On November 19, 2004, at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan, Pistons fan John Green threw a cup of Diet Coke at Ron Artest. (It figures that such a bush league move would have been perpetrated by a man drinking a diet soda.) The cup hit Artest in the chest. Artest responded by rushing into the stands, thereby sparking what is probably the most infamous brawl in NBA history.

Afterward, David Stern issued the following statement:

The events at last night’s game were shocking, repulsive and inexcusable -- a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA. This demonstrates why our players must not enter the stands whatever the provocation or poisonous behavior of people attending the games. Our investigation is ongoing and I expect it to be completed by tomorrow evening.

The NBA has taken the following actions, effective immediately:

1. Indiana players Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal are suspended indefinitely, the length to be determined upon completion of the investigation.

2. Detroit player Ben Wallace is suspended indefinitely, the length to be determined upon completion of the investigation.

3. Review of rules and procedures relating to altercations and security have been undertaken so that fans can continue to attend our games unthreatened by events such as the ones that occurred last night.
The final talley was 146 games worth of suspensions (86 for Artest), which cost the players more than $11 million in salary (almost $5 million for Artest). The brawl -- which was lovingly nicknamed "The Malice at The Palace" -- went on to provide NBA experts and fans with the ultimate example of players behaving badly.

And yet...this stuff used to happen without setting off a complete media firestorm. Last February, I posted about how Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell once went after a fan during Game 6 of one of the greatest playoff series of all time. Maxwell was fined $2,500 but didn't get suspended for a single game. He wasn't even ejected from that game.

Want another example you've probably never heard about? Of course you do.

On May 8, 1987, Kevin McHale -- with less than a half-minute left in overtime of Game 3 of the Bucks-Celtics semifinal playoff series -- charged into the Milwaukee crowd and confronted a courtside spectator. In full view of Oprah Winfrey no less! And by "confronted" I mean he grabbed the dude by his tie, after which the cream puff fell down. Then a ruckus ensued.

Here's the video. The action starts around the 20-second mark:


Surprisingly enough, the world did not wobble off its axis and fall into the sun. There were no earthquakes or natural disasters. Fans didn't freak out and the media didn't go berserk with 24/7 coverage of McHale's brutal attack. And McHale wasn't suspended. He played in Game 4 -- in the same arena, in front of the same fans -- and the Celtics won 138-137. Yes, that was the actual score.

On May 9, 1987, this was how the Boston Globe described the incident:

The fight began with 24 seconds left in overtime. The Bucks, who had blown a chance to win the game in regulation time, had climbed back to a 121-118 lead. McHale had fouled out by whacking the Bucks' Paul Pressey. The crowd had hooted because McHale is not exactly a favorite here, being viewed as a man who is accorded great basketball freedom by the referees while local tall timbers Jack Sikma, Paul Mokeski and Randy Breuer are called for simple jawalking and littering.

Upon reaching the bench, McHale was heckled by the familiar heckler.

"I'd been hearing him all game," McHale said. "He'd been cursing and cursing and cursing. Usually. I'm playing most of the game here, so I never hear the guy. Tonight I was on the bench and the guy would not shut up.

"Rrrrrrrrrrrrrr...how much are you going to take?"

Enough was enough and McHale stepped over the low seats that serve as the Boston bench and confronted the heckler. The trouble broke out like chicken pox. Fred Roberts was over the bench and equipment guy Joe Quatato was over and the rest of the Celtics followed. The heckler wound up lying on the gaily- painted Mecca floor wiyh a security guard's foot on his neck. The crowd wound up in a dither.

"It wasn't exactly the smartest thing I've ever did, but how much are you going to take?" McHale said. "Awww, in hockey they wouldn't even notice something like this."
And, in all honesty, "they" -- meaning the world at large -- barely took notice of this incident. Relatively speaking. Only McHale didn't realize it at the time.

The following story didn't run until the May 10 edition of the Boston Globe, almost two days after the incident:

MILWAUKEE - The morning newspapers had the pictures and they were something to see. Here was Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale and there was assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers and here were the rest of the players on the Celtics bench and there were the policemen and...funny.

