It was November 19, 2004, when the Detroit Pistons hosted the Indiana Pacers in a rematch of a heated playoff series that concluded less than six months prior. The game was way beyond reach, as the Pacers led 97-82 with 45.9 seconds to go; little did we know that the game would not make it to the final buzzer. Detroit’s Ben Wallace went in for a layup and was fouled hard by Indiana’s Ron Artest from behind. After being fouled, Wallace wheeled around and pushed Artest in the face. Both teams emptied their benches, and all hell broke loose.
“I felt like I was fighting for my life out there. I’m sorry the game had to end this way.”Indiana Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle, Postgame Interview, November 19 2004.
To those who can remember watching the brawl unfold on television, that is exactly how it seemed. It was an all-out rumble, and it no longer mattered who threw the first punch; it was a matter of protecting yourself and getting the hell out of there. After a horrific display by both players and fans, the chaos finally ended, and it was only a matter of time before the league penalized those it could.
The Pacers players took the brunt of the blame due to multiple altercations with the crowd, serving varying levels of heavy suspensions for their actions. Fair or not, Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest took most of the blame, alongside Stephen Jackson, a new member of the Pacers that season. The incident painted these players as thugs, and the tag stuck to the reputations of these former Pacers throughout the rest of their playing days, severely impacting their NBA careers.
Apparently, not everyone thought that the Pacers “Thugs” were the ones to blame, as Jermaine O’Neal tells Bomani Jones in an interview to promote the upcoming Netflix documentary about the incident, that a federal judge ruled in his favor and had him reinstated by the NBA. O’Neal speaks of the aftermath of the incident, wherein he took the NBA to court, fighting for his right to return to the basketball court.
“I actually took the NBA to court, and a federal judge ruled in my favor. He said that I had the right to do what I did, and made sure that I was reinstated.”Jermaine O’Neal, The Right Time with Bomani Jones
O’Neal claimed that he was acting in self-defense, which seemed unfathomable based on how the incident was reported in the news. However, after bringing multiple footage sources from the arena security cameras, Jermaine did not assault any of the fans that night. Instead, it was deemed by the federal judge that O’Neal’s actions were in defense of himself and others. Nearly two decades later, this is the first we hear of the other side to this story. For years the basketball world viewed these players as thugs that were “bad for the league” and “too hip-hop.”
“Since when did your choice of music become a reflection of who you are?”Jermaine O’Neal, The Right Time with Bomani Jones
Looking back, the Malice in the Palace could have been one of the most significant turning points in basketball culture. As the league began to look for a new face in the post-Jordan era, it struggled to create an image apart from the newfound attitude brought about by the stars of the early 2000s. These Pacers symbolized that, and the fans loved them. However, the league was not as keen on the idea of baggy clothes and hip-hop culture mixing with the league.
The incident gave them the perfect opportunity to bury that association to the ground. Today, we have stars like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, who are more than athletes, but are community leaders who have built their brand through their on-court and off-court endeavors. The Malice in the Palace is the exact reason why none get more attention from the players and media than Drake of all the rappers that come to the games. While these are all great results of an ugly incident almost twenty years ago, it’s unfortunate that we are only now going to get a chance to hear the characters involved explain their side of the story. The damage has been done, the benefits have been reaped. Now, its time to absolve these so-called thugs of their perceived sins.