Malice at the Palace: how a new doc re-examines the epochal NBA brawl

For my money, the indelible image from the Malice in the Palace – the notorious 2004 on-court riot that pitted NBA players against spectators and changed the shape of basketball as we know it – wasn’t Ron Artest pouncing on that wide-eyed fan in the stands. Or Artest and his fellow Indiana Pacers making their off-court escape as the unruly crowd hailed down their half-consumed concessions from on high. Or even the hard foul Artest committed on the Detroit Pistons’ Ben Wallace at the end of this nationally televised Pacers blowout that kicked off the ugly affair.

No, my indelible image was Artest lying on the scorer’s table like a blasé sunbather just before a cup of beer lands on him, the Palace at Auburn Hills descends into madness and the NBA is decried as a league of thugs. But as it turns out Artest wasn’t trying to escalate the situation; he was searching for peace. How I couldn’t see that back then has a lot to do with why the Malice in the Palace came to be interpreted as the ignominious moment when the players snapped and assaulted the fans, and not the opposite.

The fresh perspective comes courtesy of a five-part Netflix docuseries that drops on Tuesday called Untold, which revisits some of the more complex sports sagas of yesteryear. The evening of 19 November 2004, a date that lives in sports infamy, was overdue for reexamination – and I say that as someone who should’ve been more skeptical. I covered that 2003-04 Pacers team as a junior “newsman” at the Associated Press and had moved on to Sports Illustrated’s engine room when the magazine put Malice at the Palace on cover, with that still of Artest about to choke out that wide-eyed spectator laid under the headline “SPORTSRAGE”. That effectively set the tone for the conversation around the riot, which had grizzled hoops observers harkening to those days in the early 1900s when the game was played inside cages and players and spectators scrapped on the regular.

With his league facing more scrutiny than ever, commissioner David Stern threw the book at the visitors. Artest was hit with an 86-game suspension, Stephen Jackson drew 30 games and Jermaine O’Neal drew 25 – which was reduced to 15 games on appeal. In addition to those nearly $12 million in lost wages and the potential for more fines for violating a Stern-imposed gag order, those Pacers had to reckon with varying levels of assault and battery charges. Five minutes into Untold, O’Neal basically says this is how people see him. And as someone who still remembers O’Neal as the Pacers measured and mature high school prodigy turned team statesman who was an automatic 20 and 10, this might’ve been the most heartbreaking moment in the episode. “I never had an opportunity to talk about it,” says O’Neal, who’s an executive producer on the episode. “Nor did I want to talk about it, to be completely honest.”

But the biggest thing that we learn as he, Artest and Wallace reconstruct that fateful night – well, besides the fact that one of the refs was none other than Tim Freakin Donaghy – is just how quickly the narrative formed around ESPN’s tunnel vision. On their cameras the players are the focus; that’s who they’re supposed to be following, after all. But directors Chapman and Maclain Way went deeper. They filed a Freedom of Information Act request and gained access to the security cameras inside the Palace. That raw footage, which many will likely be seeing for the first time, tells a much different story – one of lax security, liquored-up fans and Pacers players feeling as if they had no choice but to fight their way back to the locker room. And when the cavalry finally came, they couldn’t make heads or tails of the situation either. One cop nearly maced Reggie Miller.

As for Artest, he was perfectly cast as the instigator – a loose cannon who had been begging for time off all season to promote a rap album that Rolling Stone said, “does not suggest talent”. But underneath those bars and the bereavement time that turned into a random appearance at the Source Awards was a man crying out for help. In Untold, he explains that his lie-down on the scorer’s table was actually him trying to apply a coping mechanism from his therapist, who had encouraged him to pause and count to five before making any rash decisions. The first time Artest does this, he doesn’t seem to make it past three before Wallace starts flinging his armbands in his direction. The second time Artest lies down, the beer cup comes hurtling down. “We were conditioned to some of the crazy things that Ron did throughout the previous two years,” O’Neal says. “But what we weren’t conditioned to is the information and tools to help the brother. I’m sure all of us wish we had more information about Ron and the struggles that he had.”

In the years since the Malice at the Palace has become something of a joke, the stuff of novelty t-shirts and Disco Demolition-type fight lists. But the consequences of that fight were profound. To shake its thuggish reputation, the NBA instituted a dress code and barred rookies from entering straight out of high school. The countdown clock started on the Lunch Pail Pistons. (Interestingly, Rasheed Wallace and Larry Brown also gave interviews for Untold, but were cut for the 1h08 runtime.) The Palace was razed. Miller retired. The Pacers went from an ascendent Eastern Conference power to a non-factor. Hell, you could even argue that was the moment Indiana turned from hoops haven to Colts country.

This sense of loss comes through in another piece of rare footage that Untold unearths, of Artest (now Metta World Peace) being interviewed by a local sports crew in the aftermath of the Lakers’ 2010 championship. Here he was, at the top of the mountain, and all he could think about were the Pacers he left behind—not least O’Neal, who plummeted from the cusp of superstardom to a workaday journeyman. Since the riot, O’Neal – now a powerhouse businessman and mentor to top draft pick Cade Cunningham, Orlando Magic upstart RJ Hampton and thousands of others through his youth organization – says relations between him and Artest had been frosty.

It wasn’t until two years ago, after they had signed up for the Big3 summer league, that the old teammates wound up going to lunch to talk about everything. And even so, O’Neal found himself learning even more in the making of this Untold episode. “You have to understand, when we filmed this, we didn’t film it together,” O’Neal says. “The first time I saw his side of the story was the rough cut, OK? And it was just like, Wow, all this makes sense now.”

Untold doesn’t redeem Artest and the like or reframe the Malice at the Palace as an excusable blip in time. What the episode does do is show how easy it is to rush to judgement before all the facts have come in, and how hastily we move on without ever having the full picture.