Twelve hours later the craziness of Friday night mostly seemed funny.

"My wife called me early," McHale said yesterday morning as he sat a few feet from the spot where the grand hoo-ha had happened in the closing moments of the Celtics' 126-121 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

"The first thing she wanted to know was how much this was going to cost. I told her, 'Do you know that fishing boat I want to buy this summer? I think we'll be buying two of them, only one will be for the NBA office.' "

Funny.

Passion became slapstick in the morning sunlight. What did Kevin McHale do with 24 seconds left in the game? He stepped over the Celtics bench and collared some heckler who had been blabbing obscenities for the entire night? He grabbed the guy and then other people grabbed other people and suddenly there was this full-scale dance on the designer-patterned Mecca floor? The logic of the moment somehow had been transformed into the punch line of today. Clint Eastwood became Joe Piscopo.

"I was really mad," McHale said. "The guy was just saying terrible things. The security people told me that Moses Malone and Tree Rollins both had gone after him earlier this year. He's sitting there and he has a 4-year-old kid next to him and he's just saying the rottenest swear words and I just went for him.

"As soon as I did, the guy just got the weasliest look on his face, though. It's like if you're going to slap a kid and he gets that look of terror on his face and you just stop. I just wanted to turn around and go back to the bench, but by that time of course it was too late. All kinds of people were involved."

Funny.

"I just saw Kevin going in there and I went to pull him back," coach K.C. Jones said. "By the time I got there, though, everybody was grabbing everybody."

"Oprah Winfrey was sitting about four rows from where the whole thing happened," equipment assistant Joe Quatato said. "She was watching the game with her boyfriend. Maybe Kevin was just going back to meet Oprah Winfrey."

Oprah Winfrey? Funny.

The bench collapsed. The original big mouth found himself wrestled to the floor by security people, his face pressed against the three-point line as someone kept a foot on his neck. Someone said the guy simply was pulled there by his yellow necktie. Whomp. The beer began to fly. Forward Fred Roberts seemed to be looking for certain antagonists.

The entire scene resembled the finish of one of those movies -- "Animal House" and "Revenge of the Nerds" come to mind -- that have all the characters involved in some wacky finale, custard pies everywhere. What next?

"I've been going to the Bruins' training room every day for treatments since I hurt my ankle," McHale said. "Maybe that's what did it. I sat next to Nevin Markwart and his spirit took over. Don Warden, the therapist, was saying the other day that when the hockey players have fights, even if the guy gets killed, blood all over his face, everyone will say to him in the locker room, 'How to mix it up in there.' I was going to give Don a call today and see if he'd say it to me."

Funny.

McHale said he was reminded of the time the Bruins climbed into the stands at Madison Square Garden. Remember that? Remember one of the Bruins whomping at the guy with the guy's own shoe? Wasn't Brad Park doing the whomping?

"I don't think so," a reporter said. "I think it was Mike Milbury."

"Milbury!" McHale said. "I was talking with him just the other day in the trainer's room. Maybe that was it."

The craziest part of all is that the characters in Friday night's production will be brought back to the same place this afternoon at 1 o'clock. The Celtics...the Bucks...the mascot, "Bango The Buck"...the band with Ricky Pierce's wife as vocalist...McHale...the crowd.

Most of the crowd.

"The security guards told me they won't let the guy back in that seat today," Kevin McHale said. "He'll be back next year, though, and that's the one thing that bugs me. I'll be paying a fine and he'll be back yelling at people next year and someone probably will pop him and the guy will sue. It's not right."
And that was it. I couldn't track down any other significant details about this incident. Hell, I never even found out how much McHale was fined (or if he was). At that point, the incident basically disappeared from living memory. What's more, I watched that game live and didn't even remember McHale going after that fan until I ran across the YouTube video during an unrelated search.

Mind you, this incident was pretty high profile for the time. The Celtics were the defending champs, and McHale had played so well that season he finished fourth in MVP voting (behind Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird). And this was the playoffs! It's a pretty safe bet the entire NBA world was watching that game.

