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‘Malice at the Palace’ Lives On as Basketball’s Ugliest Brawl
AP Photo/Duane Burleson, File

Brawls in professional sports are always awesome for one party and one party only: the fans. When Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett swung a helmet at Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph in a 2019 prime time regular season NFL game, it was the fans in the stands, and at home watching comfortably from their couches, who came away feeling like they just witnessed history.

That notion extends beyond football. When Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez threw 72-year-old Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer to the ground in a 2003 ALCS brawl, the fans didn’t face injuries or suspensions. When Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and the Denver Nuggets exchanged punches with the New York Knicks in 2006, the fans walked away feeling they got their money’s worth while players lost millions of dollars due to suspensions.

It’s when the fans and players intermingle that a sporting contest turns from spectacle to debacle. An occurrence like this only comes around so often, like when the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians joined forces against fans following a 10-cent beer night promotion in Cleveland.

There may not be a greater disaster of a fan/player brawl, though, than the game 15 years ago now better known as “The Malice at the Palace” between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

The ramifications and fallout from that dark night would be felt around the league for years to come. Nearly $11 million in salaries were lost stemming from suspensions, NBA players and fans were slapped with criminal charges and the landscape of the league changed almost immediately. It was, by far, the worst fight, brawl and slugfest in NBA history.

How does a basketball game evolve into the worst melee in a sport’s entire history? Many things — bad blood, large egos, a hard foul and a diet soda — are to blame.

This is “The Malice at the Palace.”

What Caused Malice at the Palace?

To understand what transpired on Nov. 19, 2004, you must first understand some background with these teams.

These two Eastern Conference teams were rivals. Following the 2003 season, the Pistons fired head coach Rick Carlisle despite finishing 50-32 and getting swept in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New Jersey Nets. They hired legendary coach Larry Brown for the 2004 season.

The Indiana Pacers, meanwhile, lost in the first round of the 2003 playoffs and fired head coach Isiah Thomas. The man who replaced him? Rick Carlisle.

In ’04, Carlisle led the Pacers to an NBA-best 61 wins with an aging Reggie Miller, superstar center Jermaine O’Neal and a young, fiery Ron Artest, now formally known as Metta World Peace. They steamrolled the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat in the playoffs before Detroit bounced them from the postseason in six games. The Pistons went on to win the NBA Finals over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Call it jealousy.

Call it frustration.

Call it bad blood.

Those playoffs carried into the beginning of the 2004-05 season and into a regular season, primetime matchup between the two teams on ESPN.

With less than a minute to go, the Pacers were up big by a score of 97-82. Detroit center Ben Wallace, a large man to say the least, was fouled by Artest on a layup. A furious Wallace then shoved Artest and the benches emptied for what looked like your standard, run-of-the-mill basketball fight.

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A shove here, a shove there and that’s it.

Artest, known for his unpredictable nature, took himself out of the brouhaha and made his way over to the scorer’s table where broadcaster Mark Boyle was sitting. He grabbed a headset (it wasn’t live) and lied down on the table.

No one saw coming what would follow.

What Happened at Malice at the Palace?

It all started with a diet soda and a very daring Pistons fan.

While Artest lied there calm as can be, one fan tossed his drink cup at Artest. Metta World Peace was about to set off a Metta World War in Michigan.

ESPN announcer Mike Breen initially thought Artest was making his way to the Pistons bench. Sadly, he was mistaken.

Artest hopped into the stands, trampling Boyle and fracturing five of his vertebrae in the process, and put his hands on a different fan that had thrown the cup. He and his teammate, Stephen Jackson, were doused in liquid. That’s when Jackson retaliated and threw a punch at one of the fans Artest was tussling with.

Players and coaches from both teams helped get the two out of the stands, but it was pure mayhem. Pacers assistant coach Mike Brown was slugged. Ben Wallace’s brother, David Wallace, got in on the action as well.

When Artest finally got back on the court and things began to look like they were settling down, he was confronted by two Pistons fans. The first, Alvin Shackleford, took a huge right hook from Artest. The second, Charlie Haddad, went down with him.

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Anthony Johnson punched Haddad in the back of the head while he was down, and Jermaine O’Neal used a running start to throw a haymaker at Charlie Haddad’s jaw. Had O’Neal not slipped a little bit, he might’ve killed the unassuming fan.

