality at this time in his life.

From Grantland:

[Stephen] Jackson: After we calmed down, [Artest] looked at me like, "Jack, you think we going to get in trouble?" Jamaal Tinsley fell out laughing. I said, "Are you serious, bro? Trouble? Ron, we'll be lucky if we have a freaking job." That lets me know he wasn't in his right mind, to ask that question.

[Scot] Pollard: That's 100 percent true. We laughed our asses off about that. "Yeah, Ron. Yeah, there are going to be some problems, buddy. You hit a fan." I couldn't believe it. He was in shock that what he had just done was bad. I don't know what his mentality is like on the inside, but outside looking in, you can sit there and say, "Wow. That's trippy that somebody can go through that type of experience and wonder if there's going to be repercussions."

You can slough this off as someone who was dazed from both the sheer and unprecedented spectacle of what had just happened, or even the actual shots to the dome that Artest took, but it's well worth pointing out that this was years before Artest went into any form of consistent therapy, or began to take prescription medication to help him with his various mood swings — mood swings not limited to anger issues.

His back and forth with Pacers radio broadcaster Mark Boyle -- who broke five vertebrae attempting to stop Artest from rushing the stands -- adds credibility to Artest's daze:

Boyle: I had a big gash open over my head, which was nothing, it was superficial. But those forehead cuts really bleed. Ronnie was standing right next to me and he said, "Mark, what happened to you?" I said to Ronnie, "You trampled me." He said, "Oh, oh. I didn't even know. I'm very sorry." And he was sorry. Ronnie was a sweetheart of a guy. He still is.

And later:

Boyle: We got on the plane, and by then, my back's starting to stiffen up. So the trainer says take off your shirt, I'll strap some ice, just walk up and down the aisle and try to stay loose for a while. We didn't know it was fractured. So I'm walking up and down the aisle and Ronnie says, "Mark, what happened to you?" I said, "Ronnie, we already had this conversation. You don't remember?" he said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember, sorry." He seemed so unaffected by the whole thing.

This is the tone that comes up time and time again in this piece. How Artest seemingly had no clue what he'd created by stupidly fouling Ben Wallace during a blowout game, engaging with some twice-as-stupid Pistons fans by passive-aggressively lounging on the scorer's table following that, and stupidly charging into the stands to defend his honor after a "fan" that had previously been banned from both other Detroit-area baseball and football stadiums chucked a drink at him.

It's a strange sort of disconnect that, in spite of his sometimes-daffy ways all the way here in 2012, isn't seen as often. Therapy and properly prescribed medication, it seems, has helped in innumerable ways.

It's not just his current role on a boffo Lakers team. Los Angeles still has a shot at this year's title, but that year's Pacers were title favorites in the eyes of many (including this then-SI.com scribe). Not only did Artest's resulting season-long suspension just about destroy those hopes, but it sent the already off-kilter forward down a path that led to a strange trade demand a year later (to hear Stephen Jackson tell it, he felt as if the demand from the man he went into the stands to help "protect" was a betrayal), and a botched job at on-the-fly rebuilding by Pacer bosses Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh. Artest's deal turned into Peja Stojakovic's expiring contract which more or less turned into Al Harrington.

And Pacer fans went far, far away. The team continually ranks in the low reaches of the worst-attended teams in the NBA -- ranking second this year despite an entertaining team that will likely make the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Former Pacer fans, no doubt, weren't exactly happy with the team's behavior in 2004, and the NBA's harsh penalties that followed; penalties that didn't appear to be a fair trade-off between Indiana's players and Detroit's fans.

You can't suspend the fans. Actually, you can; but it's no comfort to fans of a potentially championship-winning team in 2005 that a couple of idiot Pistons fans won't ever be allowed in The Palace of Auburn Hills again.

Good has come out of this. NBA players certainly are even more hesitant to dash into the stands to mix it up with a combatant. Security has increased in NBA arenas to keep the mugs in the stands from getting too muggy, and Ron Artest has clearly turned his life around even if his game is declining quite a bit in 2012.

And we get a fantastic piece like this, from Jonathan Abrams. Read, and read again. And warm yourself with the fact that this night, in relative terms comparing the NBA of 2004 with the product we see today, seems like a hundred years ago.

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