“I think a lot of us made a lot of selfish decisions that day. I made a selfish decision to stop trying to break it up and to confront Lindsey Hunter and Richard Hamilton. That was my selfish decision. Ron made a selfish decision by going into the stands. We all made selfish decisions, but at the same time, we were protecting each other. It’s kind of hard to see if that’s right or wrong.”
— Stephen Jackson
The images are just as striking almost a decade later. A cup splashes off Ron Artest in the closing moments of a blowout win against the Detroit Pistons. He leaps into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills and into sports infamy. Mayhem follows. Players fight fans, fans fight players, a chair is thrown, bottles are tossed — in seconds, the invisible wall that separates athletes and spectators is demolished; the social contract of arena behavior is left in shreds.
What happened that night went well beyond nearly $10 million in forfeited paychecks and 146 games lost in suspensions. The melee transformed the Pacers from a Finals contender into a fringe playoff team and, eventually, a hopeless lottery case. Artest commenced a bizarre journey that took him from being one of the country’s most loathed athletes to Metta World Peace. The careers of Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal were forever tainted by split-second decisions that no human could have possibly premeditated. The media debated security, fan behavior, and the tenuous relationship between players and spectators for weeks. It represented the NBA’s worst nightmare: confirmation of the broad-stroke stereotype that its athletes were spoiled thugs.
“There were roughly half a dozen elements that caused that brawl to happen,” says Mark Montieth, who covered the Pacers for the Indianapolis Star. “If Artest doesn’t make that hard foul on Ben Wallace, it doesn’t happen. If Ben Wallace doesn’t react the way he did, it doesn’t happen. If the referees control the situation, it doesn’t happen. If Artest doesn’t go lay down on that scorer’s table, it doesn’t happen. If the fan doesn’t throw the beverage, it doesn’t happen. There was a continuation there, a succession of things. You take away any one of them and the whole thing doesn’t happen.”
We interviewed as many of the participants and witnesses as we could from that night for this oral history — everyone below is listed with his or her job title on November 19, 2004. Or, as the most infamous night in NBA history would come to be known, “The Malice at the Palace.”
The Statement Game
It was a little more than two weeks into the season, but this was a crucial game for both sides: Friday night on ESPN, their first meeting since the defending-champion Pistons had knocked Indiana out of an emotionally charged Eastern Conference finals that was best remembered for a vicious flagrant foul by Artest on Rip Hamilton in Game 6. Jermaine O’Neal and Jamaal Tinsley had played hurt in the deciding sixth game and Indiana had stewed all summer, believing it had the better team. Both sides had tinkered with their rosters — Detroit subtracting reserves Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur, and Mike James and adding Antonio McDyess, Carlos Delfino, and Derrick Coleman; Indiana trading Al Harrington and adding Stephen Jackson — but the bad blood persisted.
Jermaine O’Neal (forward, Pacers): We didn’t even know how good we were. We had won 61 games off pure talent. In this league, it’s about maturity, experience, talent, and we felt like we had all of that going into that year. We really did.
Anthony Johnson (guard, Pacers): We basically kept the same team [from the 2004 conference finals] and probably were even better.1
Johnson made these comments to ESPN.com’s Jemele Hill in 2009.
Darvin Ham (forward, Pistons): It was an intense rivalry between us and Indiana. Rick Carlisle, who was coaching the Pacers at the time, had just left us. We both had similar playing styles.2
The Pistons fired Carlisle after the 2003 playoffs and hired Larry Brown; Carlisle accepted Indiana’s head coaching job that same summer.
Mike Breen (that night’s play-by-play commentator for ESPN): It was one of the early-season marquee matchups.
O’Neal: We did not like each other. It was one of those old-school Knicks-Bulls rivalries I used to always see on TV and see the guys getting into it, little pushes and stuff like that. That’s how we viewed it.
Scot Pollard (center, Pacers): When you play somebody in the preseason, the regular season, the playoffs, you start to develop a rivalry. That’s just how it is. When I was in Sacramento, it was the same thing with the Lakers. You play each other six, seven times a year or more, you’re going to start getting familiar with those guys, you’re going to start having some bad blood.
O’Neal: We felt like they were in our way. We were younger. We were better. We were more talented. We knew we were good — we had the best record at the time and they were defending champions. They were saying, “We’re the top dogs. We’re the last ship until the ship sinks. Y’all gotta come through us.” And that’s what type of rivalry it was.
Mark Montieth: Ron had been playing well. If you look at his stats for the first seven or so games that season, he was playing great: averaging over 20 points and shooting the best 3-point percentage of his career. Against Detroit that night, he had like 17 points in the first half. He was hitting 3s. They were just dominating.3
After averaging 18.4 PPG in 15 2004 playoff games, Artest averaged 24.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in his first seven games in 2004 (numbers that would have easily represented career highs). On November 19, he finished with 24 points, five rebounds, and two steals, and held Tayshaun Prince to four points.
The Pistons pulled within five points in the fourth quarter, then missed their next 10 field goals. Indiana eventually put the game away with consecutive 3s from Austin Croshere and Stephen Jackson. But the game had become increasingly chippy. With 6:43 remaining, Rip Hamilton elbowed Jamaal Tinsley in the back after a defensive rebound — the Pacers bench erupted, and not without reason; it could have easily been called a flagrant foul. Then, with 1:25 remaining, trailing by 11 points, Wallace knocked Artest into the basket support while blocking his layup (no foul was called). There were just 57 seconds remaining when Jackson stepped to the line and hit two free throws to give Indiana a 97-82 lead.
Sekou Smith (NBA writer, Indianapolis Star): With just under three minutes to play, Mark [Montieth] leaned over to me and said, “Man, these fouls are getting harder and harder.” He just kept saying the refs have to get control of the game.
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.
O’Neal: I remember guys talking about that. I had just gotten taken out of the game maybe two or three minutes before that. We had just blown them out. You could see there was animosity.
Mike Brown (assistant coach, Pacers): You could see it start to get a little testy between Ron and Ben. There was a foul at one end, another foul, and then a borderline foul and problems beyond the foul. The game was out of hand. I was hoping the officials were going to kick both players out.
Mark Boyle (radio play-by-play, Pacers): There was no reason for those guys to be out there. I was surprised. It was an intense game — a bitter rivalry. But that game had been decided.4
Tim Donaghy, one of the officials that night, said, “I’m sure they were in the game just so they could pad their stats. That’s the reason why you see players in games even when they’re 20 or 25 points down with four or five minutes to go. It’s all about the coaches not wanting the players pissed off at them and making sure they have their game averages.”
Larry Brown (head coach, Pistons): I don’t think the game was so far out of hand that you’re going to embarrass a player by putting him in for 45 seconds.
Montieth: Reggie Miller did not play. Anthony Johnson did not play. Scot Pollard did not play. Those guys were all in street clothes. Give Carlisle a pass — they had a short bench that night.
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.5 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.
Wallace’s brother Sam Jr. had passed away the week before. This was Wallace’s first game back after missing two contests.
Boyle: Ronnie fouled Ben under the basket and then Ben shoved Ronnie and then Ronnie backed away and the thing kind of drifted over to the press table.
Ben Wallace (forward/center, Pistons): He told me he was going to hit me, and he did it. That was just one of those things. It happened in the heat of the battle.6
Wallace said this to the Chicago Daily Herald.
Larry Brown: Everybody in our league takes hard fouls. There’s a time and place for them. Maybe you put a guy on the line and don’t let him shoot a layup late in the game to make him earn it from the free throw line. But when the game’s over, I don’t think many guys in our league are going out trying to hurt somebody. That was kind of unusual and I think that’s maybe why Ben reacted the way he did.7
Brown remembers thinking the fight would settle down quickly because “fights in the league don’t last for more than a couple of seconds.”