“That one guy would have gotten killed if Jermaine O’Neal would have hit him,” ESPN sideline reporter Jim Gray told Grantland. “He was lucky he slipped.”

“I didn’t see it, but you could hear it,” Pacers’ Stephen Jackson said of the punch. “Out of all the noise in the arena, you still heard that punch.”

“For that one moment you’re thinking, My God. He’s going to kill this guy,” said Tom Wilson, CEO of the Detroit Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment.

Amid the chaos, Artest had to be restrained by NBA power broker William “World Wide” Wesley of all people. Breen on the broadcast said Artest “had a look in his eye that’s very scary right now.”

“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,” Breen said. “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.”

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With the arena no longer a safe environment, the referees — consisting of Tommy Nunez Jr., Ron Garretson and Tom Donaghy — ended the game with 45.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Pacers literally escaped victorious, 97-82.

As Pacers players were herded through the tunnel to the locker room, fans threw everything from beverages, popcorn, coins and even a full folding chair (that almost hit O’Neal). Pistons coach Larry Brown grabbed a microphone in the middle of the court to try to calm down the rowdy crowd, but he threw it on the ground to no avail. Police soon arrived to put the tomfoolery to bed. The little security they had there at the beginning wasn’t equipped to handle such an event, the first time something like that had happened at that arena.

As this all unfolded, NBA Commissioner David Stern had to pick up his jaw from the floor. He couldn’t believe what he had been watching on TV.

“I said, ‘Holy [mouths a swear word],'” Stern told Grantland. “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.'”

When the Pacers finally returned to their locker room after the end of the game, they were still riled up. Carlisle was trying to settle them down, but the main objective was to get on the bus, out of Auburn Hills and heading back to Indianapolis as quickly as possible. Police came looking for players and a coach they wanted to arrest but ultimately decided it wasn’t safe to do so at the time.

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Jackson in 2013 recalled the night to ESPN’s Dan Le Batard and told of a hilarious story regarding Artest once the team returned to the locker room.

“Well let me say this. All the racial slurs, all the things I’ve heard, all the things I’ve heard about my mom and my basketball game and my kids, and all this, it felt good to punch a fan one time,” Jackson told ESPN’s Dan Le Batard while laughing. “I’m not going to lie. I regret it, because I lost three million dollars and I almost lost my job. And I regret it, but when I initially went into the stands, I went in there to help Ron, if you look at the tape. I go up to a row above Ron, because I was trying to grab him. Well as I got up there to grab him, another fan threw another beer in his face. I felt like he got assaulted at the time, so if you’re up here, you should be breaking it up. But if you throw a beer, you deserve a lick too. He got it.”

“I don’t think [Artest] was thinking at the time,” Jackson said. “Me and Jamaal Tinsley every time I see him we laugh at this. Right after the brawl, we’re in the locker room. And this is why I said [Artest] never said ‘thanks.’ So we’re in the locker room, legs all scratched up from hopping over the bleachers, our adrenaline pumping, we laid a couple people out, like we did something, know what I mean? We all sit back, and Ron Artest aka Metta World Peace, leans back and looks at Jamaal Tinsley and asks us, ‘do you think we’re going to get in trouble?’ I said ‘Ron, in trouble?! We’re lucky if we still have a job!’ That was the funniest thing ever. Trouble? We’re lucky we have a job Ron.”

Who Was Involved at Malice at the Palace?

A better question to ask is who wasn’t involved in Malice at the Palace?

At the center of one of the ugliest altercations in sports history was Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Ben Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal. Members of the Pacers — Hall-of-Famer Reggie Miller, Anthony Johnson, Jamaal Tinsley, Scott Pollard, James Jones, David Harrison and assistant coach Mike Brown — and Pistons — Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Darvin Ham, Derrick Coleman, Lindsey Hunter, Chauncey Billups and Elden Campbell — were all caught up in it either trying to break up the fights or help their teammates.

Several fans were involved as well. John Green threw the cup at Artest. Charlie Haddad and Alvin Shackleford went on to the court before being punched by players. Bryant Jackson threw the chair at O’Neal. Two other fans, William Paulson and John Ackerman, were charged with assault and battery.

