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Pacers Brawl: Malice in the Palace, an In-Depth Look

As a Pacers fan, the Pistons v Pacers brawl will always be remembered as a bad moment in the franchise’s history.  As a teenager, I remember going into school and watching the highlights of the game, seeing Jermaine O’Neal punching a fan. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the thought ran through my head, why did the Malice in the Palace happen?

How did the Pacers Brawl Happen? A foul on Ben Wallace by Ron Artest (later known as Meta World Peace) in the last few seconds of a convincing Pacers win sparked an on court fight which was eventually broken up. Whilst the officials were trying to resolve the incident, Artest laid down on the scorers table. A fan threw a drink at him and Artest entered the crowd to confront the fan. Chaos ensued.

We have taken an in depth look as to how the brawl happened by re-watching the brawl frame by frame.

Pacers and Pistons Rivalry

The Pacers and Pistons were division and conference rivals. In the 2003-04 season, the two teams met in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Pistons beating the Pacers 4-2 and going on to win the NBA Finals. The Pacers and Pistons were regarded as the best defensive teams in the NBA. Although the Pacers had quality all round, they couldn’t pull it together to beat the Pistons. In particular a flagrant foul was called on defensive specialist Ron Artest, that th Pacers belived was dubious and helped swing the deciding game away from them. This left a sour taste in the mouth of the Pacers . Therefore, a game between the two early the following season would always be a tightly contested and heated affair. The Pacers being up by fifteen against the Pistons would only of heated tensions in the game more as both teams would compete right to the final buzzer regardless of the score.

How did the brawl start?

The Pistons v Pacers was a regular season game on 19 November 2004. The Pacers had just hit a free throw and taken the score to 97 – 82 in their favour with 57.2 seconds of the fourth quarter left. A 15 point cushion was a comfortable win and the Pacers just needed to wind down the clock. When the free throw was made by the Pacers there was a sense of urgency to get the ball in by Ben Wallace, the ball went up the court and Wallace received the ball in the post. A nice step in the block and Wallace had curled round his man to the basket and went up for a one handed dunk. Artest seeing that his teammate was beaten tried to steal the ball whilst Wallace was on his way up to dunk the ball. Artest was late and would have known he couldn’t recover the play, he simply wanted to prevent Wallace scoring hte lay up at all costs. It would later emerge that Pacer, Jamaal Tinsley had early advised Artest that he could “get his foul now” when the game was sealed for the Pacers advice that is teammates to this day believe cost them a chance to win the NBA title. Wallace pulled off the dunk but landed off balance however, once Wallace had regained his balance he turned around and pushed Artest.

A referee got between the two players but Wallace kept coming at Artest. Players from both teams got between the two players to try and defuse the situation but pushing between the two players started a fracas between multiple Pacers and Pistons players. As the scuffle between Pacers and Pistons players continued, Artest removed himself from the situation. A seemingly sensible solution, however, Artest was not know to be sensible. Artest decided the best way to reduce tension was to lie on the officials table, as if he was on a sun lounger by the pool. Here is where the table officials are at fault for the situation escalating, they should of told him to get up off of the table. Reggie Miller, who was not playing due to injury, kept Artest on the table and shielded him from the Pistons players. However, by this point the pushing had come to an end it looked like the last 45 seconds of the game would be played out, once the referees had decided the infractions that players had made and portioned out appropriate in game punishments.

It was at this moment, Artest put one of the commentators headsets on, Reggie took the headset off of Artest as it was quite obvious that this was not appropriate. A Pistons player out of shot of the camera threw a towel at Artest, which continued to cause verbal exchanges between the Pacers and Pistons players. Everything seemed like it was dying down however, the event had been a slow burning fuse and the situation was about to be ignited.

How did the crowd get involved?

Pistons fans behind the Pistons bench had obviously seen Artest laying on the table and were becoming infuriated by this. Although the teams had been separated, the Pistons and Pacers players were clearly still agitated and these emotions were felt by the crowd. A Pistons Fan (later identified as John Green) grabbed their drink and took aim launching it at Artest. Scoring a direct hit. now if Artest had just taken the hit, he would have been seen as the passive party. However, he did not. Artest thought he had seen who had thrown the drink and stormed into the crowd and tried to punch the supporter.

The surrounding crowd members grabbed Artest to restrain him. However, Pacers players, including Stephen Jackson and Reggie Miller, had stormed into the crowd to get Artest back on court. From the Pacers perspective, Artest was being attacked by a section of the crowd. More Pacers players piled into the crowd to pull their team mate out, realising that there would be serious repercussions.

Artest made his way back to court, it was obvious his shirt had been pulled extensively. Slowly the players made their way back to court however, as Artest made his way back to his bench a drink was thrown again and two Pistons fans walked towards Artest on the court. How they got on the court, really speaks volumes about the security at this point. The Pistons fan came up to Artest exuberantly to shout some obscenities with his fists clenched. Artest punched the first Pistons fan and the Pistons fans tried fighting back. Artest is a supreme athelete, like all NBA basketball players and these Detroit fans looked more like Teletubbies then athletes. This was only going to end one way.