The Scorer’s Table
Multiple players from both teams kept pulling an enraged Wallace away from Artest, who eventually (and inexplicably) decided to lie on the scorer’s table as everything settled down. The slowness of the response — Wallace looming, teammates shoving, and referees debating — allowed the incident to escalate.
Donnie Walsh (CEO and president, Pacers): Ronnie did try to get away from it because he had been told, “If you see yourself getting too excited, disengage and get yourself out of it and get your thoughts together.” That’s why he went down and laid down on the table. It was so he wouldn’t get all excited and do something wrong.
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.
Montieth: In a way, he provoked it passively by lying down on that table. He picked up a set of radio headphones like he was going to talk to people back home. He was clowning around a bit too much. In his mind, he was saying, “Look, I’m not doing anything here. I’m trying to be good.” It didn’t work out that way.
Boyle: We had a headset out because we were anticipating bringing a player over for a postgame interview. We had known Ronnie for a while — there was no way we were going to put an open mic in front of Ron Artest in that situation. The mic wasn’t live.
Wilson: It was almost like an “I’m so cool” thing to sort of disassociate yourself and act above everything. Which I think is how the crowd took it.
Boyle: We had maybe half a dozen assistant coaches, a bunch of guys who were there because the coach liked them or owed someone a favor. That was typical in those days, those real large coaching staffs. When Ronnie was lying on the table, one of the assistants, a young guy named Chad Forcier, is rubbing his stomach like Ron is his pet dog and I’m thinking, Why aren’t these guys getting this guy out of here?
Montieth: Artest would put on the headphones and Reggie [Miller] would take them off and put them down. Reggie did a really good job of trying to keep the situation under control and stay after Artest.
Boyle: We had guys on that team that were jaw-jackers. Stephen Jackson was looking for somebody to fight. He was jacking it up. Ronnie was lying on the table. Ben’s not one to back away. It was just the wrong mix of guys.
Mike Brown: Nobody was holding the Piston players back. The one guy that I did know and had a pretty good relationship with was Ben. I went over and I tried to grab him and talk to him. His nickname was Debo, so I tried to pull a nickname from the past out. I was like, “Debo, Debo, it’s not worth it. Go back. Debo. Come on.” He kind of slowed down and I finally got him to a point where he stopped.
Jackson: The biggest thing that upset me — after we were trying to break up Ben and Ron, a lot of [Ben’s] teammates were still talking. I’m over trying to help and break it up and I’m standing next to Rick Carlisle and I see Rip Hamilton and Lindsey Hunter, I hear them talking and I’m thinking, OK. They ain’t trying to break it up. They’re still talking. Let me try and go see what they want to do.
Hunter: I was trying to stop Rip because Rip was like 140 pounds and that’s my guy, my little brother. Like, “Rip, sit down. Get out the way before you get hurt out here.” And Derrick Coleman is like, “Come on, let’s get these guys out [of here].” So I walk out there and that’s when Stephen walked up and started saying stuff. And, listen, I box. I’m too old to be fighting or whatever, and I’m like, “I’m not fitting to fight out here in front of all these people.” But I’ve been boxing for nine, 10 years, so it wasn’t a big deal to me.
Jackson: I was in fight mode at the time. I’m like, “Y’all being real disrespectful, man. We’re trying to break this up. So if y’all wanna fight, I’ll give you what you’re looking for.” It was just a whole bunch of noise, just trash talk.8
Jackson circled around the mass of players, motioned for Hamilton to come meet him, then pulled his jersey out of his shorts and put his fists up before others came between them.
Hunter: In a situation like that, you want to protect your teammates and yourself. I’m looking to make sure nobody’s going to hit anybody from behind. I just remember kind of smirking, like, “Jacko, you know you don’t want to fight in front of all these people.” And we kind of squared off and looked at each other and it didn’t escalate into anything. People don’t know that Rip is a fierce competitor and Rip just goes over the top, man. He was real emotional.
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.”
Boyle: Tommy Nunez Jr. was one of the three officials, a very small guy. He was in there frantically trying to separate guys. Ron Garretson looked like he was going to soil himself, and the third referee that no one ever remembers was Tim Donaghy.9
Tim Donaghy (NBA official): As long as [Artest and Wallace] were away from each other, we didn’t think it would escalate.
Smith: Garretson is at midcourt when the craziness starts. He goes from the middle of the floor at midcourt to backing up all the way to the opposite side of the sidelines away from where all the action [between Artest and Wallace] is going on at the scorer’s table.
Donaghy: After we tried to break it up and knew that wasn’t possible, we tried to just step back and view what was going on, so that when we started the game back up, we’d have an idea of who needed to be ejected and what actions we were going to take.
Jackson: They did a terrible job of [making] whoever was ejected go to the locker room. They did a horrible job of that. They did a horrible job of policing the whole thing.
Montieth: People complain about referees like Joey Crawford and [his] quick whistle. I guarantee if Joey Crawford was working that game, it wouldn’t have happened because he would have controlled it. He would have called technicals and gotten people out of there.
Ben Wallace: It’s hard to say, “I wouldn’t do this again,” or, “I wouldn’t do that,” because in a similar situation, you don’t know how you’ll react. It was a unique situation with so many things that happened so fast.10
Wallace made this comment to the Associated Press on the one-year anniversary of the melee.
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.
Jackson: I definitely wish we did a better job containing Ron, letting him get on the scorer’s table, letting him put on the headphones. I think the responsibility fell on all of us as a team. If I could go back, I would have huddled our team up and we would have stood right there in front of that bench and kept our composure and thought about the big picture.
A full 90 seconds after Wallace had shoved Artest, Artest remained lying on the scorer’s table as Detroit fans yelled obscenities at him. The 10 players who had been playing (O’Neal, Artest, Jackson, Tinsley, and Fred Jones for Indiana; Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Hamilton, Hunter, and Smush Parker for Detroit) and coaches from both teams huddled at midcourt — the concern was Wallace, who couldn’t be calmed down — with everyone else staying near their respective benches. For whatever reason, nobody ever pulled Artest off that table. A fed-up Wallace finally decided to throw an armband in Artest’s direction.
Mike Brown: Ben wasn’t going toward Ron anymore, but he takes [the armband] and kind of flicks it under my arm at Ron. When that happens, I turn to look and see where it goes and obviously it doesn’t hit Ron — but it kind of opens up the floodgates.
Gray: I was sitting maybe two or three feet away from Ron on that press row. I said, “Ron, don’t leave, I want you for the end of the game [for an interview].” He said OK. It couldn’t have been more than 20 seconds later that something came flying and hit him on his chest.
Bob “Slick” Leonard (radio analyst, Pacers): I had my hand on Ron when the big splash of beer came from behind us.
Mike Brown: You talk about horseshoes. [The fan] couldn’t have gotten any luckier when he threw the cup of beer or Coke or whatever.
John Green (the fan who lobbed a drink at Artest): I never intended to hit anyone. The day I threw the cup I forgot about the laws of physics. I hope that no one ever throws anything at The Palace again.11
That’s what Green told the Detroit News.
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.12
Quote from a phone interview that night with Jim Gray.
Jackson: It’s hard for any man to take something thrown at his face and not to retaliate.
Gray: He immediately got up and went on that table and jumped over the radio people.
Wilson: It truly is one of those things that happens simultaneously at the speed of light and as slow as it can possibly be. You’re kind of like, “Nooooooooo.”