The incident happened, it passed quickly and everybody survived. End of story.

Shouldn't it still be that way? Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that players should be allowed to go after fans. That's definitely not okay. But the level of freakout that happens in reaction to these incidents has gotten entirely out of hand. And that probably includes me. For instance, I get pretty heated when somebody like Dwight Howard maims somebody with an elbow when I should probably just say, "Wow, what a douchebag," and move on.

I wonder: What's the appropriate amount of attention and concern that should be given to events like these? Was there too little in the 1980s? Is there too much now?

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31 Comments:
Anonymous james said...
i think its all about reputation.
ron is known as being insane whereas mchale (bar a few clotheslines) is commonly held as an ok kind of guy. add that to the ever cautious approach of stern, making sure the nba is 100% globally marketable and that all players are robotic performers with no self expression and thats what makes the difference. sure the palace brawl was by far the worst out of all of these mentioned above, but it was fan instigated in the end.

Anonymous Barry said...
Where's the social control? Why is no one in the stands telling this guy off? There's a 4 year old next to him for Christ's sake.

Blogger Dooj said...
I think there is too much now. Wilt was essentially Tiger Woods, but because we didn't find out while it was happening, he's ok.

At the same time, for a fan, I like the attention. It provides something for me to do in the off-season. "Oh look! Deadspin has another gossip article about Lebron? Hell YES!"

Blogger LaPrincipessa said...
I certainly think ethnicity has a lot to do with it

Blogger LaPrincipessa said...
I certainly think ethnicity has a lot to do with it

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Probably the ithnicity had something to do with it, i agree, but don't forget these were different times, which imo was also a big factor in how things were handled afterwards.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I think most media outlets "fan the flames" of anything out of the ordinary to get peoples' attention. It's worse now than the 80's because of the 24-hr. news cycle and the instant update technology.

Blogger Sid said...
In hockey they wouldn't even notice something like this

Didn't they have huge transparent walls around hockey rinks back then?

Blogger -Josh said...
I don't think ethnicity has a lot to do with it. Maybe it has a little to do with it, but I think had the player involved in the "Malice at the Palace" been of a different ethnicity the repercussions would've been largely the same.

I think what it really comes down to is a difference in era. We have a media that thrives on drama and controversy, a populace that has become ever more lawsuit-happy and organizations that have responded by demanding more and more political correctness. Just look at the Shirley Sherrod firing, a knee jerk reaction to allegations of racisms based on a doctored video.

So to respond to the original question, I think that the eighties were closer to the proper level of attention because the focus was on the sport, not on things going on around it. Now so many things, sports included but also politics economics science ... just about anything really, have become more about the style than the substance. Not that the eighties were perfect, but public discourse has degraded since then.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
stan van gundy choke slammed

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I think media outlets like ESPN have a lot to do with this. Incidents get overblown and replayed over and over.

On a side note, look how skinny those guys were.

Blogger chris said...
Sid: Didn't they have huge transparent walls around hockey rinks back then?

The glass boards started some time in the 1970s IIRC; though there is the infamous incident when then-Boston Bruin Mike Milbury went into the stands and hit a heckler with the heckler's own shoe....

Anonymous AK Dave said...
Re: nobody would care in Hockey

He's right about that.

In this video, Ty Domi provokes the attack by squirting water from a water bottle at the heckler (classic!). The fan jumps over the big plastic wall described by Sid and proceeds to get his ass kicked by a bona fide NHL goon.

What I want to know is, wtf are these people on? Jumping into a penalty box with a fully-padded and mean as fuck Ty Domi and then trying to brawl? The man is in the gott-demm NHL! Same goes for the guy throwing a beverage at Ron-Ron. Nut-jobs, the lot of them.

Anonymous AK Dave said...
Follow up:

Notice how Domi had the guy's shirt pulled over his head (that's called getting "jerseyed" in the business) before he even stood up?

That's good hockey right there!

Blogger Sid said...
Great vid.

