One thing the latest Malice at the Palace documentary definitely shed some light on is how the players felt when things started to unravel. It’s easy to think that 6’8” guys in top physical shape always feel invincible, but they don’t. As weird as it may sound, Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal, Stephen Jackson, and the rest of the Pacers felt scared – it was them against the entire arena.
The fact the police and arena security were nowhere to be found didn’t help. According to the police officers in the doc, there were only 3 cops on the court that night, not nearly enough to stop a massive brawl. Fans were storming the players in the stands, a few ran down to the court, and when the cops finally showed up, they were getting ready to mace the players. Reggie Miller was injured, in a suit, when he stopped a cop from macing Ron Artest. (The police officer later said he didn’t know who Reggie Miller was.)
So you can understand why the Pacers legitimately feared for their safety. I don’t care how athletic and strong you are; when people are coming at you from all sides, fight or flight kicks in really fast. Pacers assistant coach described the situation as “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.”
Once the Pacers players and staff were finally in the locker room, the fighting didn’t end. Jermaine O’Neal went after Artest – in the heat of the moment, he was the easy target to blame. (We now know the genius that threw the bottle was the ultimate culprit.) But, Artest wasn’t the only one on O’Neal’s list. He was so fired up that he had a problem with the coaches doing the sensible thing and trying to stop the fighting.
“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.“Stephen Jackson, Grantland
If you’re surprised Rick Carlisle got in O’Neal’s face in that situation, I’d like to remind you Carlisle spent some time on the 80s Celtics in an era where a brawl was a normal occurrence on the court. It was nowhere near what had just happened, but don’t let someone’s age fool you – guys from that era mean business. That being said, even Carlisle was running on adrenaline.
“I felt like I was fighting for my life out there.“Rick Carlisle, Grantland
No one was strong enough to stop all this – it was a perfect storm of systemic failures and stupidity. Well, one guy doesn’t agree with me. Carlisle’s predecessor thinks his presence would’ve changed things. Being one of the greatest Pistons of all time, Isiah Thomas made quite a bold statement.
“I was the coach that Carlisle replaced. Had I not got fired, I believe I’d won a championship with that team. I don’t believe there would’ve been a Malice at the Palace, because I don’t believe the Pistons fans would’ve acted that way with me coaching that team.” Isiah Thomas pic.twitter.com/EeiEYJXMg3— Alex Golden (@AlexGoldenNBA) August 16, 2021
I don’t think a probably drunk fan wouldn’t throw a bottle and start all this if Thomas had been on the sidelines coaching the Pacers. As far as winning the title is concerned, that Pacers team was considered the favorite to come out of the East, and the fact Shaq left the Lakers meant there was no superpower in the West. Hell, the team would’ve probably won the title with Carlisle as the head coach.
Thomas is a legend in Detroit, but no head coach could’ve prevented the brawl. I don’t think the guy who threw the bottle or those that followed up with haymakers respect the game or its legends. They were not there for the game – they were there for themselves.