Boyle: Instinctively or reflexively, I did step up and Ronnie trampled right over me. I fractured five vertebrae. The thing I laugh about now is my wife says to me, “If you could have stopped Ronnie from going into the stands, none of this would have happened.” I say, “Well, Jesus, if I could have stopped Ron from going into the stands, I would be playing in the NFL.” My partner, Slick Leonard, was smarter than me — he moved out of the line of fire.13
It was Boyle’s 17th season with the team, a position he still holds today. Amazingly, his injuries did not keep him from missing any games. Boyle debated filing a lawsuit over his injuries, but never did. “I consulted a lawyer because they told me I’d be all right, but just in case I was crippled up or something, I thought I’d better see what my options were. It turned out I wasn’t seriously injured. I did consult a lawyer, and he said he would help me if I wanted to file a lawsuit, but he was almost certain I would lose, and I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because there’s videotape and it will just show that Ronnie didn’t run over you. You stood up and got right in front of him.’ Which I did do. When my back got healthy I dropped the idea, anyways. It was more a preventative thing than anything.”
Leonard: Mark got in his way and [Artest] ran right over him. When I saw that, I said, “Let’s go back to the press room until this thing’s over with.”
Mike Brown: I leaped to grab [Artest]. It was just a reaction because I knew right away nothing good’s going to happen if he goes into the stands. I didn’t get him and it was just natural for me to keep chasing him. I don’t know how I made it into the stands, but I was in the stands.
Artest charged into the stands to grab the offending cup thrower, pushed over the wrong fan (Michael Ryan), then stood over him and shook him with both hands. The fan who actually DID throw the cup, John Green, grabbed Artest from behind and tried to put him in a headlock. Another fan whipped a beer at Artest at close range, spraying Stephen Jackson, who retaliated with a wild punch. Meanwhile, Ben Wallace’s brother, David, just missed tagging Indiana’s Fred Jones with a haymaker, as players and coaches from both teams surged into the fray as peacemakers. Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who was announcing the game for ESPN, would later call the melee “the lowest point for me in 30 years with the NBA.” Here’s how many of the principals remember this sequence.
Ham: All hell broke loose.
Auburn Hills Police Chief Doreen E. Olko: We have zillions of security plans for the Palace, for all kinds of things. But none included a player going up in the stands. That just is not something anybody foresaw.
Michael Ryan (fan): [Artest] was on top of me, pummeling me. He asked me, “Did you do it?” I said, “No, man. No!”14
Ryan told this to the Associated Press.
Montieth: A lot of people will tell you that Artest went into the stands and started slugging fans. Well, he didn’t; he went into the stands and grabbed the wrong person — the one who he thought threw the beverage — grabbed him and said, “Did you throw that?” But he didn’t hit the guy.
Mike Brown: Next thing you know, I see Jack up there in the stands.
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.
Montieth: [Artest] got hit from behind by Ben Wallace’s brother, if I remember right. And he threw that halfhearted punch.
David Wallace (Ben Wallace’s brother): I just got caught up in the heat of the moment. When you don’t have time to think about something, there’s not always a thought process involved.15
That’s what Wallace told the Associated Press one year after the brawl. Little-known fact: When Artest is lying on the scorer’s table pre-melee, you can see David Wallace lurking behind Artest and looking like he might jump him.
O’Neal: I had my own personal security guard that traveled with us. He was side-by-side protecting me. I look in the stands and I see people whaling off on players. I’m trying to get across the scorer’s table to get over there to help, and my security guy is holding me down. We turn around and people are trying to hit us on the floor. The first person I saw was [teammate] Fred Jones. Somebody was whaling on him from behind.
Jackson: My initial reaction was to go grab Ron. But as soon as I hopped up [into the stands], another guy threw a beer in his face. My reaction was to retaliate. I don’t regret being there for my teammate. But I regret going in the stands and fighting fans. It was totally wrong, but you don’t think about that when somebody you call your brother is in harm’s way. The only thing you’re thinking about is getting out there and helping him. That’s the definition of a teammate, being together, being there for your teammate. And like Tim Duncan says, I’m the ultimate teammate. A lot of people just think I was being a thug in going in there. My whole thought was, my teammate is in the stands fighting and I’m going to be there for him. I knew as soon as I took the first step to go into the stands that there was going to be consequences behind it, no question. But I can deal with those consequences knowing that my teammate is here alive and healthy, [rather] than me standing on the court watching him, worrying about my career and money and he’s sitting over there bleeding to death.
Mike Brown: I was getting hit while I was in the stands. Ron had grabbed the wrong guy, and the guy that actually threw the cup was hitting me from behind because I went to grab Ron to try and get Ron out of there. It was pure chaos.
Chris McCosky (Pistons beat writer, Detroit News): I remember trying to stop Jamaal Tinsley from going into the stands, and he went through me like I was butter. It was a pretty failed attempt on my part.
George Blaha (radio and television play-by-play, Pistons): Rick Mahorn, who does radio, was in the center of press row and went up to make sure that the gals, one of our official scorekeepers, wasn’t injured — and that one of our longtime statisticians, who is physically impaired a little bit, didn’t get hurt. I saw Ricky taking care of business.
Mahorn (radio analyst, Pistons): You do what you gotta do sometimes in life.
Larry Brown: My young son was a ball boy. Derrick Coleman kind of took care of him and kind of took care of me, kept me next to him. I’ve been with a lot of pretty tough guys in the league. He’s probably one of the toughest I’ve ever been around. Then I saw Rasheed trying to get everybody to stop. He tried to get after Stephen and Jermaine and actually went into the stands to try and calm things down.
Blaha: Rasheed’s really a cerebral guy. He’s always been looking out for everybody’s best interest. That does not surprise me in the least. He’s certainly a misunderstood guy and, in my opinion, a great guy.
Smith: There were only those old security guards. There was no security to keep people from jumping over that little rail and getting down to the floor. The craziness from that night is, the players on the teams had stopped fighting each other. It was the fans and the Pacers.
Jim Mynsberge (Auburn Hills deputy chief): There were only three police officers in the arena to handle things. They did a great job with what they had.
O’Neal: There was no security. You’re talking about one of the largest arenas in the NBA and you’re talking about fans that were upset because, one, we had just drilled their team, and two, I wouldn’t say 22,000 people are all bad people — but it was a large group in there that was literally trying to hurt us.
Rick Carlisle (head coach, Pacers): I felt like I was fighting for my life out there.16
Carlisle made this comment to reporters after the game. He declined repeated requests to comment for this story.
Ham: Myself, Antonio McDyess, and Tayshaun Prince, we were just standing there in disbelief. We had a couple of vet guys, Derrick Coleman, Elden Campbell, who left the sidelines — not to be hostile, but to try and break stuff up. It was amazing just to see no control. You would think they would have had security swarming the building.
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.
Melvin Kendziorski (usher, the Palace): He was one of the guys I tried to hold back. He objected to it, I guess, and kind of grabbed me and twisted me around and threw me over the scorer’s table. It was like, “Wow. What just happened?” He threw me like a rag doll. He’s a pretty big guy. I had back and neck injuries and had to be treated for quite a while.
Mike Brown: 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.
Artest remained in the stands for 40 seconds, eventually getting pulled toward Indiana’s bench. As the other peacemakers tried to separate fans and players, the situation didn’t seem anywhere close to settling down — if anything, it seemed to be moving in a more perilous direction.17
Jim Gray remembers being especially worried because “I was in Mexico at a Julio Cesar Chavez fight where people started throwing their chairs in the ring and bottles and all kinds of stuff — and they had all these police dogs and they just let them go. They were just biting everybody. I was in the ring and thankfully Don King picked up one of the chairs and put it over our heads [to protect them from the debris and dogs]. So I knew how these things can get out of control.”
Joe Dumars (general manager, Pistons): It’s the only time in 10 years I ever got up with a minute or two [left in a game] to get up and walk down the stairs. I was so frustrated with the way we had played, so frustrated that they had manhandled us that night. We got up with two minutes to go. When we got to the locker room, I heard all this commotion and was wondering what was happening.
John Hammond (assistant general manager, Pistons): I remember like yesterday saying to Joe, “Hey, Joe, something either really good just happened or something really bad just happened.” I thought something miraculous happened on the floor and that we had just won the game.
Dumars: The commotion completely caught me off guard. Loud screaming, you could tell something was going on in a major way.