Who Threw the Cup?

John Green was the fan who threw the cup at Ron Artest that really started the palace brawl. Artest said when he went into the stands he never intended to throw any punches, but rather just grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. Artest, however, grabbed Green’s friend by mistake.

Green and World Peace have both since made up after the player reached out to the fan via Twitter. In a radio interview for ESPN in 2012, Green said that World Peace was a “good guy” and that they started talking and hit it off.

“He apologized and I did,” Green said. “It came from him and it takes a lot to do something like that.”

Suspensions and Legal Trouble

Overall, nine players were suspended for a total of 146 games, meaning $11 million in total lost salary. Artest was by far punished the hardest, sitting out the rest of the season (73 regular-season games and 13 playoff games) and losing nearly $5 million in unearned salary. His 86-game suspension is still the longest non-drug related suspension in basketball history.

Multiple players were charged with assault, and five fans were slapped with criminal charges and a lifetime ban from Pistons home games.

Here’s the full list of suspensions:

  • Ron Artest: 73 regular season games and 13 playoff games
  • Stephen Jackson: 30 games
  • Jermaine O’Neal: 25 games, reduced to 15 games
  • Anthony Johnson: 5 games
  • Ben Wallace: 6 games
  • Chauncey Billups: 1 game
  • Reggie Miller: 1 game
  • Elden Campbell: 1 game
  • Derrick Coleman: 1 game

And here are the charges:

  • Ron Artest: misdemeanor assault and battery
  • Stephen Jackson: misdemeanor assault and battery
  • Jermaine O’Neal: two counts of misdemeanor assault and battery
  • Anthony Johnson: misdemeanor assault and battery

As for the fans, John Green served 30 days in jail and two years’ probation for a misdemeanor assault and battery conviction. Haddad sued O’Neal and received two years’ probation and community service. David Wallace served a year of probation and community service. Bryant Jackson, charged with one count of felony assault and one count of misdemeanor assault and battery, was sentenced to two years’ probation and paid $6,000 in restitution, according to Grantland.

“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.” — Stephen Jackson, to Grantland.

What Happened After Malice at the Palace?

The Indiana Pacers, who may very well have ended up winning a title that year, never really recovered. They finished the season 44-38 and lost to the Pistons in the playoffs again. The Pistons went all the way to the NBA Finals but lost to the San Antonio Spurs. Detroit made the playoffs four straight years after that.

Many Indiana players felt like their shot at a championship had passed by them, especially after nearly advancing to the NBA Finals the previous year.

“We would have won a championship that year, man. We had the best team, best young team,” Jackson told Grantland. “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.”

When Artest returned from suspension in 2006, he demanded to be traded. That left a sour taste in the mouths of the many teammates who fought alongside him that dreadful night in Auburn Hills.

Artest played just 16 games as an Indiana Pacer after the brawl before the team traded him to Sacramento for Peja Stojakovic. The 2006 Pacers went 41-41 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New Jersey Nets. They wouldn’t sniff the postseason against until 2011.

Much of that dynamic Pacers team was disassembled following Artest’s departure. Jackson was traded to the Golden State Warriors in 2007. O’Neal was shipped off to the Toronto Raptors in 2008. The franchise suffered until the likes of Paul George and Danny Granger arrived, and fans lost interest during that period.

As for the NBA, it imposed new security guidelines in the 2005 season for all NBA arenas to ensure no more malice would take place at any other palace. Some teams even immediately increased security presence at games.

A few of the league’s guidelines included a size limit for alcohol purchases and a limit to two alcoholic beverages per purchase for any individual person. It also banned alcohol sales in the fourth quarter of games. In addition, the league ordered each team to place at least three security guards between players and fans.

The NBA is never going to get rid of brawls and fights. That’s just the nature of a game where tensions are always high. But you just hope for the love of humanity that nothing even close to “The Malice at the Palace” ever takes place in an NBA arena again.

READ MORE: These 9 Insane NBA Fines Would Take a Lifetime to Pay Off

Patrick has spent parts of the last four years covering University of Florida athletics and spent two seasons with Major League Baseball. He's a baseball junkie who spends his days defending Derek Jeter and the Miami Marlins. A recent Gator grad, Patrick currently resides in Gainesville, Florida.
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