Malice at the Palace Revisited: the players did nothing wrong, the blame resides with the fans and media

The “Malice at the Palace,” the notorious 2004 on-court riot that pitted NBA players against spectators, is the single most league altering event in modern history. The league made immediate changes to dress code, behavior, and handed down the largest suspensions in league history.

But what if I told you this was all blown out of proportion? What if ESPN’s and the rest of the media’s one-sided coverage of the event as it unfolded and there after dictated the half true narrative, resulting in the court of public opinion crucifying the players invoiced? The media had on blinders and reported the narrative that would drive ratings and fuel a particular part of America.

Don’t want to take my word for it? How about an NBA Hall of Famer who was there in person?

Retired iconic Pacer turned NBA analyst Reggie Miller explains how the initial incident was a “dust-up” between teams, a common occurrence. “That happens all the time,” he says in the doc. “That’s all fake.” Miller explains Artest exacerbated the situation by laying down on the scorer’s table, which Artest says in the doc he did just to cool down for a moment, a tool he learned from his psychiatrist. It was at the point Artest was hit by a beer can thrown by a fan and then all hell broke loose as fans got into altercations with players, throwing objects, including a chair.

Prior to the new Netflix documentary on the Malice at the Palace, you likely remember the incident as a black and white, cut and dry situation. “The NBA players were thugs, uncontrolled individuals and borderline criminals who were a danger to your family.” I can’t blame you if that is the image you have of the situation, it is the only narrative the media, both sports and abroad, pushed.

The media’s reaction to the brawl and how the narrative changed overnight turning NBA players into pariahs and labeled simply “thugs,” thereby letting culpable fans off the hook, was the most damaging, unforgivable action from the entire situation.

Then Pacer Jermaine O’Neal was stunned by the reports and how the scope of the incident narrowed extensively.

“All of a sudden, my character is in question,” he says. “These are thugs. That’s literally the word that they used. And everyone signed off, ‘Yeah, it’s rap music and it’s this.’ Well, they are not saying that when hockey [players] are beating the hell out of each other for decades.”

Donnie Walsh, then Indiana Pacers president, said of the media coverage, “It wasn’t just the amount of people who were saying it, it was the stature of the people who were saying it.”

The player suspensions were widely reported. Coverage of the fans’ punishments, which included the man who threw the beer can that ignited that brawl, was to a lesser degree.

Dare I compare it to the storming of the capitol back in January? Maybe I’ll save that controversial take for a Facebook status to spark up the right wing proud boys who find their way to my statuses.

Either way in the court of law, the players were found not guilty.

So the fans were proven to be at fault, but the players reputation, careers and finances suffered? That is the power of bad media coverage, the overreaction of a league, and overall rushing to a decision that literally alters lives.

The Pacers won 61 games the year before and lost to the Pistons in the conference finals. They were so, so close to breaking through. O’Neal was an All-Star; Sandiford-Artest was the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

But the brawl blew the team apart.

Reggie Miller literally retired at the end of that season because this brawl tore apart his best chance at winning a championship.

Ron Artest’s mental is still in shambles over the event, holding on to guilt for winning a championship because it wasn’t with Jermaine O’Neal.

Stephen Jackson held onto that thug title for years. His DM’s still get flooded with those accusations.

O’Neal never fully recovered mentally either. He still holds a grudge somewhere in his heart for sacrificing his chance at a NBA title because his teammates lost their cool in a blowout win.

While the brawl ripped the Pacers’ team apart, many of the individuals wound up OK.

Artest went from the Kings to the Rockets, but his defense against Kobe Bryant while in Houston so impressed the Lakers that they signed him as a free agent in 2009. The following season, Sandiford-Artest was a key cog in the Lakers’ title run, hitting the game-securing 3-pointer in Game 7 of the Finals against Boston, capping a 20-point effort. Famously, Sandiford-Artest publicly thanked his therapist, Dr. Santhi Periasamy, from the podium following the game. He auctioned off his championship ring and Defensive Player of the Year ring for charities supporting mental health awareness and initiatives.

Indiana’s coach that night in Auburn Hills, Rick Carlisle, went on to coach the Dallas Mavericks to an upset Finals win in 2011 over LeBron James and the Miami Heat, and is now back with the Pacers for a second stint as head coach.

O’Neal says his two years with the Celtics were “probably my two toughest years in my career” because of the injuries, being in Boston helped save his daughter Asjia’s life.

“I didn’t know that God sent me there because, one, they had the best children’s hospital, heart hospital, in the world. And we ended up figuring out that she had a leaky valve in her heart.”-Jermaine O’Neal

So each individual did find some light at the end of the tunnel, but closure is one thing that is hard to secure. O’Neal and Artest are still searching for it, but the roads to finding it may be getting close.

“So, it’s been well-documented that me and Ron did not have a great relationship at all,” O’Neal says now. “I was uneducated about mental health. And when you talk about mental health back then, it’s like an ACL tear; it’s like the death of a career. When people say ‘crazy’ or ‘not mentally there,’ whatever it may be, that part is a stigma that’s hard to shake. But for me, when I look back at this thing … when we shot all of our scenes, we were never together. And so when I saw how Ron, or Metta, spoke about his challenges, that spoke volumes to me. Because now I feel like I could have been a better teammate, a better brother, if I was more educated about his struggles. …

“I never knew how he reacted off pressure. We’ve seen some of his reactions during pressure, but (I) didn’t necessarily know that was a real thing until I heard him in this doc. And I was really, really impressed and to a point where I was really emotional and sad about it. He was literally, probably, screaming for help for many years. It doesn’t help when you have a teammate — teammates — that are upset with you all the time, because you choose to take breaks, choose to do music, choose to not come to this or not come to that when we’re trying to win a championship.”

Hopefully this new Netflix documentary shines a light on all that was initially hidden during 2004. Maybe these players can get some type of closure. Maybe just maybe the world can let go of their hatred to these players and forgive them for doing absolutely nothing wrong. They simply defended themselves and one another, like any team should.

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