Five years on, perceptions, lessons of infamous Palace brawl changing (cont.)
In the hours immediately following the game, Detroit's fans took most of the blame from newspaper columnists in other cities.
"Let's be very clear about this. The riot was caused by fans, drunken fans, riotous fans," William C. Rhoden wrote in The New York Times.
ESPN's commentators seemed to agree. At first.
"Everybody is to blame, the fans in particular," Greg Anthony said.
"If you're walking down the street in Times Square and someone throws a beer on you, it's assault and you have the right to defend yourself," John Saunders said.
"The punches that Artest and O'Neal threw at fans on the court should be exempt from suspension because all bets should be off when a fan comes onto the court and goes after a player," Tim Legler said. "When fans go after a player and threaten him physically, they deserve what they get."
Something changed after commissioner David Stern announced his suspensions two nights later, however. Artest was suspended for the remainder of the season, 73 games in all, as well as the playoffs. Jackson was suspended for 30 games. O'Neal was suspended for 25, although an arbitrator later sliced 10 games off that penalty. ESPN's commentators jumped on board, shifting their focus from the fans to the Pacers' players. Stern had to do this, they agreed.
Over time, public opinion shifted that direction as well, even in Indianapolis.
The fans there rallied behind the team for the remainder of the season, partly because the team's skeleton crew played valiantly until the suspended players returned, and partly because they were caught up in the emotion of Miller's 18th and final season.
Gradually, however, perceptions changed. Artest, for varied reasons, snubbed the franchise's loyalty to him and asked for a trade after playing just 16 games the following season. He eventually was traded to Sacramento. Jackson, who had no off-court incidents in the NBA to that point, was involved in a night-club incident during training camp two years after the brawl, firing a gun into the air to break up a fight that involved a few of his teammates. While the legal system determined he was more the victim than the instigator, he, too, was traded under the weight of public pressure. Tinsley, also incident-free until the brawl, was later involved in three club incidents, one that ended with downtown gunfire that injured the Pacers' equipment manager, Joe Qatato. Again, Tinsley's personal errors were either minimal or uncertain according to the legal system, but the Pacers sat him out last season to appease the angry fan base and bought him out of his contract over the summer.
As those unseemly incidents unfolded, many weary fans revised their opinions of the brawl, viewing it as further evidence of the players' poor character rather than unfair punishment. A parade of callers to local talk-radio programs labeled them "thugs."
The brawl was as much a story of the modern media culture as a sports story. Talk to basketball players of past eras and they'll proudly tell stories of their fights, some of which involved fans. Those episodes, however, were lightly reported by the newspapers, barely punished by the league and quickly forgotten by everyone. Not so in today's 24-hour news cycle.
Replays of Pacers' fighting in the stands ran endlessly on television and no doubt influenced opinion. That was one reason Stern reacted so swiftly and firmly -- to send a message to fans and sponsors alike that his league didn't tolerate lawlessness.
He also sent a message of inconsistency, however. In February 1995, for example, Houston's Vernon Maxwell rushed 12 rows into the stands and struck in the head a man who had heckled him. That seemed as bad an offense as the one Artest committed, with less provocation. Maxwell was suspended for 10 games and fined $20,000. Stern himself later admitted to second thoughts about his punishment of Artest and considered bringing him back for the playoffs, but decided against it.
The most tangible impact of the brawl, aside from the fact Artest lost more than $5 million in salary during his suspension, was that the Pacers lost a legitimate championship opportunity. The 2004-05 team was athletic, experienced, balanced and deep, and appeared capable of contending for years to come. O'Neal had finished third in the league MVP voting the previous season and Artest was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Miller, who came back to play 66 games and average 14.8 points after his injury, was still a strong locker-room influence and viable starter. Jackson, signed the previous summer, had started on San Antonio's championship team two years earlier and was to be Miller's successor as the starting shooting guard. Tinsley, who had outplayed Chauncey Billups the night of the brawl, was one of the league's best playmakers.
The Pacers' suffering was made worse by their feeling that the Pistons were let off easy. Wallace, whom many felt was at least as guilty as Artest, was suspended for just six games. The Pistons went on to eliminate the Pacers in the second round of the 2005 playoffs on their way to the Finals, but lost to San Antonio in seven games. Injuries and the turmoil from constant roster upheaval have kept the Pacers out of the playoffs since 2006.
Digging for the brawl's silver linings doesn't reap much reward. The NBA updated some security procedures, such as requiring arenas to place covers over the exits leading to the locker rooms so players can't be bombarded with trash as the Pacers were in Detroit. It also devised a Fan Code of Conduct, which consists of common-sense guidelines for behavior, and established restrictions on the sale of alcohol.
Mostly, it was just an ugly event. Damaging, confusing, unsettling and in some respects, unfair.
Five years later, the storm has passed. For some, the clean-up continues.
NBA Truth & Rumors