11/19/2004 - The Malice at the Palace

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(Tommy Nunez Jr. tries to separate Ron and Ben. Photo by Allen Einstein, Getty Images)

On November 19, 2004, the United States witnessed one of the ugliest moments in the history of sports. A lopsided game between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons got interesting in a hurry as several players temporarily lost their minds. The ensuing mayhem was train-wreck theater at its finest -- it forced the NBA commissioner to dish out the harshest suspensions in league history while he simultaneously tried to repair the league's fractured image.

With 45.9 seconds remaining in the game, Indiana was leading 97-82. The Pacers had all of their starters on the floor, which was a no-no considering that the game had already been decided. Detroit's Ben Wallace went up for a layup and was needlessly fouled in midair by the Pacers' Ron Artest. Because Indiana had essentially won the game, Wallace took exception to the foul and angrily shoved Artest across the floor.

Artest backed up to the scorer's table while Wallace, who seemed compelled to attack him, had to be held off by his teammates. The referees quickly got between them and momentarily restored order. Stephen Jackson took the opportunity to needlessly posture to the Pistons players, which forced Detroit assistant Gar Heard to separate him from Mike James and Richard Hamilton.

Artest calmly rested on the table as a few players continued to bark at one another. Wallace took his overreaction to the next level by grabbing a team towel and hurling it at Artest, who initially got up from his seat but was held back by Reggie Miller. As Ron resumed his prone position on the table, season-ticket holder John Green, perhaps taking a cue from Big Ben, threw a blue cup of beer that hit the Pacers forward squarely in the face.

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Incensed, Artest made the biggest mistake of his professional career by leaping over the scorer's table. He hurdled over a few empty seats and made his way to a fan wearing a black shirt, who had his arm raised in the air as though he had thrown something. To everyone's amazement, Artest tackled the fan and sent him to the floor. Unknowingly, Artest had grabbed the wrong person; John Green was actually the man on the far left of the photo, wearing a blue jersey and white cap.

"He was on top of me, pummeling me," said Mike Ryan, who was identified as the victim of Artest's shove. "He asked me, 'Did you do it?' I said, 'No, man. No!'"

In an instant, the animosity between the Pistons and Pacers ended as several players followed Artest into the stands. Rasheed Wallace, Fred Jones, Reggie Miller, and Pistons' radio announcer Rick Mahorn joined the fray and attempted to separate the fans from Artest. Stephen Jackson, who followed Artest into the crowd, landed a roundhouse punch to a nearby fan who had thrown his beverage at him. John Green landed a few punches at Ron Artest before being tugged away by Pacers' assistant Mike Brown. The fans were suddenly at war with the Pacers' players, who were unsuccessful in pulling Artest back onto the court.

As the bedlam in the stands continued, Artest slowly hopped back onto the court and quickly confronted a fan holding a plastic bag. Artest delivered the first hit, while another fan who came to his assistance was sent to the floor. Artest backed away as team trainers and security stiffled the two fans on the court; a second later, Jermaine O'Neal entered the screen and hammered one of the fans with a sliding jab.

After another minute of mayhem, with Artest finally isolated in the center of the court, the decision was made to call the game with 45.9 seconds remaining. Pistons coach Larry Brown informed the fans that the game had been called and pleaded with them to restrain from further violence. Unfortunately, his public address went ignored by a bulk of the fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills, who took it upon themselves to throw their popcorn, soda, and beer at the Pacers as they exited the playing area. Artest left the floor with Reggie Miller and Chuck Person draped at his side, shielding him from the litany of drinks that were raining down on top of him.

In the end, the Pistons-Pacers brawl was five minutes that the NBA wanted back in the worst way. There had been a few player-fan incidents over the years: in 1995, Vernon Maxwell attacked a heckler who had insulted his child and received a 10-game suspension; a few years later, Dennis Rodman needlessly kicked a cameraman in the groin and received an 11-game reprieve. But there had never been anything like this; never before had an athlete assaulted a paying spectator on national television.

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(Stephen Jackson leaves the floor. Photo courtesy of AP)

The NBA was facing its largest media backlash in league history. Only a few years after the retirement of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant -- the best player in the sport -- had been indicted on sexual assault. The last thing the NBA needed was an enormous brawl that painted the league as group of thugs, yet that's exactly what it did.

Seeing the maelstrom in front of him, NBA commissioner David Stern came down hard on the offenders. Ron Artest was suspended for the remaining 73 games of the year, the longest suspension in league history. For their roles in the fracas, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal received 30 and 25-game suspensions. Ben Wallace, whose tantrum initiated the hostilities, got a six-game suspension, which many argued was too light in comparison. Pacers guard Anthony Johnson received five games for throwing a few haymakers of his own. Four others were suspended for leaving the bench during the brawl.

In the end, more than 140 games and whole lot of money ($10 million) were lost as a consequence of the melee.