Commentator: Kevin Colli(ref) breaks up fights in the penelty box too

Some similarity in this and the Malice at the Palace. Notice how in this vid the fan being squirted is not the one who jumps Domi. And I remember reading that Artest want after the wrong guy who was next to the beer thrower.

Anonymous JJ said...
I think all professional athletes should just suck it up and take the heckling from the fans. It's all part of the game and one of the reasons home court usually gives advantage. They should never, ever retaliate because: 1. they're getting paid millions, 2. they're called p-r-o-s., and 3. they're usually twice as large and 20 times stronger than the hecklers (who are also probably drunk while heckling).

But, any fan who gets physical (throws drinks, etc) should get tossed. After all, no one should feel endangered while playing a freaking sport...

Blogger Sorbo said...
@AK Dave: Awesome. Part of me kind of likes Domi for doing that.

@Bawful: Great article. So many ways to approach your questions, but I think you're talking about two different eras, not just for basketball or expected social behavior, but for journalism as well.

Reporting, as a whole, has moved away from fact reported (when a news outlet gives the facts and lets you decide) to analytical reporting (which kind of tells audiences what they should think and feel about a news story or subject. Think: Glenn Beck). This move to analytical reporting comes because these news outlets need to fill time and space.

In 1987, ESPN had one network, and needed to fill 24 hours of programming for primetime viewship that was usually under one million.

In 2004, ESPN had something like 4 networks and at least one website (divided among many sports) to try and fill content, with viewship constantly in the millions. That's 96 hours of programming to fill plus a computer screen to fill of news items. And in 20 years, there really aren't that many more games being played then there were in 1987, even if you count expansion in all sports.

So when they spread the news between so many outlets, they have to come up with more angles to cover a story. Simply put, they now need to wring dry every last angle and perspective of even one story in order to fill that 96 hours of TV space. Plus, they've hired dozens of special analysts (your Jalen Roses, for example) and those guys need to justify a paycheck by speaking about a subject, any subject, related to their sports.

What they've also found out is that controversy equals ratings (Hi, Lebron), so talking about controversial subjects equals more eyeballs staying on the channel, especially when the ads start running.

On the basketball side, the brutal, defensive-minded play of the early 1990s, combined with more players being overpayed at a young age (and flaunting it), led to an image of the league being a bunch of rich thugs. The rising popularity of tattoes didn't help either.

Also, as basketball grew, and players became richer, they also became less relateable to fans. How can I relate to a guy like KG, who makes $12 million a year to play basketball? I'll put it this way, if I made $30,000 a year in 1987, I could relate to a few players who started and made $100,000 a year, because finacially we're closer. If I made $40,000 in 2010, and an average player makes $5 million, the socio-economic gap is far wider; and thus, it's harder to relate to him on a basic level.

And I could go on and on about other ways players have become unrelateable (act entitled, the Superstar campaigns, AAU, etc.), but that's another conversation.

What hasn't really changed are fans, who still feel entitled to talk shit and yell at players because they paid to see the game (and they're drunk). I'm not saying fans need to be unemotional robots, but still, some need to know the limit.

Anyway, back to the Malice. So in 2004 with Artest, many 24-hour news cycle stations found an easy target in exploiting the thug image of the league to sports fans who were tired of unrelateable, rich, entitled atheletes.

To your question about the appropriate amount of attention. In short: we think it's important, because we're told it's important. And we're made to believe we should have an opinion on it (even if we don't care). Honestly, I didn't give too much a shit about the brawl. It was interesting to see a brawl like that on TV, but to me it was a couple of guys who fought because one idiot threw a Diet Pepsi at the other. In a weird way, it made me respect Steven Jackson (would you run into a crowd of angry fans in Detroit to save your teammate from himself?).

Fuck, that's a long post. I hate 24-hour news networks.

Anonymous AK Dave said...
@Sorbo:

Part of the reason why ESPN is going to such lengths to over-report stories and delve into truly irrelevant matter is that they don't cover a wide variety of sports.

NBA, NFL, MLB, College FB, College BB, Golf, Tennis, NASCAR. Occasionally NHL. OH! And POKER- what a sport that is!