Hammond: Joe and I walk into the locker room, the TV’s on, and we’re looking at what happened on the floor. They’re showing the replays already. We were kind of in shock and amazement.
David Stern (NBA commissioner, who was watching the game on TV): I said, “Holy [mouths a swear word].” And then I called [then deputy commissioner] Russ [Granik] and said, “Are you watching our ‘blank’ game?” He said no. I said, “Well, turn our ‘blank’ game on, you’re not gonna believe it.”18
“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.” —Stephen Jackson
Stern said this during a 2006 interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons.
Chuck Person (special assistant to the CEO/president of basketball operations, Pacers): After we were up 20, I left my seat and went and sat in the back. All I hear is someone running back saying, “Hey, Chuck, Ron ran up into the stands.” I go out onto the court and it was just total chaos and pandemonium. I went to Coach Carlisle and told him we need to get the players off the floor and he said, “The game’s not over yet.” I said, “Well, the players are in danger.”
Donaghy: It just got to the point where the game wasn’t going to continue. We just stood back and at the appropriate time made an exit there because [the referees] didn’t feel safe.
Larry Brown: Most fights in our league just happen and they’re over, but this thing started to gain momentum as the situation evolved. It was miserable just being out there, being a part of it, having young people see what was going on. It was something you just don’t want to be a part of, and hopefully it’ll never happen again.
Donaghy: It was just mayhem, to the point where you actually feared for your life. We didn’t know at that point if somebody was going to pull a gun or a knife. Fans were coming out onto the floor and challenging players to fights right out on the floor. It was at a level that I’ve never seen before.
Breen: It was horrible on the other side, because the fans were coming down toward the altercation. But the fans on our side of the court [where they were broadcasting the game] were not. As it continued, now some of the fans on our side started to come down, and that’s when I was thinking, Oh my goodness. This could be the most disastrous fight in the history of sports.
Wilson: Right in front of me are these two guys in Piston jerseys, [they] kind of walked up to the Pacers bench at the side of the court.
The two fans were named Alvin “A.J.” Shackleford and Charlie Haddad. They brazenly approached Artest, who had finally been pulled out of the stands and was wandering aimlessly toward the Pacers bench. The parties briefly sized one another up. Artest punched Shackleford, and the blow also knocked over Haddad. As Haddad got up, O’Neal took a running start and reared back to punch him, but slipped on liquid on the court as he delivered the blow. It ended up being a glancing punch.
Pollard: Some of the fans, they get down on the court and are saying, “I’m going to go punch this guy. I’m going to go punch this guy.” Then they get close and they’re like, “Wow. I can’t reach his face.”19
Pollard was initially hesitant to join the fracas, explaining, “Earlier in my career I stepped on the court and left the bench area [during a fight]. I was nowhere near the action. I basically took one step onto the court and I stepped back and said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m not allowed to leave the bench area.’ And I still got suspended the next game. That was on my mind even though it was years later. I thought, Hey, I’m not about to get suspended and lose my money for something that I’m not even involved in. That was a big deal to me. I’m not one of those guys who just goes and gives money away just to prove that I can kick someone’s ass. I already know I can. I don’t need to lose money as well.”
Gray: That one guy would have gotten killed if Jermaine O’Neal would have hit him. He was lucky he slipped.
Jackson: I didn’t see it, but you could hear it. Out of all the noise in the arena, you still heard that punch.
Wilson: For that one moment you’re thinking, My God. He’s going to kill this guy.
Pollard: That guy he tried to hit is lucky. There’s not a question in my mind that there’s a fan out there alive right now because my friend slipped on beer or whatever it was and missed that punch. It’s good that he did, because he’d be in trouble or maybe be in jail right now.
O’Neal: When I did it, when he hit the ground, everybody just kind of cleared out. All of a sudden, it wasn’t fun and games. It wasn’t “OK, let’s hurt the Pacers.” The people that were around us, they started to protect themselves. That’s what I was happy about. I don’t look at it that I’m happy that I slipped. I know a lot of people say that, but I’m never just trying to hurt somebody. But in that case, I’m just trying to protect myself and my teammates.
Jonathan Bender (forward, Pacers): My whole thing was to get in front of Jermaine and keep everybody at peace, knowing you’ve only got so many security guards up against 16,000 people running at you. I was just wary of the fact if somebody ran up and looked like they were going to cause me some harm, I was going to protect myself.
Charlie Haddad (the fan O’Neal punched): I barely remember the night.20
That’s what Haddad told the Detroit Free Press.
O’Neal: Nobody knows this — the Pistons security had just told that man to leave the building before that even happened. Nobody knows that that same guy threatened Yao Ming.21 People don’t know that. People don’t know some of the bad scenarios of the people who were caught up in that situation. But they know everything about the players. That man had been plotting to start fights against players so he could get paid. That’s a fact.
O’Neal said he learned of this in his court cases. The Detroit News reported in 2005, “One fan who filed a federal suit against the Pacers and two players for assault had a history of alleged incidents at the Palace. He threatened to pour a drink on Houston Rockets star Yao Ming at a game earlier in November. That fan, Charlie Haddad, was banned Dec. 2 from the Palace. He was confronted at half-time during the Nov. 19 game with the Pacers by Palace security officials.”
The Exit Strategy
The sight of fans being punched by Jackson and O’Neal enraged Pistons fans even further — they kept booing and throwing things on the court. Everyone soon realized that Indiana’s players and coaches needed to be hustled toward the locker room as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that meant escorting them through the tunnel … right past many of those fuming fans. The other problem was Artest, who Breen said had “a look in his eye that’s very scary right now.” In one of the most unlikely moments of the night, NBA power broker William Wesley (a.k.a. “Worldwide Wes”) left his courtside seat to pull Artest away from Haddad and Shackleford.
Steve Angel (cameraman, ESPN): I saw one person out of the corner of my eye to the left of my frame leaving and it was Artest. So I just stayed with him. He looked very bewildered, like, “What’s going on here?” Like he’d snapped, basically.
Person: I knew Ron was a guy who would probably need a little more help getting stabilized and getting him off the court. That’s why I went to him. I think he had basically blacked out — he didn’t know where he was. I had to get his attention first and get him to focus on who was talking to him. And I made eye contact with him and he basically stabilized himself.
Artest: I didn’t expect Ben Wallace to react as he did, and I never had beer thrown in my face before. Nobody ever just threw anything at me — with the exception of a few times — and nobody ever just came up to me and threw beer in my face.22
From an ESPN interview in 2005.
Breen: 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.
Jalen Rose23 (forward, Toronto Raptors): My guy Wes, who seems like he’s always in the right place at the right time, is a front-row season-ticket holder for the Pistons. He was the one trying to calm down Ron Artest.
Rose didn’t attend the game but has a unique perspective: He grew up in Detroit and went to high school there. His biological father, Jimmy Walker, was chosen first overall by the Pistons in the 1967 draft. And Rose played for Indiana from 1996 to 2002, then got traded to Chicago in a seven-player deal that landed Indiana Ron Artest.
William Wesley: I saw a situation developing that I didn’t think would escalate, but once I realized that it was escalating, I decided to be part of the solution instead of the problem.
Angel: The only time I felt I was about to get hurt was when a policeman popped his pepper spray container and started shaking it up. Reggie Miller was pleading with him, “Please don’t. My suit costs x-hundred dollars.”
O’Neal: [The police] are nowhere to be found for the first 10 minutes and then come in and try to pepper spray us.
Pollard: There was no control. This wasn’t a game anymore. This was about these fans. They don’t know the rules. They’re not going to listen to a referee pulling them apart. A whole street mentality takes over. The fans are not part of the family, the NBA family. Even though you’re fighting against these guys on the court, they’re still in the other team’s jerseys. You’re not trying to kill anybody. But the fans don’t know that, and you don’t know what they’re thinking. That changed the whole scenario.
