Hard questions from a new documentary about the 2004 incident in Auburn Hills
BY HENRY ABBOTT
I’ve had so many chances, over the last few years, to feel my ignorance about America. So much of American history has been white people systematically terrorizing Black people. What privilege to be surprised.
I’m not surprised anymore—especially not after January 6. Now when I see an angry white mob, or a police SUV lurching into Black Lives Matters protestors, I see one more chapter in an old book; slavery, the Tulsa massacre and many others like it, and Trump’s flag-waving nut jobs who are all over American roads right now.
America has so many questions to answer. One of them: Can America make Black people feel safe?
Keep that question in mind as you watch director Floyd Russ’s impeccable new hour-long documentary on 2004’s Malice at the Palace. The first episode in a series called UNTOLD, it debuts August 10 on Netflix. Mostly it’s just the facts. Footage, testimony, memories, anguish. How it fits in American history is mostly subterranean, like when the show’s unofficial star, Jermaine O’Neal notes in passing that grew up in South Carolina, where the confederate flag flew over the state house his whole childhood.
It’s a show about an event in a basketball arena, fixing a steely eye on the giant brawl. The start of the event is routine. They don’t make documentaries about fans getting mad and players shoving each other. Many people know how to keep these kinds of situations from getting out of hand. Often, at an NBA game, those people are referees. Good refereeing would have done a lot to keep everyone safe. How many times have we seen referees quickly getting everyone back to their benches?
Know who was the NBA’s guy on the scene that day? The deeply disturbed clown prince of officiating, Tim freaking Donaghy, who has his own police record from losing his temper. Strike one. (Was he betting on that game? If so, strike two.) After the initial hard foul and shove, everyone didn’t make it back to their benches. Order was not restored. The NBA wasn’t making the Pacers feel safe.
Ron Artest says he laid down on the scorer’s table—the weird move that touched it all off—in part because he wanted to take a break, to count to five, as his therapist suggested. But also in part because of the trust he had not in arena security or the officials, but his teammates. What a gift! The Pistons’ Ben Wallace was mad as hell, but Artest tells the film makers “my team was all around me. I felt like a big dog.” He loved knowing Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson would protect him from Wallace.
He was right. Wallace chucked his wristband and headband at the reclining Artest. Wallace is close to many of the Pacers. He had just lost his brother. Nobody felt too threatened by Ben Wallace’s wristband.
But the idea of throwing things at the prone Artest caught on. Creep fan John Green threw his drink from several rows back. (Here’s how I know he’s a creep. Artest sprinted into the stands to beat up whoever had done that, and got it wrong, and ran right past Green to take on an innocent bystander. Did Green feel a little bad for the other guy? “Just relief,” Green said. The interviewer gave him a chance to clarify. He declined. He was glad that Artest, who he had riled up, was taking it out on the other guy. Then Green joined the fight.) The prosecutor later said Green instigated the whole thing.
Remember when James Dolan felt threatened by Charles Oakley’s comments? Madison Square Garden mustered up more than a dozen security guards to drag the power forward away, the police quickly joined in to charge him with something.
Remember when Masai Ujiri, who runs the Raptors and displayed a credential, tried to join the Raptors title celebration on the court, and was roughed up by a sheriff’s deputy?
By the time Artest was storming into the stands to confront—every Pistons fan? A mob?—the security on the scene was pretty much assistant coach Mike Brown.
“I didn’t see any security,” remembers reporter Jim Gray in the documentary. He worked the game for ESPN and noted a total lack of police or security. “There was no one to really stop this.”
Some police were deep in the bowels of the arena doing … other stuff? We see them rushing to the court too late. We learn some of the security guards on duty swung by a supervisor’s office in the bowels of the arena and joked about faking an injury so they could get some payout. (Similar to the story of the sheriff’s deputy in the Ujiri incident.) It’s hard to find evidence of anyone official doing anything useful. The arena exploded in a brawl. You can hear from the audio of an actual 911 call from a woman in the arena. She begged the police to come. The dispatcher said they’re already there, but … we’re looking at the arena.
When Artest finally withdrew and made his way back to the court, there was still a total lack of officials to calm anything down. Through the years we have heard a lot about the brilliance of NBA Security, the league’s relationships with police departments and law enforcement. All of that was finally needed, and …
Artest retreated to the safety of the court, where fans aren’t allowed, only to be greeted by a Pistons fan—who was due to have his season ticket revoked before this incident—with a balled fist. Artest and O’Neal both hit that guy. A judge later ruled it self defense.
Who was supposed to keep the Pacers safe from this mob? When police finally arrive, they do the opposite. The first thing one of them does is get out his pepper spray, and run right over to a Black person: O’Neal. Reggie Miller, who didn’t play in the game but was there in a suit, remembers saying, “What are you doing!! Go get all these people off the court!! Don’t be macing him!!”
O’Neal commands a ton of respect through the whole show. Later he notes that a federal judge reviewed all the footage and said, “I had the right to do what I did.”
The fans want to attack the Pacers. Someone throws a chair. A Pacer was almost maced. The Pacers feel the police and 30,000 people are after them, and they might have to fight for their lives. The Pacers need to get off the court.
Want to guess who got the Pacers to safety? William Wesley is not mentioned by name, but he was a goddamn hero that day, in frame after frame. It’s hard to find any white people keeping any Black people safe. All these police and security guards paid to keep the peace, and it’s Wesley—there as a Pistons season ticket holder—who protects O’Neal’s head as Pistons fans rain debris and drinks. Do they have an ESPY for keeping Black people safe?
The police finally arrive in the locker room … to arrest O’Neal.
Amazingly, he refuses. He tells the police he’s leaving with his team and they can take it up with his lawyers. And it works!
The criminal justice system seems to have done an OK job sorting through the leftovers. On camera, Green is singled out as the instigator. I wonder if any of those ineffective officials—referees, security guards, police—got in trouble.
Stern’s enterprise failed that day, but Stern had a lot of game when it comes to asserting dominance. In the days to follow, the media took a strange turn: commentator after commentator talked about … the players’ salaries. The word “thug” came up a lot. The idea built not that the police or security did anything wrong, but that there is a kind of person, who is a bad kind of person, who caused this. And that kind of person is a basketball player who must be taught a lesson.
Stern quadrupled down. The league instituted a dress code—in deference to racist media cries that the fight was started by hip hop culture and baggy pants. Stern suspended all the key Pacers for extraordinarily long times, including Artest for a whole season. This guaranteed Reggie Miller would retire without a title. Such a long suspension! Did he have second thoughts about it? “It was unanimous,” Stern bellowed. “1-0,” acting like he had control of everything.
When today’s NBA players to see this, will they feel glad what we have moved on, like the league, now, does a better job of keeping them safe? I remember fifteen years after Malice at the Palace, in early 2019, Russell Westbrook told reporters “there’s no protection for the players” after an incident with a fan in Utah, where Westbrook used the word “racist” in recounting a fan interaction he called routine. “There’s got to be some consequences for these type of people,” he says.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop! We will be off next week, and back Monday August 16, with BRING IT IN Monday and Friday.