Making Sense Of The Malice

Photo by Smaku via Flickr

If you haven’t taken the time to read Jonathan Abrams phenomenal oral history of the Malice at the Palace from earlier today at Grantland, you definitely need to take the time to go ahead and do so. Abrams talked directly with or pulled historical quotes from over 20 individuals connected to that fateful night in Auburn Hills when Ron Artest fouled Ben Wallace, Wallace shoved Artest in retaliation, a fan launched a cup of beer at Artest, Artest charged into the stands, and the NBA was changed forever. Reading through Abrams’ article, there were a number of interesting quotes that jumped off the screen that provided insight into the thinking of those involved and altered the future of the league.

“[Toward] the end of the game, I recall somebody on the team told Ron, “You can get one now.” I heard it. I think somebody was shooting a free throw. Somebody said to Ron, “You can get one now,” meaning you can lay a foul on somebody who he had beef with in the game.” – Stephen Jackson

The beginning of the end of Ron Artest’s season began with those five simple words. “You can get one now.” Who’s to say that if those words are never spoken that the melee doesn’t happen at all? The game was well in hand by the time that the foul occurred; Indiana led by 15 points with less than a minute to go. If Artest isn’t encouraged to exact revenge on Wallace whom he had an issue with all game, there is a realistic chance that it’s just another November regular season game rather than one of the most memorable games of all time.

 “Ronnie did try to get away from it because he had been told, “If you see yourself getting too excited, disengage and get yourself out of it and get your thoughts together.” That’s why he went down and laid down on the table. It was so he wouldn’t get all excited and do something wrong.” – Donnie Walsh

One of the more unfortunate parts about the entire night is that Artest actually tried to diffuse the situation by stepping away from it. Now, we can sit and debate all day about whether or not laying on the scorer’s table was the best way to accomplish this, but the fact remains that he removed himself from the central point of the confrontation and did as he was taught. If John Green, the guy who threw the beer on Artest, doesn’t have a better aim than 95% of the quarterbacks in NFL on that throw, the night’s entire events are altered.

“ Tommy Nunez Jr. was one of the three officials, a very small guy. He was in there frantically trying to separate guys. Ron Garretson looked like he was going to soil himself, and the third referee that no one ever remembers was Tim Donaghy.” – Mark Boyle

Tim Donaghy seems like one of those people who is bound to pop up in every critical moment in NBA history. The infamous Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Kings and Lakers? He was there, essentially rigging the game for Los Angeles to win. The Malice at the Palace? He was there. Central focus of the worst scandal to ever hit the NBA? Yup, he was it. Donaghy is essentially the real life version of the casually pepper spraying cop meme showing up at some of the NBA’s most pivotal moments. Are we sure that he wasn’t the one taking the picture of Wilt holding up the “100” sign after his 100 point game?

“We have zillions of security plans for the Palace, for all kinds of things. But none included a player going up in the stands. That just is not something anybody foresaw.” – Doreen E. Olko

“There were only three police officers in the arena to handle things. They did a great job with what they had.” – Jim Mynsberge

The most important thing that we all can do when mistakes, no matter how big, happen is to take steps to ensure that they do not happen again. It’s awful that it had to take an incident like this to raise awareness, but teams are infinitely more prepared today to handle, and ideally prevent, a repeat situation like this from ever occurring. As a direct result of the brawl, the NBA instituted numerous policies to reduce risk including limiting size of alcoholic beverages to 24 oz., setting a maximum number of alcoholic beverages a person can purchase at one time at two, banning the sales of alcohol at the conclusion of the third quarter, and ensuring that a minimum of three security guards were located between the players and fans.

“There was no control. This wasn’t a game anymore. This was about these fans. They don’t know the rules. They’re not going to listen to a referee pulling them apart. A whole street mentality takes over. The fans are not part of the family, the NBA family. Even though you’re fighting against these guys on the court, they’re still in the other team’s jerseys. You’re not trying to kill anybody. But the fans don’t know that, and you don’t know what they’re thinking. That changed the whole scenario.” – Scott Pollard

I’m as surprised as you are that the guy who once told kids to do drugs in the middle of a basketball game offered up the most insightful quote in the entire piece. For as much as we live and die for our teams, the average NBA player is closer to his fraternity of fellow players than he is to any fan. Whether it’s this incident, Dwyane Wade breaking Kobe Bryant’s nose resulting in a concussion, or any of the countless hard fouls handed out on any given night during the season, players in the NBA respect each other and will put aside their differences to join forces if the situation calls for it. Sports has a way of galvanizing players and fans alike in their own individual ways, and this situation was a perfect example of it playing out before our very eyes.

“After we calmed down, [Artest] looked at me like, ‘Jack, you think we going to get in trouble?’ Jamaal Tinsley fell out laughing. I said, ‘Are you serious, bro? Trouble? Ron, we’ll be lucky if we have a freaking job.’ That lets me know he wasn’t in his right mind, to ask that question.” – Stephen Jackson

If there was a quote to sum up Ron Artest and what goes on in his mind, this is it. I would pay an absurd amount of money to crawl around in Artest’s brain at that moment and just walk around. Analysts often talk about how the best athletes are able to compartmentalize different aspects of their lives. The best closers in baseball routinely get over blown saves far quicker than 99% of fans. Pure shooters can put poor shooting nights behind them and come out guns blazing the next game. Was Artest simply assuming that others would see his actions and think it was just another confrontation that happens all the time in the league? Had he already moved on to focusing on the next game rather than dwelling on what had occurred literally minutes prior? No one knows, but I would love to find out.

 “It’s hard to say, “I wouldn’t do this again,” or, “I wouldn’t do that,” because in a similar situation, you don’t know how you’ll react. It was a unique situation with so many things that happened so fast.”  – Ben Wallace

“ I told my lawyers, I told the jury, and I told the judge — I said, “What would you do if you were put in that position? What would I do with my kids and my wife if I was hit in the head and killed by a flying chair that they were throwing? Who was going to tell that story? What would the story look like then?” I was put in a position as the leader of the team to protect by any means necessary when we’re talking about something that has nothing to do with basketball. That had nothing to do with basketball.” – Jermaine O’Neal

O’Neal hit it on the head. When it was all said and done, this had nothing to do with basketball. In the most basic high school health classes, we are taught the nuances of the “fight-or-flight response” which exhibits itself during times of stress. In a highly competitive environment between professional athletes who have a long history of bad blood with one another, it takes just one spark to ignite a powder keg of emotion. There was absolutely no hope for a “flight” response at this point; there was going to be a fight, consequences be damned. While it’s easy to point the finger and ask “How could this happen?” I can’t fault guys like Wallace, O’Neal, or Jackson for implicitly suggesting or explicitly saying that they would have the same reactions today if the situation were to happen again. Overcoming basic instincts is hard enough in day to day life; it’s virtually impossible when your job takes place in front of 20,000 screaming fans and millions more watching at home. While I didn’t understand it at the time, I can certainly see where they were coming from. David Stern called the events of November 19, 2004, “inexcusable”; after reading Abrams’ work, couldn’t you at least argue that it was explainable?

Eric Maroun

Eric is a born and bred Cleveland sports fan who is convinced that if given the gift of immortality, he still would not see a Cavs title in his lifetime. He currently resides in Indianapolis where he gets to see the Pacers exist in basketball purgatory.