Six years ago, the world was a different place. Barack Obama wasn’t president, Miley Cyrus was 11 years old and Dwight Howard didn’t look like a sentient robot created by the US Army in an attempt to construct a military weapon capable of singlehandedly ending the war on terrorism. Hurricane Katrina hadn’t ruined the gulf coast, BP hadn’t ruined those ruins and you wouldn’t have said no if Tiger Woods expressed an interest in dating your sister.
Now, for better or worse, much of that and everything else has changed, not the least of which most drastic has been the fall of the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers. In the grand scheme of things, the Malice at the Palace never did end up changing the world as I may have feared back in 2004, but it did have a major influence in the demise of what were once two great Eastern Conference powerhouses and played a small role in changes we see in the general landscape of professional sports even still.
On Nov. 19, 2004, Ron Artest fouled Ben Wallace hard in the final seconds of a lopsided Pacers victory. Wallace, whose Pistons had struggled early on in the 2004-05 season, took offense. He took offense to the foul, he took offense to the 15-point loss and he took offense to the fact that the shellacking came at the hands of the franchise’s greatest rival of the era.
What happened next was mass confusion and eventually chaos. An irate Wallace shoved Artest while teammates from both sides swarmed around for support. Tempers flared, officials were overpowered and, as an escape from it all, Ron Artest decided to take a nap.
Now, to criticize Artest for the actions that followed is one thing, but to vilify him outright is entirely different. Even back then, pre-brawl, pre-almost everything, Artest had been an obvious case of ill mental health. His coaches and teammates, all genuinely quite fond of him, noticed it. The media did too. Don’t even bother asking any of the inanimate objects unfortunate enough get in his way about it, Ron Artest had trouble managing his anger.
When Artest opted to recede from the heated exchange and take a personal time out on the scorers table instead of fight back, it wasn’t a diminutive way of rubbing salt in Ben Wallace’s wounds, though Wallace quite likely perceived it that way in his infuriated state. It was a text book case of someone with anger issues attempting to collect himself and regain control of his wayward emotions.
The unfortunate part is that many of the fans that night in the Palace of Auburn Hills misinterpreted it the way Ben Wallace did, whether or not alcohol was to blame for their temporary lapses in judgment, is another story.
It wasn’t long after Artest laid down on that scorers table when a beer cup from the crowd struck the frazzled small forward on the chest. Like a dog to the doorbell, Artest sprung up in response and charged into the crowd, leaving deep breath exercises, rationality and the Pacers’ shot of winning the 2005 title behind.
The actual “malice” started when Artest set out into the audience seeking the man who threw the first cup. Teammate Stephen Jackson was hot on his heels. It ended no less than 15 minutes later, after chairs had been thrown, dustpans yielded (thanks Jamaal Tinsley) and the damage radius of the 10th-row bout having poured back onto the court.
While Artest got the brunt of the criticism (not to mention garbage, beer cups and cheap shots), Jackson dished out just as much damage to anyone within striking distance. Players poured into the stands at first for restraint and eventually defense of their teammates, Rasheed Wallace – a Piston – got involved in trying to break up the hysteria and Detroit head coach Larry Brown took to the PA in an attempt to calm the increasingly frightened crowd.
It was madness, it was bedlam and it was was the last time the two juggernauts would play against each other while in the prime of their respective title runs.
Though Jackson, and later Jermaine O’Neal, each managed to land devastating blows on crazed sheep that opted to embrace the pandemonium and fight, it was and always will be Artest whose name is synonymous with the incident (even more so than Ben Wallace who one could argue precipitated the entire event). It will always be Artest who led the horrifying expedition into the depths of the 21st century athlete psyche; who exposed the barbarians that will forever give Detroit fans a bad name. Artest was the one with the history. Artest was the one who applied for a job at Circuit City in his rookie year for the camaraderie and employee discount. Artest was the crazy one.
In the six years since, none of the parties involved have remained the same. In some ways, Artest has changed, as have the career paths of Ben Wallace, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal.
