Five years on, perceptions, lessons of infamous Palace brawl changing
Pacers and Pistons had infamous brawl at Palace of Auburn Hills five years ago
While players and fans were first blamed for brawl, perceptions have shifted since
NBA made few small adjustments to security measures in wake of Palace brawl
It was often called a "perfect storm." But what an imperfect mess it left behind.
Five years ago Thursday, the Pacers, Pistons and some passionate partisans at the Palace of Auburn Hills collaborated on perhaps the most memorable evening in NBA history. As the Pacers' beat writer for The Indianapolis Star, I had the good fortune to be there. Don't look for a hint of sarcasm between the lines here, I'm serious. Journalists want to have a front-row seat for historical events, and this was one. It seemed like more than one, actually, kind of a package deal.
Surely all of America knows the story, but for many the details have become skewed. Ask 10 people who attended the game or watched it on television to break down what transpired, and you'll probably get 10 different versions. Ask 10 people who only watched the endless loop of television replays, and you'll likely hear near-fictional accounts.
The backdrop was that the two best teams in the Eastern Conference were meeting in an early-season rematch of the previous season's conference finals. It was about as big a November game as can be in the NBA, and ESPN was televising it nationally. The Pistons were the defending league champions, but were off to only a 4-3 start in part because coach Larry Brown (minor surgery) and center Ben Wallace (family funeral) had missed previous games.
The Pacers were without five injured players, most of whom would have played if available: Reggie Miller, Anthony Johnson, Jeff Foster, Jonathan Bender and Scot Pollard. Still, they carried a 6-2 record into the game, played a brilliant first half to take a 16-point lead, then hung on in the second. The outcome was already assured when Stephen Jackson hit two foul shots with just under a minute remaining to give the Pacers a 15-point lead and complete the scoring.
Then all hell broke loose. Over and over again.
On the Pistons' final possession, Wallace took a post feed on the left block and spun into the lane. Jackson wisely let him have the layup, but Ron Artest came from the weak side and gave Wallace a hard foul from behind with 45.9 seconds remaining. Wallace, who was knocked off stride but not to the floor, turned and put his hands on Artest's face and neck and sent him reeling with a hard shove.
Artest backpedaled all the way to the scorer's table as players and coaches from both teams tried to keep Wallace from attacking Artest. While Wallace continued shouting at Artest and trying to break through the pack of humanity that stood in his path, Artest sat on the padding on top of the barrier between the court and press row, and then lay down. He picked up a telephone receiver and pretended to talk to someone, then put on a radio headset. While he clowned, Wallace raged. Players and coaches from both teams tried to make peace, although Jackson and point guard Jamaal Tinsley were clearly agitated. Something thrown from Artest's right nearly hit him and got his attention briefly, and Wallace later threw a towel at him. Artest started to get up to go after Wallace, but was restrained and lay down again. Soon, and inevitably, a beer cup came flying from the stands, landed squarely on Artest's chest and splashed the contents in his face.
As Artest ran toward the fan he (incorrectly) thought had thrown the cup, the first thought to run through my mind was that this was going to be really bad for both Artest and for me. Him, for obvious reasons. Me, because it was going to mean a lot of extra and unpleasant work.
My next thought, as the rioting ensued, was something along the lines of "Holy spit." I never felt unsafe, but it was a stunning thing to behold, like watching brush fires in the forest break out faster than they could be put out.
Artest, contrary to common opinion, didn't hit the fan he thought had thrown the beer. He grabbed him, lost his balance and the two grabbed on to one another. After Artest's teammates ran into the stands, however, a bar-room brawl erupted. The man who threw the beer at Artest, a convicted felon named John Green, grabbed Artest from behind and began hitting him. Artest turned and threw a soft punch at Green, then walked back onto the court. There, another fan, wearing a white Pistons jersey, approached Artest with a menacing look. Artest threw a forearm to his chest, but it was blocked. Artest tried to throw another punch, but by then teammates and security officials tackled him. Another fan, also wearing a white Pistons jersey, tried to join the scrum, but Jermaine O'Neal came rushing in to throw a punch. O'Neal slipped on the beer-soaked court, which reduced the force and accuracy of his blow. Anthony Johnson also threw a punch at a fan who had walked freely onto the end of the court.
"And it gets worse and worse!" Pacers television announcer Al Albert shouted over the air to fans in Indiana.
Albert's color analyst, Quinn Buckner, followed with the question of the night: "Where is the security!?"
By then some police officers were starting to show up on the court, but security officials were still hard to find. Most, it seemed, were either in shock or in hiding.
"This may be the worst ever seen in an NBA game," Albert said as beverages rained onto the court and chaos reigned in the stands.
"They need to call this off and get these guys out of here," Buckner said.
"Hard to even find the officials," Albert said. "And this is an utter disaster."
Former Pacers forward Chuck Person came out of the stands to get Artest off the court. He put his right hand over Artest's face to protect him from the debris falling from the sky and walked him through the exit to the locker room. Reggie Miller covered Artest from the left side, grabbing him around the waist and hanging on.
As chaos continued throughout the Palace, Larry Brown grabbed the public-address microphone and shouted to the fans: "Please stop. Leave the players alone! Stop!" Realizing it was too late to restore order, he threw the microphone onto the scorer's table and shouted something to the public-address announcer, clearly livid that nobody but players and coaches seemed to be trying to control the situation.
Eventually, the announcement came that the game was over. A buzzer was sounded from the scorer's table -- a comical coda, because the referees, players and coaches had already abandoned the court by then. What seemed like an eternity actually had transpired fairly quickly. The whole thing, from Artest's foul to the announcement that the game was suspended and the Pacers had won, took 4½ minutes.
So many things could have prevented it from happening. What if Pacers coach Rick Carlisle had taken Artest and the other starters out of the game once the victory was secured? That's a small quibble in the grand scheme of things, because coaches often let starters finish out a game. Wallace, for one, was still playing. What if Artest hadn't been in position to foul Wallace, or simply hadn't done it? What if Wallace hadn't overreacted? What if the referees -- Ron Garretson, Tim Donaghy and Tommy Nunez Jr. -- had taken control of the situation rather than letting it fester? What if Artest hadn't lay down and practically invited fans to throw something at him? What if the fan who threw the beer had missed? What if security officials had done their jobs?
Perfect storm, indeed.
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