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.
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.' "
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."
"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."
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?