Larry Brown: I just remember standing at halfcourt and being kind of helpless. I did try to get to the microphone [to tell the fans to calm down], but there was so much going on and there were so many things on my mind. I just felt sick to my stomach to see what transpired.
Person: He ended up putting the microphone down and walking off the court because it got so ugly.
Breen: I felt like we were out there for an hour waiting for them to get the players off the court. Every time it appeared they had everything under control, another fight broke out. When the fans were able to get on the court — and not just one or two, there were a number of them because security was so worried about the scene in the stands — that’s when it was like, “Wow.” I’m not blaming the security, but they just didn’t know how to deal with it.
Jackson: I knew we had to get out of this arena before all these guys in the nosebleed seats got down to our section. That’s the felons, the guys that really don’t care about losing anything. If they come down there, somebody’s going to really get hurt.
Person: It felt like we were trapped in a gladiator-type scene where the fans were the lions and we were just trying to escape with our lives. That’s how it felt. That there was no exit. That you had to fight your way out.
One of the enduring images of the melee was Jackson defiantly storming through the tunnel, flashing his Pacers jersey and screaming at the fans, totally unafraid as people dumped drinks on him. O’Neal took the experience a little more personally, lunging for a fan who had tossed a drink his way before getting pulled away by Wesley and others. Another Pistons fan threw a chair in the general vicinity of a few exiting Pacers. Jamaal Tinsley left the court through the tunnel and returned holding a dustpan over his head, but was turned away before inflicting any damage. It seemed improbable that every Pacers player and coach would make it through the tunnel, but they did.
Jackson: When I was walking off, they were throwing things at me. I was like, “Go ahead and throw it. Do what you have to do.” I wasn’t really worried about my safety because I knew I could protect myself.
Donaghy: Exiting the court was very scary because so many things were flying out of the stands: coins, chairs, different forms of liquid.
Breen: There were chairs flying through and people taking pretty hard objects and just winging them at people’s heads. It’s amazing that there was nobody seriously hurt. Absolutely amazing.
Bryant Jackson (fan who threw a chair at the exiting Pacers): I, Bryant Jackson, have six kids. I try to do what’s right … I got caught up in something I wish I hadn’t got caught up in.24
That’s what Jackson told the Detroit Free Press.
O’Neal: People are spitting. Objects are being thrown from the stands — brooms, the pan things that sweep the trash up, chairs. And for what? If we get hit in the head and we die, then what was the purpose of that? It was a heated rivalry; as much as I didn’t like the Pistons, I always respected coming there to play. We knew what we were going to get from the time we came on the bus and came out to warm up. Even pregame warm-ups, it was just mayhem. You get all the fans yelling and screaming. That’s what makes sports sports. You’ve got to love that. But beyond that, are we really being hated because we play basketball or play for an opposing rivalry team? That’s how deep it was.
Breen: There were a bunch of people right above where the Pacers were going out. And there was this one young woman who was very nicely dressed in the midst of it. I remember thinking, Oh, this poor woman. In the midst of this mob mentality, I hope she’s going to be OK. And as I’m saying that in my head, she pulls out a bottle, a full water bottle, and throws it at point-blank range at the Pacers going off the floor. I couldn’t believe it. Even this nicely dressed woman who seemed so out of place in the mob, she just got sucked into the whole mob mentality and it showed you how scary it could be.
Larry Brown: Every one of those [Pistons] brought their wives and kids to games, and you never want to have kids see their dads involved in a situation like that.
Ham: My wife and my little boys were there. My little boy Donovan, they showed him crying.
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.
Ham: [Donovan] was distraught — he thought the NBA was over forever. I explained to him what happened and he ended up being OK. But I saw a lot of little kids frightened, some crying, some just had the look of shock on their faces.
Blaha: Bill Laimbeer and I were broadcasting the game down by the Pistons bench. Everything happened on the other end of press row. And the reason I wasn’t particularly shook up about it is because Bill Laimbeer didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by it. He was kind of nonplussed by the whole thing.
Mike Brown: I don’t remember how I got from the stands back onto the floor. But everybody was throwing stuff. I literally felt like there were 22 people fighting 20,000 people. I know that wasn’t the case, but it was the scariest moment I’ve ever been a part of in my life. Next thing I know, we’re back in the locker room and my clothes are soaked, ripped. Anybody who says they’re not scared in my opinion is lying.
Person: Luckily, we got through the mob of people, got back to the locker room safely.
Back in the Locker Room
After Indiana’s players and coaches made it back to their locker room, Detroit’s players and coaches remained on the floor, milling around in disbelief and wondering what to do next. The game was officially called off with 45.9 seconds remaining. Final score: Indiana 97, Detroit 82.
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.
O’Neal: It was a very heated locker room. Guys’ nerves were terribly bad.
Jackson: Rick is like, “Everybody calm down. Everybody calm down.” Everybody was still kind of in awe. I remember Jermaine just jumped up; he looked like he had turned into the Incredible Hulk. He said, “Next time we fighting, don’t you MF’s grab us!” And Rick jumped up and got just as big as Jermaine and said, “We were just trying to help!” And so it ended up looking like the team and the coaches were about to fight. That’s what it seemed like.
O’Neal: We had to fight to get into the locker room. Not literally fight, but pushing and moving people to get into the locker room. We had no security to help us out. I was walking through there and we’re getting grabbed and basically they were trying to push us through — Chuck and some other coaches — but our arms were down. The way they were holding our arms down and everything was just hitting us in the face, that was the discussion. I was upset, you know? Just allow me to protect myself.
Jackson: Mike Brown had got hit in the mouth, his mouth was bleeding. Once we realized coach got punched, too, we were like, “We’re in this together. Everybody calm down.”
O’Neal: I can’t imagine what [Rick] was going through. I can’t imagine the position he was in. I just remember me and Rick getting into a heated conversation. And I have a lot of respect for Rick. I love him. He’s one of my most favorite people in the world.
Jackson: After that, Rick was like, “Let’s get on the bus and get out of here.”
David Craig (athletic trainer, Pacers): I treated several people — the one who might have gotten hurt the worst was a guy named Dan Dyrek [Indiana’s physical therapy consultant]. Dan got hit in the face. I believe somebody threw something as he walked out.
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.
Mike Brown: I know my clothes were messed up, I can’t remember if I was cut under my eye. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was. As soon as I could, I called my wife because she was scared to death because she saw me go up in the stands. I needed to make sure she knew I was OK.
Smith: In [Detroit’s] players’ family lounge, Ben Wallace’s family and Rip Hamilton’s friends and a bunch of other people’s friends were there. Ben’s family were basically big, giant dudes. It was the weirdest thing walking by, watching that room full of people watch the replay of what had just gone on. You know how somebody is watching a boxing match and everybody makes noise when a dude swings and misses or swings and connects? The whole room in there just erupted watching the replay and watching Ben’s brother swing and miss on Fred Jones. It was the only time that night that I remember laughing.25
ESPN’s postgame show was heavily criticized for its largely pro-player reaction to the altercation. The reflections of Tim Legler, Stephen A. Smith, John Saunders, and Greg Anthony are captured well in Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, an oral history of the network authored by Jim Miller and Tom Shales. I did talk to Legler, who had the following to say: “You have a mixture of feelings and emotions that went through you. Greg and I are both former players. John Saunders is a guy that has a hockey background from playing and broadcasting and has a mentality a certain way and, of course, Stephen A. Smith is a very outspoken person and very opinionated. Greg and I were both looking at it from, ‘Man, what if we were in that position?’ and trying to put ourselves in the mind-set that Ron Artest probably had at the time. You try and process all this, and before you really have a chance to sit there and collectively gather what you want to say or even discuss amongst us how we wanted the conversation to be shaped, before we had a chance to do that, we were live on the air commenting on the situation that I think just about everybody who was watching at home or witnessed would have to say was one of the most memorable things they’ve ever witnessed in sports and one of the most shocking and disturbing things that any of us had ever seen.”