Nothing about:
-European Basketball
-Soccer
-Track/Field
-Swimming
-Cycling
-Any women's sports other than tennis
-Any professional sport outside of the USA.
-A myriad other sports that are significant/popular elsewhere, and at the very least produce highlights that people would watch. (Rugby/Aussie Rules, Water Polo, Volleyball, Cricket, on and on.)

Fact is: there is TONS of quality sports content out there; enough to fill 100's of hours of fact-based reporting a day. ESPN is just too lazy to go look for the highlights, and its viewers seem to actually PREFER to be treated like brain-dead zombie consumers, feeding on the rotting flesh of NASCAR driver interviews and Rachel Nichols sideline/on-location reports about what color socks Tom Brady wears to practice in the off-season.

They call themselves the "worldwide leader" in sports, but that's just as retarded as McDonald's calling itself the worldwide leader in food. Just because you sell a lot of it, doesn't mean its worth a damn.

Blogger Dan B. said...
Interesting look at the upcoming season's schedule regarding back-to-backs:

http://www.basketballprospectus.com/unfiltered/?p=542

The most back-to-backs? Chicago has 23. Ouch. The least? The Lakers with a mere 15. (Hurray! Yet another reason to hate the Lakers!)

Blogger AnacondaHL said...
AK Dave - WPGA too!

Anyways, for that fun stuff atleast ESPN is being awesome with their 30 for 30 series. I can't get enough of that shit.

Unrelated: Looks like LeBron's clips from his UCSD summer camp are finally circulating, including a hilarious 5-on-5 with kids less than half his height. It's simultaneously a great PR move and a hilarious look at how he's still used to the "stand around and watch LeBron offense", and a look into the future Heat team as he lazily defeats the competition.

Blogger AnacondaHL said...

Anonymous Karc said...
ESPN covers what draws ratings. It's basic television. They are not a sports network or a sports news network. They are an entertainment network. I just wish they'd stop being so pious about it and admit what they are. It's not like people are going to stop watching. ESPNews is about to become Sportscenter 24/7. Why? For more Lebron/Favre/Yankees coverage? Just stop already with the pretense.

Blogger Wormboy said...
I think to call it race is hogwash. Very different times, very different standards, and very different events.

Nobody got suspended for McHale's kind of action back then. If he did it now, he'd get suspended for several games.

Also McHale going into the first row and grabbing a guy's tie isn't the same as Artest charging however many rows up and beating on some guy (the wrong one, as it happens). The latter was a far more dangerous event. It was violence. McHale's action was a "cut it the hell out" kind of event.

Blogger Sorbo said...
@AK Dave - I wasn't trying to come down too hard on ESPN, just trying to state the facts. They need to fill time with anything to get ratings and make money. Like Karc said, they're only going to cover what people care about (i.e. what gets ratings). Sometimes they do quality stuff, like Outside the Lines and 30 for 30, but most of the time, like any network, they need filler. And what's cheaper filler than some "expert's" opinion (like Skip Bayless).

But that's the rub with stories like Malice at the Palace. A network wants to satisfy people's interest (for ratings) in a topic even if there are no new facts or information about it. There's a demand, but no supply, so to speak; so a network creates that supply and starts going to the "next level" of reporting, which is really just layers of bullshit and speculation (what does this mean for the league? what does this mean for the fans? what does this mean for security? etc., etc.). This kind of thing only happens if you need filler like a four channel company like ESPN needs. Not only do they repeat the story, but they'll repeat the speculation twenty times a day. Not saying it's right or wrong (although I don't like it), it's the nature of the beast.

