Windsor: NBA different a decade after Malice at Palace

Shawn Windsor
Detroit Free Press

Even now, a decade later, with all that time to exaggerate the memory, the tape is worse.

Much worse.

Go take a look at it. It's easy to find and stunning in how shocking it still feels to watch the melee unfold, the players unhinged, the social contract torn to shreds. Because that's what really happened that night at the Palace, isn't it? We obliterated our contract with one another.

At least for a few moments we did.

It felt like anarchy, and it was unnerving, from where I sat anyway, just off the court, mere feet from Ron Artest as he lay on the scorer's table. Even in a moment like that, when the Indiana Pacers forward's behavior began to morph from flaky to worrisome, the idea that he'd bolt into the stands and start throwing punches seemed impossible.

We didn't do sports like that. Or we hadn't.

When players fought, they kept it in the field of play. When fans fought, they kept it in the stands. Any crossover was verbal.

But, oh, that cup.

The pivot from game to notoriety began when Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace shoved Artest after a hard foul. Benches cleared, more shoving ensued, and Artest left the action to lie down on the courtside scorer's table.

It might have ended there until John Green, a local fan, hurled a cup of liquid at Artest. The small forward, now named Metta World Peace, leapt up and darted into the crowd ready to fight. From there: rioting. Other Pacers jumped into the stands and took swings. Fans ran onto the court. Coaches and refs and security and some players tried to stop the burst of violence.

It lasted a few minutes. The aftershock lasted much longer, destroying the Pacers' season, forcing the league to reconsider how it polices its venues. Above all, the NBA sought to repair the fan-player relationship.

So here we are, 10 years later, the anniversary of the ugliest scene in modern U.S. sports. Hard to believe it has been that long. Harder to believe how much has changed … and how much has not.

I happened to be there that night to work on a story, and because I love the NBA, and, back then, Pistons vs. Pacers games were the best theater in the sport.

Among the folks who lined the court that Nov. 19, 2004, evening, few had a better view than Pistons play-by-play announcer George Blaha. I caught up with him recently to talk about the worst night in franchise history and about how things have changed since.

"I like to think it's helped us in the NBA — and probably all the other (leagues) — to rewrite the code of conduct," Blaha said.

The most immediate change he saw was security. Behind the bench. Along the court's perimeter. In the aisles of the stands.

"Fans see that, and it helps," he said.

Of course, no security will keep a solitary instigator from tossing something toward athletes. Security might mean more order, but booze is the world's best supplier of foolish courage. So the league changed how it sold alcohol, limiting the amount fans could purchase at any one time and restricting sales in the fourth quarter.

Beyond the security and crackdown on liquor sales, however, the league wanted to reconnect with its audience … to humanize its players.

Of the four major professional leagues in our country, none provides as complicated a fan-player relationship as the NBA. First, there is the question of size. Football players may be wide, but NBA players are otherworldly.

Get in line at a grocery store and you're likely to spot a guy with a thick neck once in a while. But 6-10 power forwards?

"I don't think people realize just how big these players are," explained Blaha.

More than size, though, is the difficult issue of race. NBA crowds are largely white; players are mostly black. It isn't just a matter of color, however, it's a matter of shared history.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern often fretted about the image of his league because of this, and when he called for a dress code the year after the brawl, many players and observers balked, decrying racism.

On the surface, the code seemed intent on making the players look more like businessmen. Yet in the words of critics, the new rules were meant to make the players look more white.

The league has denied the brawl had anything to do with the dress code. But when Artest went into the stands after Green, for some fans, this added to the league's outlaw image.

This uneasy relationship remains today for some — no league gets dismissed more frequently because of plain, dumb racism. Did the dress code make a difference?

Who knows?

Here's betting LeBron James and his celebrity likely did much more. We like stars. Especially stars that pay attention to us.

From the earliest days after the brawl, Blaha remembers seeing more players talk to fans on video boards, discoursing about conduct, sharing details of their own lives.