In an effort to recuperate the league's image, Stern later initiated a dress code that forced players to wear professional clothing as they entered the arena. He also banned hip-hop related paraphernalia such as do-rags, chains, t-shirts, shorts, and hats, causing many to question if the move was racially motivated. Stern insisted it was for the best interest of the league.

Both Indiana and Detroit struggled after the brawl. Indiana was hampered with injuries, along with the suspensions, but still managed to slide into the postseason. Throughout the year, there was speculation that Stern would reduce Artest's suspension because he was still allowed to practice with the team. While that did not occur, O'Neal's suspension was later reduced to 15 games.

The two teams played several more times that year, and each meeting came with its own distinct storyline. The first post-brawl encounter between the Pacers and Pistons ironically came on Christmas day, which also featured the long-awaited first meeting between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. It was hardly the season of good will towards men that X-mas, though both games managed to avoid incident. Without Stephen Jackson or Ron Artest, the Pistons pulled away down the stretch and came away with a 98-93 road victory.

Their next rematch took place in Detroit, and once again the two teams made national headlines. Less than an hour before tip-off, a person called the stadium and claimed he had placed a bomb inside the Pacers' locker room. The start of the game was delayed an hour and twenty-five minutes as the Auburn Hills police determined the validity of the threat. In the end, the call was concluded to be a fraud, as several bomb-sniffing dogs had been brought in earlier in the day and had not detected anything.

With enhanced security in place, the game was allowed to begin. Jackson, who had served his 30-game suspension, was booed every time he touched the ball. Even with Artest suspended and O'Neal injured, the short-handed Pacers dominated the Pistons and won it, 94-81.

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(Artest shortly before leaving the floor. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

As hard as the NBA tried to forget about it, legal proceedings forced the the incident to resurface. Seven fans and five players were charged for their part in the brawl (charges on one of the fans was later dropped). Bryant Jackson (who hurled a folding chair at Jermaine O’Neal as he exited the court) was the only one charged with a felony. He was later sentenced to six months in jail for not paying $6,000 in restitution or attending anger management courses. David Wallace (who sucker-punched Pacers guard Fred Jones in the stands) turned out to be Ben Wallace’s brother and was also subjugated to probation. All seven fans were permanently banned from attending further Pistons home games. John Green received a month of jail time and two years of probation.

"It was the dumbest thing I've ever done," Green said of the cup-throw. "I would never do it again. I got home that night, and my wife was tapping her foot, asking what the hell happened. She said 'You're all over ESPN.' "

Several Pacers players made trips to the courtroom as well. Artest, O’Neal, Jackson, Johnson and backup center David Harrison were all given a year of probation. Harrison had punched a spectator as Indiana tried to exit the court, however it wasn’t shown on television and he managed to avoid suspension.

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(John Green, in blue, encounters Artest after he runs into the stands)

As if meeting in the regular season wasn't enough, the Pacers and Pistons also faced each other in the second round of the postseason. Despite the efforts of Reggie Miller, the Pacers' rollercoaster season came to an untimely end, while the Pistons advanced to their second consecutive NBA Finals. They lost to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games.

For all the fighting and animosity that went on, the story did manage to have somewhat of a happy resolution. In 2009, Ron Artest did an interview on KHTK-AM and stated that he and the beer-thrower had become friends:

"A long time ago, a year ago or something like that, I was looking for John Green, the guy who threw beer at me in Detroit," Artest said. "And, I was talking to Dave, and I’m like, ‘Yo, we need to find this guy and interview him,' and my team, my personal business management team, they got real nervous, like, ‘Don’t do it. It’s only gonna ’cause controversy…'

"So, after a couple years, I’m like, ‘People would love to see me talk with John Green after all these years…' It won’t be crazy, it’ll be historical, and it’ll be something for people to understand when you fight with one another, you can always become friends, you don’t have to hold a grudge for the remainder of your life… So, I found him, through my Twitter friends, I had a twit saying, 'I need to find John Green’s number. Anybody who can help me find John Green’s number, I can take you to lunch.’  So, one guy helped me find it… So, I called John Green’s house and I say, ‘Excuse me ma’am, can I speak to John’s please?’ She says, ‘Who’s this?’ I said, ‘Ron.’ ’Ron who?’ I said, ‘Ron Artest.’  She says, ‘No!  You can’t be serious…'

"Then, I spoke with John, and me and John spoke like we knew each other. I said, ‘Hey John, what’s up?' He said, ‘Hey Ron, how you doing?' It was like immediately we kinda vibed… So people are gonna have a chance to see, we’re actually gonna come on Dave’s show and do a live interview for the world to hear, the first time Ron and John speak. It was a great conversation, all we were talking about was ways to reach out to inner-city kids and even suburban kids…"

Further reading:

Remembering the Brawl [ESPN]

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