The Detroit Pistons would at least appear to keep things together for the following few seasons while pieces of their once formidable dynasty chipped and fell apart. Surprisingly, when all was said and done, Ben Wallace was the first of the 2004 championship core to leave, pursuing an irrationally large contract in Chicago that Pistons general manager Joe Dumars had no intentions of matching.
The team would qualify for at least the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the next four seasons, falling farther and farther from their recent NBA title as each year passed. In 2005 it was a Game 7 loss in the Finals, a heart-wrenching defeat to Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade in the Conference Finals in 2006. In 2007 LeBron James used the Pistons as his personal welcome mat as he wiped off his shoes and officially entered the NBA’s elite. By the time 2008 rolled along, the Pistons had neither the fire power nor desire to contend with the eventual champion Boston Celtics.
In an act of desperation, a last-minute gamble that would either make or break the once proud franchise, Dumars dealt Chauncey Billups, the heart and soul of his club for the most disappointing All-Star the team would ever allow wear a jersey; Allen Iverson.
The fate of the Indiana Pacers was far more straight forward. Whereas the Pistons slowly fell apart as the passion and work ethic that once made them great slowly fizzled, the Pacers lost in a war of attrition. Saddled by longterm suspensions as a result of the brawl, the Pacers never got back on track in the 2004-05 season, just one year removed from 61 wins. In an ironic twist of fate, Indiana would fall to Detroit in the second round of the playoffs that spring.
The following year, after supporting Artest throughout the duration of his 73-game suspension, the Pacers were forced, at his behest, to trade their All-Star forward. The return on the forced investment left a lot to be desired (Peja Stojakovic to be exact), and the franchise would lose to the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the playoffs. They haven’t been back since.
Jermaine O’Neal remained with the club until the conclusion of the 2007-08 season, almost four years after the Nov. 19th incident. For his last two years with the Pacers and every year since, O’Neal failed to average either 20 points or 10 rebounds per game, things he had grown accustomed to as the face of the Pacers franchise. Nowadays O’Neal can be seen playing clean up duties for the Boston Celtics, after trying unsuccessfully to ply his trade in Toronto and Miami.
Stephen Jackson made it not much longer than Artest, dealt mid-season in 2006-07 to the Golden State Warriors in a package that returned Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy. After his supporting role with the Pacers behind O’Neal and Artest, Jackson would go on to thrive with the change of scenery, averaging over 20 points per game in every year since. After playing two full years with the Golden State Warriors, Jackson was sent to the Charlotte Bobcats where he remains a significant component of the team.
It seems fitting that after the Pistons’ wheels fell off, Ben Wallace would return. After a three-year stint split between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, the aged, humbler, Wallace rejoined the club that he had once abandoned. Now, fighting valiantly for the devastated Pistons, mere shadows of their former selves, Wallace is plugging along modestly in the twilight of his career.
As for Artest, he perhaps came out of the Malice at the Palace with the best situation of them all. After the January, 2006 deal that saw him shipped to Sacramento, Artest managed to get himself back on track. Following three seasons with the Kings (one in which he averaged a career high 20.5 points per game), Artest joined the Houston Rockets for a season, helping them emerge as surprising Western Conference contenders before joining the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2009.
In June, 2010 Artest won his first NBA championship, a testament to his progress both on and off the court. When interviewed by Doris Burke immediately following the victory, Artest thanked his friends, his family and, especially, his psychiatrist.
He accepted that his past wasn’t perfect and acknowledged the importance of relaxation with regards to maintaining focus. In a post-brawl world where an altercation between athletes and fans is made global in a matter of minutes, an ability to restrain oneself is essential; just ask Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien.
When Artest won that ring, the one he may have otherwise had back in 2005, it was a triumph, not just for him but for anybody with a vested interest in the progress of mental health. Over five years after that fateful day when he had admirably tried and failed to keep his emotions in check in front of 20,000 screaming Pistons fans, Ron Artest had officially taken control of his anger and won an NBA championship to prove it.
Ten seconds later he used his impromptu television time to plug the release of his latest rap single “Champion” on iTunes, proving that no matter how drastically things have changed over the course of the past six years, in some ways they’ll always be the same.