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.
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.”
The night wasn’t over for the Pacers. They still had to get out of the arena without anyone on the team being arrested by the late-arriving police.
Olko: I was on vacation in California. My phone started ringing off the hook. Both friends and family members were calling. “Turn on your TV. There’s something happening at the Palace.” So of course I turned on my TV and got back on the phone to call my deputy police chief — he was speeding and said, “I’m not at the Palace yet. I’m almost there. I’ll call in a couple of minutes.” Because the Palace is such a safe venue, we only [had] a handful of officers there.
O’Neal: They come in [to Indiana’s locker room] and try to arrest us, the players. And all the stuff the people are out there doing, I didn’t see anyone being handcuffed and taken out of there. That was a whole other conversation and argument and craziness.
“I actually think [Stern] took it light on us, because he could have easily kicked us out the league. This is my opinion. Taking $3 million was harsh, but I’d rather give that $3 million up and still have my job than keep the $3 million and be kicked out the league.” —Stephen Jackson
Mike Brown: This fellow says, “You guys got to stay in here. The police are going to arrest two players and a coach.” They were talking about me because the guy said I was punching him from behind in the stands. I was going from almost getting my behind kicked by 20,000 people to getting arrested. It’s like, “Wow. This is not happening.”
O’Neal: We said, “No, we’re not going nowhere. We’re going back to Indiana. We’re not coming with you. Talk to my lawyer.” That’s how we had to talk to them. I was one of the very first people they came after. I’m like, “What is this? What are y’all talking about? No, I’m not going with you.” I don’t understand. There’s people out there throwing damn near sledgehammers at us from God knows where hitting us in the face and body and everything. There’s blood on us. We’re bleeding.
Gray: They were trying to arrest Artest. Kevin O’Neill really did an unbelievable job that night. He dealt with the police and they rushed [Artest] out on the bus.
Kevin O’Neill (assistant coach, Pacers): I did do that. It was nothing. They were wondering where Ronnie was. Ronnie was already on the bus, headed out, and that’s all it was.
Gray: The police went out to the bus and tried to get him off, and they were told he wasn’t coming off.
Olko: Our major focus was getting the guy that threw the chair. That was the only felony case. We played the video and got it up on the Internet. To our surprise, we had somebody call and tip us off as to who he was, and we arrested him and he pled guilty. There was not a lot of consideration to keeping Artest.
Mike Brown: Somebody from the police department says, “Look, we’re going to get you guys out of here as soon as we can. We want some of these [fans] to leave, so we need you guys to sit tight. We’re not going to arrest anybody right now because it’s just not a safe enough environment for that to happen. We’ll review the video and get back to everybody at a later date.”
Jackson: The best, crazy part of the night was when we got on the bus. We were so riled up. We felt like not only did we win the game, but we won the fight. We felt like we just stole Detroit’s heart at the time. Until we got home and we saw those fines and suspensions — [then] reality set in.
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.
Gray: I think [Artest] thought he was just defending himself and it was self-defense. He had said that Ben Wallace had called to apologize. Ben Wallace and [Pistons public-relations executive] Matt Dobek and the Pistons denied that. But [Artest] said it several times.26
Wallace has repeatedly and vehemently denied that claim by Artest.
Daniel Artest (Ron Artest’s brother): I talked to Ron like 10 minutes after everything happened. It was just like a regular conversation. He said, “They threw something at me, so I went into the stands and handled it.” The way we were talking, he didn’t think the league was going to come down hard on him. We thought he would probably miss some games, like five games at the most.
The league acted swiftly the next day, with David Stern releasing a statement that started, “The events at last night’s game were shocking, repulsive, and inexcusable — a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA. This demonstrates why our players must not enter the stands whatever the provocation or poisonous behavior of people attending the games. Our investigation is ongoing and I expect it to be completed by tomorrow evening.” Eventually, Stern suspended nine players without pay for a total of 146 games, costing them nearly $10 million in salaries (with Artest taking the biggest hit: $4.995 million). Counting the 13 playoff games he missed, Artest’s 86-game suspension remains the longest non-drug-related one in NBA history. But it was the league’s image that took the biggest hit. Big changes would come — swiftly — to the league’s alcohol policy and the policing of the barriers between players and fans. As Stern told the AP one year after the melee, his league learned the following lessons: “No. 1, players can’t go into the stands. They need to leave that to security and not get into vigilantism. No. 2, fans have to be held accountable because they can’t do anything they want just by virtue of buying a ticket. No. 3, we need to continue to review and update our procedures on security and crowd control.”
Smith: The next morning, we’re sitting at breakfast and trying to make sense of it. My foot was tapping on the floor when we were eating breakfast. It was crazy. You still had nerves the next morning even after it happened. I’ll never forget that.
Walsh: It was the next day [when he talked to Artest]. I think we had a game the next day after that. He said, “I didn’t hit anybody out there, not until I got back down on the court and these guys were coming at me.”27
Walsh missed the game the night before, explaining, “It was one of the few times that I wasn’t watching or listening to the game. I was up in New York — one of my nieces was getting married — and got a phone call from Rick Carlisle. I knew the game was probably over at that point and said, ‘Rick, how did we do?’ He said, ‘Well, we won by 15 points, but … ‘ and then he said something happened on the court and then all of a sudden, Ronnie and a couple of players went up in the stands. When I heard that, I said, ‘Oh, shit.’ And I left for my hotel room and watched the replay. The more I watched, I thought this was going to be bad.”
Boyle: Nobody had any idea how serious the consequences were going to be.
Montieth: [Pacers team president] Larry Bird said he was guessing Artest would be given 10 games given the stuff he had witnessed throughout his career. Then, they got word from the league office that Stern was really going to come down and it would be serious. Then Bird thought, I guess it’s going to be about 30 games. But he never thought that it would be the entire season.
Larry Bird: There were a lot of bad mistakes made that night, and Ronnie and the Indiana Pacers took the brunt of [the punishment].28
Bird made these comments to Sports Illustrated in October 2005.
Stern: In this instance, the barrier that separates the fans from the court had been breached. The incident at the Palace was about both the accessibility of our players to fans and unacceptable player behavior. We needed to reinforce that there are boundaries in our games and reassert the expectation of appropriate conduct for fans attending as well as for players in exhibiting self-control and professionalism. The significant player suspensions and permanent exclusion of those fans involved from future Pistons games were necessary responses as part of larger efforts to guarantee the well-being of our fans and players in all of our arenas.
Billy Hunter (executive director, National Basketball Players Association): I thought what they were imposing was quite extreme. I’m not at all justifying or condoning the fact that the brawl occurred and Ron and Stephen found their way in the stands. That can’t be tolerated. That’s not good for the game. But I was concerned as to how harsh the sanctions were.
Jackson: I actually think [Stern] took it light on us, because he could have easily kicked us out the league. This is my opinion. Taking $3 million was harsh, but I’d rather give that $3 million up and still have my job than keep the $3 million and be kicked out the league.
Hunter: We went to arbitration [and successfully got O’Neal’s suspension reduced from 25 games to 15]. The evidence became quite clear that his involvement pretty much ended on the court and it was not as egregious as Steve and Ron’s foray into the stands.
O’Neal: I never even told my daughter what happened — she found out at school. One day she came home and figured it out and said, “Dad, are you suspended for fighting?” That was hard for me. It was hard for me to have that conversation with my daughter. It was hard for me to go to the Boys & Girls Club, which I was very close with in Indianapolis, St. Vincent’s Hospital, talking to the people at St. Vincent Hospital. It’s hard for me as a leader of a community. To have these conversations and see the effect that not just the fight itself had on our team, but the perception that it had on the community. A lot of people don’t even know that I won all of my court cases.29 I got reinstated. Every case — civil, criminal, and suspension from the league — I won all of those.