Anonymous ballgod said...
I think David Stern is a Nazi Jew that's what I think.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
wait, how can you compare the kevin mcfail incident to ron ron attacking fans in detroit? these events are nothing alike. watch the a video of the "Malice in The Palace".

now compare these two fights. how are they remotely similar? mcfail attacked one fan while most of the other players stood around watching. most fans probably didn't ever realize what was going on around the celtic bench, there were just too many celtics crowded around to tell wtf mcfail was doing. did they even have live video feed of the celtic/bucks game on 4 jumbotron screens for everyone in the stadium to watch a close up of mcfail attack that fan in 1987?

ron ron was part of a bench clearing brawl before the fights with fans even started. a live video feed in the palace only added the hysteria of what felt like a boxing match gone wrong.

i watched the "malice in the palace" live that day from the comfort of my home, it was insane. i couldn't believe my eyes. honestly, i remember thinking "what's going to happen next? somebody is going to get hurt." and i wasn't thinking about just some sucker punch in the face. the fans, the athletes, even the coaches, all seemed to have gone mad. a basic civic order had given way to an all out riot. in real time. this wasn't about a 24 hour news cycle yet. this was live. it was real. and at that moment, no one knew what was going to happen next. players, fans, security guards, everyone was looking to either beat somebody up, or take somebody down.

race may have played a role in this, but not in the way of ron ron getting a long suspension and mcfail a slap on the wrist. this would be a very different sort of racial politics. something that is more about ron ron growing up in the hood and dealing with anger and frustration with violence and retribution. and mcfail growing up in the north woods of minnesota with his dad taking him behind the wood shed to teach him a lesson.

Anonymous Geert said...
Can anyone tell me why, if Stern really wants to promote the game globally, he sends the friggin' Craptors and the Nyets to Europe? Not really an awesome matchup, right? No big names and starpower either. This feels like all the really good teams just didn't want to give up a real home game or something, so Stern bullied two small low-expectation teams into taking the trip. Does anyone know how these things get decided?

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Put simply, Basketball wasn't popular in the 80s so no one cared :P

Anonymous Karc said...
They changed the rules on selling alcohol because of the Malice (limit on amount and can't buy any after the 3rd quarter). Must have made the beer vendors real unhappy.

@Anonymous with the long comment - The 24-hour news cycle was in full effect in 2004. Just a month before, Jon Stewart had gone on Crossfire and eviscerated the hosts for their superficial bi-partisan bickering. Show was canceled less than a year later. The Malice also occurred on a Friday. ESPN (in its constant quest to equate themselves with Fox News and CNN in terms of "news" coverage) was talking about it non-stop over the weekend until the hammer came down the following Monday. Public perception matters to the NBA (not so much the NFL, who are so popular that it doesn't really matter). I don't think Artest gets canned for the whole year if the game had not aired on ESPN.

More importantly, I don't think the thing gets drawn out the way it did if there had not been a lockout five years before. There were lockouts before, but this was the first time that it actually affected the season by taking away games. The primary issue was player salary, but as most disputes with money goes, it ultimately comes down to ego and power control. Don't remember the exact terms of the settlement, but I think the owners won out because the players wanted to play and bent first. To bring the thing full circle, this is why that "super team" in Miami is just sending up red flags all over the place. Don't think that an owner with an axe to grind (Dan Gilbert, or one of the other 26 teams that now has no shot of winning anything or making money for the next four years) is not going to bring this up at the next CBA.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
i guess my point wasn't that the 24 hour news cycle didn't exist in 2004. of course it did. rather, that its existence was irrelevant to the actual fight as it was developing in real time. sure espn hyped the fight after the fact, but the fight itself was out of control way before espn ran non-stop coverage for the rest of the weekend and beyond. espn didn't create that fight. ron ron and company did. they deserved the suspensions they got. televised live or not.

not sure how a lockout 5 years earlier makes that brawl in the palace debate more drawn out...

Blogger Preveen said...
Well, I'll admire these guys more than the Yuvraj Singh on the Indian Cricket team. Dude was out sick (probably flu like symptoms) and walking around the grounds with a water bottle when some section of the crowd started heckling him and calling him water-boy. Apparently he was thin skinned enough to get upset by it and pull a stir to get club management and the police to throw them outta the ground. I mean, whatta prima donna pussy!

Actually we hate the man coz he is an ass who thinks way too highly of himself anyway, but this? I mean, really? Water-Boy? That upset him?

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