Artest team mates, in particular Jermain O’Neal, dived in to the fracas with a right hook on the supporter who was on his knees, as Artest was pulled away, luckily slipping before he fully connected wiht the punch and reducing it’s power. More fans were on the court, which was causing a significant issue, as Pacers players tried to keep their team mates out of trouble. By now police were on the court and were telling Reggie Miller to get Artest into the changing room, something which should have been done when Artest was lying on the officials table.

As Artest made his way to the changing room he was showered with drinks by Piston fans. Pistons fans had their hands in the air celebrating that they had poured their drinks over Artest. However, as the Pistons fans hung around the tunnel area, more Pacers players came towards the tunnel and there was a conflict between Stephen Jackson and the crowd (to the extent a fold up chair had been thrown at Jackson, striking two spectators). The players had made their way from the court to the changing room and now the crowd were left to disburse.

What were the repercussions for the Pacers Players?

The repercussions were felt instantly. David Stern, the NBA Commissioner at the time, immediately called the owners of the 29 teams in the NBA and informed them that the security of all arenas needed to be greatly improved. In less than twenty four hours the following punishments were decisively handed out to the players involved in the fighting.

Ron Artest was banned for the whole season without pay, which meant that he would not receive, $5 million salary for the games missed.

Stephen Jackson would be banned for 30 games of the season and would lose $1.7 million salary. Jermaine O’Neal was banned for 25 games, although this was reduced to 15 on appeal and he would not receive $4.1 million of salary. Ben Wallace of the Pistons was banned for six games and did not receive $400k of salary. Antony Johnson of the Pacers was banned for five games and did note receive $122,000 in wages. There were a number of players including Reggie Miller and Chauncey Billups who were suspended for one game and fined for leaving their bench and entering the court.

Stern was asked who decided to ban Artest for the whole season and whether it was a unanimous decision. The reporter thought that a committee may of handed down this ban but Stern retorted, saying ‘It was unanimous: 1-0‘ . Meaning it was his sole choice. The players union would later state that Stern had exceeded his authority.

The five Pacers players would go to court and received probation sentences, fines and were required to go on anger management courses.

What happened to the fans involved?

John Green who threw the cup of beer at Artest had to go to prison for 30 days, had a year on probation, was fined and banned from the Detroit Pistons stadium for life. There are four other fans, one being Ben Wallace’s brother who, received fines and probation sentences.  

How did the Malice in the Palace impact the Pacers?

Although the Pacers lost three starters for a significant amount of the season, they still managed to have a winning season. The Pacers finished third in their division and sixth in their conference. The Pacers did make the playoffs as the sixth seed in the conference and faced the Boston Celtics who were seeded third. The Pacers won the series 4-3.  In the semi final of the Eastern Conference, the Pacers came up against the Pistons again and lost the series 4-2.

Pacers players view of the Malice In the Palace, in hindsight

Stephen Jackson  was interviewed on the Rich Eisen Show and was asked about what happened at the Malice in the Palace. Jackson explained what happened as detailed above however, he talked about how he went into the changing room after the incident and he saw Artest calming down. Artest said to Jackson ‘ Do you think we’ll get into trouble’. Jackson couldn’t believe that Artest thought they wouldn’t get into trouble. Jackson expected to be banned by the NBA.

On the Rich Eisen show Artest reflects on how the brawl impacted his career. Artest said ‘It was an unfortunate situation, I was already defensive player of the year before that [year], all-star, I was averaging eighteen points a game, that season I was averaging 25 points a game and I was looking to get the MVP. I was on my way and I finished six in voting in the MVP the year before that. So I was definitely alive, this season coming up, the one of the brawl. Somebody decided to hit me, so I went and decided to hit them back but then I got in trouble for hitting someone who hit me first. Then all of America was basically saying you’re wrong for hitting someone who hit me first… It was weird to be blamed, First I took part in it but I didn’t initiate the Malice in the Palace. There was a guy called John Green from Detroit who threw a beer on my face, that doesn’t happen, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to have something thrown at them and not react.’

Reggie Miller on the Dan Patrick Show highlighted that the police were going to mace Artest that night even though Miller was walking Artest to the changing room. Imagine how the drama would have further escalated if a policeman had maced Artest. Miller goes on to say how he is surprised that there is not a 30 for 30 documentary on the Malice in the Palace.  Miller states that :

Ron is so remorseful, I understand that. At the time the Pacers didn’t know that was going to be my last year. I knew, I just waiting for the second half of the season to announce it. I didn’t want to announce at the beginning of the season that this was going to be my last year. That was our fourth or fifth game of the year and he has been so remorseful because that was my last year. He though that he ruined my last year, which he didn’t. But I don’t think he will ever talk about that (the Malice in the Palace).’