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Ball Don't Lie

Stephen Jackson details the dark side of fandom while recalling ‘Malice in the Palace’

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Stephen Jackson is not past surprise (Ron Hoskins/ Getty).

At this point, it is not news that San Antonio Spurs swingman Stephen Jackson loves to make rap music and that he takes it seriously and thinks other ball-playing rappers stink. Nor is it fresh information that he values his reputation as a grown-ass man enough to budget in anticipation of technical fouls, or that he takes loyalty seriously enough to run into the stands to fight fans and bust his gun outside a strip club to protect his teammates. These character traits have all been very well-established, as befits a tremendously real human not afraid of being honest about what makes him who he is.

[Also: Celtics star Rajon Rondo picks fight | Postfight photo]

Nevertheless, Jackson still carries the capacity to surprise. For proof, check out a recent interview with Chris Palmer of ESPN the Magazine. In the midst of the usual (though not dull) talk about Jackson's music, teammates, and life experiences, Palmer drops in a probing question about the emotions Jackson felt during the infamous "Malice in the Palace" incident of November 2004.

As ever, Jackson's answers are truthful, controversial, and more than a little enlightening:

Weird question, but to battle like that … was it fun at all?

When I hit that fan, I definitely enjoyed it -- until that fine came down. That $3 million I lost killed me. It brought me back to reality because I could have lost my job.

It was wild because it had never been done before. And it will never happen again so, yeah, adrenaline was flowing. How many people can say that they've punched a fan?

Do you know all the stuff that they say to us? The racist stuff they say to us? We get the N-word and people talking about our wives and family.

Just because we make a lot of money we're supposed to be the bigger person? Fans tell us that our kids are ugly and that they should have thrown our mothers in jail for having us. That's not disrespectful?

I've been in a lot of fights and done some things I shouldn't have done, but I've never sold drugs or been locked up, so for people to think that way about me isn't right.

They had life-size posters of me in Utah with me behind bars. Before the situation with Jamaal Tinsley, I had never been in jail, and I'm from the projects!

Do you regret the Palace brawl?

No. Because the idea of Ron laying in the stands unconscious with all his teeth knocked out … no way. That whole arena was against and I didn't have it in my heart not to do anything.

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's discuss it piece by piece. First, it's important to establish what a stereotypical response to the question would involve. Another player would say that any emotions he felt at the time were incorrect, or unproductive, and that he now regrets the decision like any role model would.

Jackson, of course, still thinks it was a good idea, because he cares about his teammates. And while there's an essential irrationality to that opinion — Ron Artest almost certainly would not have ended up unconscious and toothless, because some kind of intervention would have occurred — Jackson also hits on some notable points.

For one thing, fans are often terrible. As Jackson says, they make horrible statements about players' mothers, or their (sometimes nonexistent) history with the law, or even really basic schoolyard insults that most people outgrow once they learn to drive. And, yes, it sometimes gets disturbingly racist. It's easy to argue that these small groups of fans are having fun or letting off steam, but those reasons seem unfit to explain away some of the worst aspects of society. When players get angry, it's because they've been provoked.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Jackson is entirely correct here. NBA players are expected to be the better men in these situations, because they are representatives of a multi-billion-dollar organization that allows them to live very comfortable lives. There's a difference between explaining the reasons for actions and agreeing that those actions are therefore acceptable. In this case, Jackson is correct on the former and off on the latter.

Putting aside the ethical and moral issues, though, it's refreshing to hear from an athlete willing to delve into some of the less acceptable feelings associated with the job. Jackson may not have the most useful approach to this situation, but he's absolutely right that players put up with a lot of insults that would drive most people to blow up. It's not OK that he did so, but we can still try to understand why it happened.

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