Donnie Walsh still remembers his mindset right up to the moment that Ron Artest(notes) leapt off the press table at the Palace of Auburn Hills and into the stands, forever changing the immediate and soon-to-be longer fortunes of the Indiana Pacers.
“We were up by 15, on the road, against the defending champs. We were kicking their butts. It looked to me that we had a team that was more than capable of making it to the NBA Finals,” said Walsh, then the president of the Pacers. “And then, just like that, everything changed.”
That might be the understatement of the times.
It was five years ago Thursday night that Artest and teammate Stephen Jackson(notes) charged into the stands at the Palace, initiating one of the blackest moments in NBA history. Teammate Jermaine O’Neal(notes) delivered an on-court haymaker to a charging fan. Chairs were thrown. Beer was tossed. The game never officially ended, as the referees called off the final 45.9 seconds and the Pacers left the floor with a 97-82 victory.
In the locker room afterward, coach Rick Carlisle assembled his players and tried to put a positive spin on what he knew was going to be a major blow to the team and the franchise.
“I knew there were going to be major consequences for the organization,” Carlisle recalled. “What I told the players, was that regardless of what happens, we’re going to use this to strengthen us as a group. And you know what? That’s what we did.”
With Artest (the season), Jackson (30 games) and O’Neal (25 games, later reduced to 15 on appeal) unavailable for awhile, the crypto-Pacers won three of their next four games, averaging just 1,000 shy of capacity at Conseco Fieldhouse. The fans warmed to the scrappy group, some of whom were plucked from the minors and tossed into the starting lineup without so much as a single practice. Twenty players suited up for Indiana that season. Carlisle lost count of how many starting lineups he used. With the eventual return of O’Neal and Jackson, Indiana would go 44-38, stun the favored Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs and take the Detroit Pistons to six games in the second round before succumbing.
“I think beating Boston for us made the year a huge success, all things considered,” Carlisle said. “To me, the incident is one of the most enigmatic events in the history of pro sports. So much happened, yet there wasn’t one significant injury.”
Not personally. But try telling Walsh, or his deputy at the time, Larry Bird, that the franchise didn’t suffer. True, Indiana added to its woes in the ensuing months and years with a number of embarrassing off-the-court incidents involving its players (strip clubs and guns are never a good mix). The fans turned away in droves; in 2006-07 the Pacers were 28th in attendance and, the following season, fell to rock bottom, No. 30.
But to Walsh and Bird, it all started on Nov. 19, 2004, a night which will forever live in Indy Infamy.
“It really hurt us in so many ways,” Walsh said. “We had a championship-caliber team that year. Then, for the next few years, our guys had to go to court, had to deal with the legal stuff. That fractured the organization.”
Walsh made trips to New York to appeal for leniency from the commissioner. There was none forthcoming. “I thought we were singled out,” he says now. “No other team got punished. But they said they had to come down hard on us. And they did.”
Bird said through team mouthpiece David Benner that he would prefer not to revisit the moment. “We’ve moved on,” he said. Who can blame him? Carlisle (Dallas) and Walsh (New York) have moved on as well. Artest (three teams), Jackson (two teams) and O’Neal (two teams) have moved on, too. It’s Bird’s baby now, and he is trying to rebuild the team, brick by brick, starting with the public image and extending to the actual performance on the court.
But as he said to Yahoo! Sports last winter, “I knew it was going to be long time [to recover]. The problem for us here is we lived it every single day. Other teams, they saw it and then went about their business. It didn’t affect them. They forgot about it. But we didn’t. We couldn’t. It hurt this franchise big-time.”
The Pacers had hoped for a seamless transition the following season, with everyone back. Bird posed with Artest for a Sports Illustrated cover piece. But Artest, who had been publicly backed by his teammates, soon was demanding a trade. “That was it,” said Walsh, who basically benched Artest for a month before shipping him to the Sacramento Kings for Peja Stojakovic(notes). “That really bothered me.” O’Neal returned and promptly got hurt – again. He would miss 83 games – more than a full season – over the next three years before being traded to Toronto. Jackson returned and lasted only one more full season before being traded to the Warriors. He was dealt to the Charlotte Bobcats earlier this week after, yup, demanding to be traded.
And as the players went, so, too, did the franchise’s image and sustained record of excellence. In Carlisle’s penultimate season, the year after the incident, the Pacers finished 41-41 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. That was the year of the Artest trade, the year that O’Neal could go only 51 games and the franchise’s first season since 1987-88 without Reggie Miller, who had retired. That season marked the 16th time in 17 years Indiana had qualified for the playoffs, highlighted by the 2000 trip to the NBA Finals. The Pacers haven’t come close to the postseason since, winning 35, 36 and 36 games the last three seasons.
To this day, Carlisle sees the fight and suspensions as costing the Pacers dearly that season – but not much beyond that. “It [the incident] set the franchise back, sure, but the immediate impact it had was that it compromised our ability to win a championship that year,” Carlisle said. “But long term, what had an even greater impact on the team was the retirement of Reggie Miller and Jermaine O’Neal’s injury issues. You can’t oversell the impact of great players in your organization. Reggie helped us get through that year. Going forward, it was more about Reggie being gone and Jermaine being hurt. That’s my honest belief.”
The players might have moved around, but they have done so with fat wallets and bank accounts. Artest lost around $5 million in pay from that season, but he hit the free-agent market this past summer and signed a five-year, $34 million deal with the Lakers that even includes a 15 percent trade kicker. Jackson, for reasons unknown to most, was awarded a three-year, $28 million extension by Warriors ownership which kicks in next season. O’Neal is in the final year of a megadeal signed with the Pacers (when he actually could really play) which pays him nearly $23 million this season.
Two other Pacers, Anthony Johnson(notes) (five games) and Miller (one game), also received suspensions from the NBA for actions stemming from the brawl. Ben Wallace(notes), whose shove of Artest got things headed in the wrong direction, was suspended for six games. (One of the many what-ifs from that night was the presence of Artest in the game, in the final minute, with his team leading by 15 points.) Chauncey Billups(notes), Elden Campbell and Derrick Coleman were also suspended for one game each. Of all the players who were suspended, only one, Wallace, is still with the team for which he played that night. And actually it is his second run with the Pistons.
Carlisle is in his second season coaching the Mavericks. Walsh is in his second full season trying to rebuild the New York Knicks. They have their own problems (especially Walsh). The Pacers, meanwhile, just had a five-game winning end with Wednesday’s loss to the Knicks. There’s a Most Improved Player (Danny Granger(notes)) on the roster and a beast-in-the-making in the middle (Roy Hibbert(notes)). They’re playing small ball and playing it pretty well.
No, they’re not where they were five years ago when the season began. Not even close. But they’re probably better off now than they were five years ago today, when everything unraveled for a team, and a franchise, that had every reason to expect a long, successful run.