O’Neal, like all the players faced with criminal charges, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation and community service. In no-contest pleas, the defendant does not admit to or dispute a charge, and usually receives some form of punishment.
Daniel Artest: [Ron] wasn’t even really bothered about [missing the season]. He just got in a gym and started working out. I was with him the whole time. It was me, Ron, James Jones, this other [Pacer] named John Edwards. Every day. Whatever frustration Ron had, he didn’t show it at all.30
Jones remembers, “We played at multiple places. Ron had a basketball court at his home, so wherever we could play and wherever we could get some extra work in, we did. I found myself just learning how to be an NBA player, because if you can play against Ron and you can be successful against him, then you’re in good company.”
Artest: I still don’t believe I should have lost that much money. I would still like to have a million or something back. I ain’t the one who started it and I lost almost $7 million in investments and a couple of commercials and I didn’t even start it.31
Artest talked to reporters on the five-year anniversary of the melee.
On December 8, Oakland County prosecutors charged five Indiana players (O’Neal, Artest, Jackson, David Harrison, and Anthony Johnson) and five fans (John Green,32 William Paulson, Bryant Jackson, John Ackerman, and David Wallace) with assault and battery. Months of legal haggling followed. The players eventually pleaded no contest; only Green ended up serving jail time (30 days); everyone else received fines, probation, and community service sentences. All five fans were banned from attending Pistons games. Said prosecutor David Gorcyca, “I handled Nathaniel Abraham, supposedly the youngest murder defendant in history. I handled Jack Kevorkian. Yet this case, when it’s all said and done, this garnered more media attention worldwide than all of those others combined.”
Here’s how they caught Green, according to Gorcyca: “John had a criminal history prior to all of this, and eventually he was banned from the Palace — and I think he was previously banned from either Comerica Park or Ford Field, too. Prior to the incident, John was living with his girlfriend right next door [to me]. I think he lived there for a couple of years. It was several years prior to the incident at the Palace. The tape kept playing and playing and playing, and there wasn’t a clear shot of his face until I saw another video at work. I think it might have been in an internal Palace video where his hat fell off. We were trying to locate the guy because we didn’t know who it was started the whole incident by throwing what we perceived to be beer. And his hat came off in one internal security video and I said, ‘Oh my God, I know that guy. That’s John Green. He’s my old neighbor.’ So I kind of ID’d the perpetrator, if you will, as sitting prosecutor, and then we sent the detectives out to go interview him, and the rest is history.”
Olko: I got asked questions like how many investigators I had on it. Well, one. We were dealing with other things going on in the community. Where should I invest my resources? On the millionaires with misdemeanor cases?
McCosky: 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.
O’Neal: [Everyone] decided to talk about the negative things. I honestly believe that’s why the dress code came into play. Because all of a sudden now the league is “out of control.” I watched the analysts, the so-called analysts, on national TV say the NBA is too hip-hoppish. And it really blew me away that supposed analysts would even first of all say that. Your choice of music doesn’t dictate who you are as a person. Right after the brawl, the dress code came into play.
Olko: One surprising thing that happened was how much flak we got from the public. People from Detroit were angry that we didn’t arrest the Pacers. Indianapolis people said we only prosecuted Pacer players because we were partial to the Detroit team — which is just goofy. Again, misdemeanor assaults.
Ham: 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.
Meanwhile, the Pacers were facing two separate issues: how to keep their team focused for a 2005 playoff run without Artest, and what to do with Artest going forward. Artest seemed weirdly at peace with what happened, much more concerned with staying in shape and working on his new hip-hop album. The Pacers and Pistons met again in the second round of the 2005 playoffs, with Detroit prevailing in six games and eventually losing to San Antonio in seven games in the Finals. The following preseason, Artest and Bird appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and made it seem like everything was hunky-dory. It wasn’t.
Montieth: People say the brawl is what caused the demise of the Pacers. I disagree; they put the team back together the following year except for Reggie Miller retiring. To me, what led to the downturn is Ron Artest making that trade demand [in December 2005].
O’Neal: Whatever else issues Ron particularly had — and he had some issues there — I don’t know what his reasoning was. He never came to me and told me. I’m sure Stephen did what he did to protect. I did what I did to protect. When you see someone want to be traded after that, you kind of have some feelings about that.
Walsh: 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.
Jackson: Yeah, I felt betrayed when Ron asked to be traded. I had lost $3 million. It kind of felt like, “OK, we put our careers and stuff on the line for you and you want to leave us?” We had a great team that year. We were actually the best team in the league. So it kind of hurt.
Walsh: I told [Ron], “We’ll sit down on Monday and talk about this.” That’s all I said to him. But then he got up on Sunday and [asked for a trade] again. So when I met with him on Monday, I said, “Look, I’m going to trade you,” and that’s what we ended up doing.
The Pacers placed Artest on the inactive list and then on January 25, 2006, traded him to Sacramento for Peja Stojakovic. Total number of games Artest played for Indiana after the brawl: 16.
O’Neal: You’re put in a position where you’re compromising your career. You’re compromising your livelihood and how your family lives, and then the sole reason all that happens suddenly doesn’t want to be there no more. Nobody knows about the back-and-forth. Getting put in a room and sitting in a room for hours. Getting rebooked to go to jail. And this is during the season. Our team is flying to Detroit for hearings and all kinds of stuff. We can’t even go to Toronto. We’ve got to get worker permits to go there. Nobody knows about all that stuff.
Jackson: At the end of the day, that was [Ron’s] decision. We’re still all blessed to be in the NBA and still have jobs. And one monkey don’t stop no show. That was our whole attitude. That we can get it done with him or we can get it done without him.
O’Neal: After the brawl, we had a lot of issues off the court, situations, and it just didn’t feel right no more. It didn’t feel right. It got to a point where you almost wanted a change. Donnie Walsh, I’m sure he felt the same way. That’s why he went to New York.
Rose: I’m a Detroit native. The black mark it left on Detroit was, from a national perspective, just the same old hyperbole that that’s typical Detroit. From a Pacer standpoint, we went from a team that played in the 2000 Finals — that the fans were able to embrace and the fans appreciated not only because we played good basketball, but we were also pretty responsible citizens — to a place where the fan base wasn’t as supportive. It really showed once the team went from being a top-tier team to a marginal team. They stopped showing up at all. And then there were so many incidents that happened off the floor with players, to the point where they had to start making changes.
O’Neal: In the end, it wasn’t about basketball no more. It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good playing the games. It just felt like a city that was divided. You had people here on this side that’s really behind us, and another side that really wasn’t.
The 2005-06 Pacers lost in the first round to New Jersey, then missed the playoffs for the next four years, gaining notoriety mostly for their legal problems — particularly those involving Jackson (who was arrested for an incident outside a strip club in October ’06) and teammate Shawne Williams (arrested for marijuana possession in 2007). The Pacers traded Jackson to Golden State in 2007, traded O’Neal to Toronto in 2008, and bought out Tinsley’s contract in 2009 after keeping him away from practices and games for months. They also made an avowed commitment to “character guys,” rebuilding through the draft with players like Danny Granger, Paul George, and Tyler Hansbrough. For the first time in years, Indiana fans were excited about the Pacers again. But it was a long six years — and the team’s attendance suffered dramatically.
Meanwhile, Rick Carlisle won a championship with the 2011 Mavericks, one year after Artest won a title with the Lakers and apologized to Pacers executives and his former teammates as one of his first acts after Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. As O’Neal would say later, “When your team is not together, you can never win. Those apologies came for a reason.” Even if Artest (now Metta World Peace) moved on, not everyone else can say the same.
Pollard: It’s like a dream, a bad dream, where the more I look at it in my mind, it’s like a flashback where it’s kind of hazy and a dream. You’re kind of going, “Wow. Did that really happen?”
