“I want the story out there. What happened? Go frame by frame.”
Metta Sandiford-Artest, who went by Ron Artest during most of his NBA days, is vocal about what he wants from “Untold: Malice at the Palace”. He wants clarity. And justice.
“Malice at the Palace” navigates through uncharted territory right from the get-go. An all-access documentary, it delves deep into what happened on November 19, 2004. For all intents and purposes, this was the most infamous brawl in NBA history.
With access to footage from 17 different angles of that fateful Indiana Pacers vs Detroit Pistons game, the show’s creators have pieced together an enthralling narrative that goes well beyond the zeitgeist.
In the middle of it all is Reggie Miller, a Hall of Famer agonisingly close to an NBA championship.
In the quest to conquer the Holy Grail, the Pacers assemble a championship-calibre team. They’re all-in.
There was Jermaine O’Neal, the sort of player the NBA wanted at the time; a man on the verge of superstardom. There was Ron Artest, the very definition of ‘don’t tell me what to do’ and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. And there was Stephen Jackson, the final piece of the puzzle.
That season, the Pacers romped to a 6-2 record, brimming with confidence. At the other end were the Detroit Pistons, fresh off an NBA championship.
That night, the Pacers had one aim: to make amends for the year before, when they were beaten by the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. This time, the Pacers swore, they wouldn’t give the Pistons an inch.
The dynamic announcer’s way of introducing Detroit’s centre, Ben Wallace, only served to underline the gravity of the matchup. “At 6’9”, wearing the big, red three, B-B-B-B-B-Ben Wallace!” the announcer hissed. If that served to invigorate the Pistons, it only riled up the Pacers, who stomped all over the hosts as a packed Palace full of Detroit fans watched on.
One guard, two guard, three guard, four; no one could lock down Ron Artest, who racked up a game-high 24 points. Even with Reggie Miller out injured, the Pacers were all over the Pistons. Was it finally their year? It certainly looked like it with 45 seconds to go.
This was the moment the God of Chaos decided to make his presence felt. And this is where the documentary pulls at some threads.
Up by 15 points, the Pacers’ Jamal Tinsley tells Artest: “Get your foul now.” Powder keg, meet flame.
Artest pushes Ben Wallace, who’s on his way to a layup. Furious, Wallace shoves Artest. Teammates gather, baying for their rivals’ blood, the referee crumbling under the weight of it all. For his part, Artest lays down on the scorer’s table, watching on, when a fan throws a cup of beer at him. Bonfire, meet jet fuel.
If you’ve ever thought to yourself “What’s one beer going to do?”, here’s your answer.
Artest leaps into the stands, throwing punches at a fan who he reckoned threw the beer at him. Jackson follows, taking a shot at another fan. Anarchy.
Everything that could go wrong went wrong on the night. Artest, finally a little collected after that kerfuffle, lands on the court and encounters a Pistons fan with his fists clenched. Still in survival mode, Artest pummels him, landing a punch that floors the man.
The kerfuffle quickly turns into a full-blown riot with fans rocking the chairs loose and launching them at the Pacers. The documentary captures all of this in vivid detail, including footage of how the players themselves dealt with one of the darkest days in NBA history.
From there, the documentary steers towards mob mentality and how the blame was laid solely on the Pacers. For the NBA, a mostly Black league attempting to enthral a mostly White audience, this was a watershed moment.
All of the discourse in the media focused on confirming the worst biases White fans had of Black athletes. Words like “thugs” were thrown around with reckless abandon. “A thug mentality has crept into basketball” was the chorus.
For all the closure it offers Pacers fans, the documentary shines a bright light on how the world of sports was covered back in the day, and in some corners, how it’s covered even today.
The NBA came down hard on all the players involved, handing out suspensions like it was an Oprah Winfrey show. Jermaine O’Neal, frequently touted for stardom, fell off the map after that night. Artest went on to win a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Reggie Miller, though, was lost in the desert after 18 seasons; a Hall of Famer without a ring. If you stress your ears just a bit in the footage of the melee, you can hear the sopranos sing of the demise of Miller’s ambitions.