"Teams engaged their players to do more with fans," Blaha said.

He sees this now in every arena, and has since that night a decade ago. Interestingly enough, while the league has rebuilt the emotional connection to fan and player, it has shrunk the physical distance between them.

When the brawl erupted few fans got the privilege of sitting next to the benches. Now there is a long row of expensive seats wedged between the scorer's table and the teams.

Over the past few seasons, most franchises moved the media from its traditional second-row perch into the corners of the league's lower bowls to free up more seats for paying customers. In essence, fans have never been closer, or freer to cause a ruckus.

The league is betting its outreach and security efforts the last decade redoubled the fan-player contract and thus, will prevent another melee from happening again. It's true, for me at least, that a packed, rollicking, NBA arena remains pro sports' most intimate setting. There is no glass partition as in hockey, no vast expanse of grass as in baseball, no armor of helmet and padding as in football.

"It used to be the only guy near the huddle was Jack Nicholson," joked Blaha.

But these days, fans are everywhere, and right where they are supposed to be.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

The Palace brawl ...10 years later

■ WHAT HAPPENED: On Nov. 19, 2004, during a Pistons-Indiana Pacers game at the Palace, fan John Green, then a 39-year-old West Bloomfield resident, threw a cup at Pacers forward Ron Artest, today known as Metta World Peace, prompting him to charge into the stands. That turned into a full-blown fight with players and fans involved.

THE FALLOUT: Nine players were suspended for a total of 146 games — Artest for 73 regular-season games and 13 playoff games, Pacers forward Stephen Jackson for 30 games, Pacers center/forward Jermaine O'Neal for 25 games (reduced to 15), Pistons center Ben Wallace for six games, Pacers guard Anthony Johnson for five games, Pacers guard Reggie Miller for one game, Pistons guard Chauncey Billups for one game, Pistons center Elden Campbell for one game and Pistons forward Derrick Coleman for one game. The last four were suspended for leaving the bench. Charges filed after the brawl resulted in only Green getting jail time — after being sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years' probation following a guilty assault-and-battery plea for punching Artest in the stands.

DEMISE OF THE PACERS: The Pistons went on to at least reach the Eastern Conference finals each of the next four seasons. The Pacers were devastated by the suspensions and it wrecked the franchise. A year after having the best regular-season record, they finished the 2004-05 season at 44-38. It would be the franchise's last season over .500 until 2011-12.

THE AFTERMATH: The Palace immediately cracked down on unruly fans. A week after the brawl became national news, a Pistons fan shouted a sexual slur at a Miami Heat assistant coach — and was ejected from the game. The NBA also revised arena guidelines that restricted "the size (24 ounces) and number (two) of alcoholic beverages sold per individual customer" and also banned the sale of alcohol during the fourth quarter. In addition, the NBA defined a nine-point code of conduct for fans that still is displayed throughout arenas and announced before games.

SECURITY IMPROVEMENT: Months later, the league established arena guidelines for security personnel. In the past, the NBA had hired some police and even former Secret Service agents as security, but the brawl led to teams bringing in more experienced personnel. In 2007, the Pacers hired former FBI agent John Gray to lead team security.

OVERHEARD: "I feel awful about this whole thing," Green said in a Free Press article in 2006. "I feel like sports commentators have portrayed me as America's biggest jackass. Every sports commentator has said I'm the jerk fan. But by no means was I trying to throw something at someone." ... "It wasn't just the brawl but there was a generalization being made often by the public and sometimes by the media … that our players were thugs," NBA commissioner Adam Silver told the Indianapolis Star. "It was a malicious and unfair stereotype about a group of 450 men. The great deeds of hundreds of players were being overshadowed by acts of a very few. We just had to accept the responsibility that we were not doing a good enough job telling the positive stories about our players."

— Detroit Free Press and Indianapolis Star