O’Neal: As bad as it looked on TV, it was at least 20 times worse in person.
Mike Brown: Watching the tape does not do the incident justice. It was a very, very, very scary moment. It’s why when stuff gets a little chippy on the floor, if an official has to kick a guy out, I just kind of bite my tongue. If it happens, it happens. Hopefully they’re doing it in the best interest of the game.
O’Neal: I told my lawyers, I told the jury, and I told the judge — I said, “What would you do if you were put in that position? What would I do with my kids and my wife if I was hit in the head and killed by a flying chair that they were throwing? Who was going to tell that story? What would the story look like then?” I was put in a position as the leader of the team to protect by any means necessary when we’re talking about something that has nothing to do with basketball. That had nothing to do with basketball.
“I don’t know if I could ever apologize to the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana for that enough. I don’t know if there’s enough apologies in the world to give to that city. That city meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to me. It still means a lot to me.” —Jermaine O’Neal
Walsh: It was like watching a horror scene unfold and you couldn’t stop it. It broke our team up and then we never could get it back together again.
Gray: It’s just amazing how the snap of a finger can change the direction of an entire franchise’s fortune and reverberate for years.
Jackson: The person who I have more respect for since then is Ben. We make it a point to shake hands and speak before games now. I respect Ben. Ben was not wrong at all for what he did. Ron did something that only a moron would do. Something real selfish. Ben just protected himself, and for Ben’s part, he had a lot going on at the time. That was the wrong person to foul, let alone the biggest dude on the court.
Ben Wallace: It was an unfortunate event that hopefully everybody has learned from.
Anthony Johnson (guard, Pacers): It really tore apart a great team. A whole season, a talented team, just went down the drain.33
Johnson made these comments to ESPN.com’s Jemele Hill in 2009.
Jackson: We would have won a championship that year, man. We had the best team, best young team. We had a Hall of Famer in Reggie Miller. We had every piece to the puzzle, great coaches, great team, great owner, great general manager. And everything was working. So I think a lot of guys are still bitter, like, “Dang, that was my chance to win a championship and Ron was real selfish to do that.”
Mike Brown: That squashed all hopes and aspirations and dreams that I’ve had individually and I know our team had, once all those suspensions and all of that stuff got handed down.34
Brown now coaches the Lakers — in yet another strange twist from the melee, three people who were on the court that night now work with Brown, including Artest and coaches Chuck Person and Darvin Ham. Says Person, “It’s real ironic that we’re all back to do battle again. Not literally, but figuratively speaking. We may have talked about it once since we’ve been together. Outside of that, it’s in the past.”
O’Neal: I honestly believe that we had an opportunity to not only win one championship, but to win multiple championships with the way that team was built.35
Even Bird agreed, once telling the <i>Indianapolis Star</i>, “I felt like we gave up a championship-caliber team to have to rebuild this thing.”
Pollard: [The Pacers] are still trying to recover. There is nobody in the world that can convince me that it is anything other than the brawl that set the organization back by a lot.
Walsh: You could call me on New Year’s Eve and ask me about it, and it would bring me down 100 percent. It’s not a subject I love talking about.
Adam Silver (now the NBA’s deputy commissioner): The melee in Detroit had a profound and far-reaching impact on the NBA’s image — well beyond the particular teams and players involved that night. But for the Pacers, the negativity lingered. The incident seemingly broke the community’s deep bond with the team, and it took years to restore that connection.
O’Neal: I don’t know if I could ever apologize to the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana for that enough. I don’t know if there’s enough apologies in the world to give to that city. That city meant a lot to me. It still means a lot to me. For them to go through what they went through on a national scene and the embarrassment it brought to the city and my community and my organization, I apologize for. If there’s anything you can get across, please get that across. I don’t know if people understand that the people that were there from that regime, from the brawl, could not shake it. We couldn’t shake that whole thing. It seemed like the team was fractured.
Larry Brown: That team, Indiana, never recovered. I think it had a big effect on our guys. I really believe a lot of our guys were trying to end it and not let it get out of hand. Unfortunately, there were two teams involved, so it’s a stigma on everybody. Not only the two teams, but the league in general. It was just terrible to be a part of that.
O’Neal: I felt like if I didn’t leave — and it was one of the most difficult decisions that I had to make — then that organization would never be free of it. I’ve lived in that environment [in Indiana] where you can walk into a restaurant and there’s so much love there that you get ready to pay your bill and your bill is paid already. Or anywhere you go, there’s just so much love. I’ve seen that part. Those people, it’s one of those hardworking small towns where people go to work every day and then they come home and turn their TVs on and watch those games because those games are a part of their lives. And they kind of live through that with all the tough times that they are going through. Indiana is one of the hardest-hit unemployment states in America. So, these people are going through a lot, and having to deal with that type of stuff is hard. It was a very unhappy situation, I could tell, for everybody — we needed to start over. I didn’t want to [leave] because I always wanted to finish my career there. That’s why I’m extremely proud of what they’re doing this year, because now the fans have something to be happy about again.
- Ron Artest: Suspended for 73 regular-season games and 13 postseason games. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.
- Stephen Jackson: Suspended for 30 games and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.
- Jermaine O’Neal: Suspended for 25 games, a penalty reduced through arbitration to 15 games, and charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault and battery.
- Anthony Johnson: Suspended five games and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.
- David Harrison: Charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.36
- Ben Wallace: Suspended six games.
- Chauncey Billups: Suspended one game.
- Reggie Miller: Suspended one game.
- Elden Campbell: Suspended one game.
- Derrick Coleman: Suspended one game.
- John Green: Convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery and sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years’ probation.
- Charlie Haddad: Filed a civil suit against Anthony Johnson, O’Neal, and the Pacers. O’Neal was ordered to pay $1,686.50 in restitution to Haddad, who pleaded no contest to violating a local ordinance against entering a performance space and received a sentence of two years’ probation, 100 hours of community service, and 10 straight weekends in a county work program.
- David Wallace: Sentenced to a year of probation and community service.
- Bryant Jackson: Pleaded no contest to one count of felony assault and one count of misdemeanor assault and battery. He was sentenced to probation for two years and ordered to pay $6,000 in restitution.
All the charged players pleaded no contest and were sentenced to one year of probation and community service and a $250 fine.
Nearly everyone who was involved in or a witness to the brawl has changed jobs, and Ron Artest, of course, changed his name to Metta World Peace. Here are the current new jobs of those who have moved on and were interviewed for this story or heavily involved: Artest (Los Angeles Lakers), Mike Brown (head coach, Lakers), Chuck Person (assistant coach, Lakers), Stephen Jackson (Milwaukee Bucks), Jermaine O’Neal (Boston Celtics), James Jones (Miami Heat), Jamaal Tinsley (Utah Jazz), Darvin Ham (assistant coach, Lakers), Larry Brown (retired for now), Tim Donaghy (disgraced referee), Scot Pollard (retired), Jonathan Bender (retired), Rasheed Wallace (retired), Donnie Walsh (consultant, New York Knicks), John Hammond (general manager, Bucks), Lindsey Hunter (scout, Phoenix Suns), Kevin O’Neill (men’s basketball coach, USC), David G. Gorcyca (attorney, criminal defense, civil litigation), Sekou Smith (NBA.com), Tom Wilson (Ilitch Holdings Inc.).
The following declined multiple interview requests for this article: former Pacer players Metta World Peace, Reggie Miller, Jamaal Tinsley, Austin Croshere, and Anthony Johnson; former ESPN analyst Bill Walton; and Chad Forcier. An interview request for Rasheed Wallace, made through his agent, was not answered. Richard Hamilton (now a Chicago Bull), through a team spokesman, declined to be interviewed. The NBA refused interview requests for Ron Garretson and Tommy Nunez Jr., the two other officials who worked the game and are still employed by the league.