Revisiting the 'Malice at the Palace,' 10 years on

Two things were kind of a big deal in 2004. Quoting "Anchorman" was of paramount importance to your social appeal, and Detroit Pistons/Indiana Pacers matchups were well worth the price of theater admission.

The NBA may have scheduled for those two Eastern Conference combatants to play on a relatively anonymous Friday night on ESPN on Nov. 19 of that year, but it also decided to play the two in Indiana on Christmas afternoon in a nationally televised affair. The league certainly understood that the over/under on either game could have been listed at around 150 points, but it hardly mattered. These were championship contenders with a bit of history behind them, and the league rightfully wanted to take advantage.

The season prior, a very young Indiana team finished with a league-best 61 wins. It met a still-developing Pistons squad in the Eastern Conference finals, a Detroit team peaking at the right time, and Indiana fell in six games. A year older and presumably better, with Reggie Miller playing in likely his final NBA campaign, the Pacers figured to be the favorites in 2004-05. Many of us selected them to win the franchise’s first NBA title once June swung back around.

Sometimes the NBA schedules an expected conference finals rematch on a Friday night. Sometimes two evenly paired teams can still take part in a one-sided blowout. Sometimes, mindful of the anticipation that the two squads will play each other 10 times between November and May, two competitive coaches will leave the starters in way too long. Sometimes players will get angry during a blowout loss and resort to hard fouls. Sometimes petulance and a need for attention will result in an admitted heel playing to the crowd. Sometimes that crowd will have too much to drink. Sometimes a player will act like the rest of us when faced with the decision of what to do after having a drink thrown at us. Sometimes fans will project themselves as part of their favorite team, and needing to defend the players they came to watch. Sometimes teammates will try to literally fight another player’s battles for him.

Sometimes it all gets mixed up in some embarrassing, regrettable and ultimately frightening mess.

We’re well aware of the incident and it hardly needs much of a re-telling. Ben Wallace and Ron Artest should not have been on the court in the final seconds of Indiana’s 97-82 win, and Wallace nailed Artest with a needless hard foul. Artest, the NBA’s ultimate rude dude at the time, played to the crowd by lying on the scorer’s table during the ensuing mini-melee that followed. A dope in the crowd threw a drink at Artest, and Ron responded by charging the stands. Some of his teammates followed, and other Pistons fans decided to storm the court. Jermaine O’Neal used terrible boxing savvy by attempting a wild roundhouse right-hand punch on one would-be assailant. The Pacers eventually fled the court as Pistons fans showered them with beer, pop and whatever else they had purchased at the concession stands that night.

That night’s ESPN studio crew later chided the Pistons fans far more than the players who charged the stands, which says a lot about our immediate reactions as to how evenly stupid this fight was. David Stern relied on his committee of one to levy severe penalties during a dour Sunday afternoon news conference later that long weekend. O’Neal was suspended for 25 games, a number that was later reduced to 15. Stephen Jackson was suspended for 30 games. Ron Artest was suspended for the rest of the season.

Seven years later, Ron Artest would change his name to Metta World Peace. By even then, the brawl felt like it happened a decade ago. Today, we’re allowed to legitimize that feeling.

Bad news tends to be buried on a Friday night. In the days before Twitter and texting, I and many others learned of what was happening over on ESPN via phone calls and AOL instant messages. While it would be wrong to classify this glorified bar brawl as a “tragedy,” one typically tends to make these sorts of things about themselves. As someone with the unique position of having moved to Indiana a few months earlier, not being a Pacers fan, working a part-time gig at Sports Illustrated’s website while still having to pay the bills as a bartender and deal with people unfamiliar with the ways of the NBA, I was in a bit of a unique position.

That position meant hearing unending stories about the thugs and criminals that supposedly populated the NBA. Thugs and criminals those in the Hoosier state backed and defended to no end until Stern’s suspension ended Indiana’s championship hopes.

The league, clearly, has come a long way since then.

To the casual fan, the NBA was at a bit of a low point in November 2004. The Los Angeles Lakers were still two years removed from winning a title, and Shaquille O’Neal had been traded from the Lakers four months prior, but the seeming inevitability of a Laker championship every season dulled the senses of most fans still reeling from the departure of Michael Jordan. The game had slowed to an absolute crawl as coaches limited possessions and emphasized brutal defenses. Larry Brown was the king of the basketball world in 2004, and that wasn’t good for anyone but Larry Brown.

Some frozen stuff began to crack soon after, though, and not because Stern got all haughty in midtown Manhattan on Nov. 21. The league began to emphasize hand-checking rules, and unlike the similar call it sent out in 1994, the referees meant it this time. Steve Nash paired with Mike D’Antoni and a debris-clean Amar’e Stoudemire to come out of nowhere to win a league-best 62 games. Brown’s Pistons and the ridiculous defense of the San Antonio Spurs would meet in one of the worst NBA Finals in league history to end 2004-05, but the league had already turned around. The same Spurs franchise that gloriously prevailed in 2014 looks nothing like the structured mercenaries that won in 2004-05, save for the cut of Gregg Popovich’s gib, and the length of Tim Duncan’s denim shorts.

Larry Bird’s Pacers, unfortunately, never recovered. Bird refused to rebuild, rolling over bad deal into other bad deals (Artest turned into Peja Stojakovic, who turned into Al Harrington, who turned into an evening’s empire that returned into sand). The Pistons enjoyed a healthy run as the NBA’s top also-ran, making another Finals and then three more Eastern Conference finals after 2005 before breaking up.

The NBA amped up security, limited beer and liquor sales toward the end of games and set a harsh precedent for attempting to pummel paying customers, but this is still just window dressing. We know it’s wrong to jump into the stands, but none of us know in the moment how we’ll react when provoked. The looming presence of another 73 games in an NBA season, plus playoffs, wouldn’t flash through any of our minds immediately when someone chucks a drink at us. It doesn’t matter how many times we tell tales of the "Malice at the Palace," because any spark can set a fire.

This league and this game is a far more appealing product some 10 years on, but not because of any purported lessons learned from this brawl. Not because of the dress code that the NBA later implemented, and not because you can’t buy a beer during a TV timeout in the fourth quarter. Stupid fights are all too human, and just as long as the stands and courts are occupied by humans, there is always a chance that the inevitable occurs.

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Kelly Dwyer

is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!