It was often called a "perfect storm." But what an imperfect mess it left behind.
Five years ago Thursday, the Pacers, Pistons and some passionate partisans at the Palace of Auburn Hills collaborated on perhaps the most memorable evening in NBA history. As the Pacers' beat writer for The Indianapolis Star, I had the good fortune to be there. Don't look for a hint of sarcasm between the lines here, I'm serious. Journalists want to have a front-row seat for historical events, and this was one. It seemed like more than one, actually, kind of a package deal.
Surely all of America knows the story, but for many the details have become skewed. Ask 10 people who attended the game or watched it on television to break down what transpired, and you'll probably get 10 different versions. Ask 10 people who only watched the endless loop of television replays, and you'll likely hear near-fictional accounts.
The backdrop was that the two best teams in the Eastern Conference were meeting in an early-season rematch of the previous season's conference finals. It was about as big a November game as can be in the NBA, and ESPN was televising it nationally. The Pistons were the defending league champions, but were off to only a 4-3 start in part because coach Larry Brown (minor surgery) and center Ben Wallace (family funeral) had missed previous games.
The Pacers were without five injured players, most of whom would have played if available: Reggie Miller, Anthony Johnson, Jeff Foster, Jonathan Bender and Scot Pollard. Still, they carried a 6-2 record into the game, played a brilliant first half to take a 16-point lead, then hung on in the second. The outcome was already assured when Stephen Jackson hit two foul shots with just under a minute remaining to give the Pacers a 15-point lead and complete the scoring.
Then all hell broke loose. Over and over again.
On the Pistons' final possession, Wallace took a post feed on the left block and spun into the lane. Jackson wisely let him have the layup, but Ron Artest came from the weak side and gave Wallace a hard foul from behind with 45.9 seconds remaining. Wallace, who was knocked off stride but not to the floor, turned and put his hands on Artest's face and neck and sent him reeling with a hard shove.
Artest backpedaled all the way to the scorer's table as players and coaches from both teams tried to keep Wallace from attacking Artest. While Wallace continued shouting at Artest and trying to break through the pack of humanity that stood in his path, Artest sat on the padding on top of the barrier between the court and press row, and then lay down. He picked up a telephone receiver and pretended to talk to someone, then put on a radio headset. While he clowned, Wallace raged. Players and coaches from both teams tried to make peace, although Jackson and point guard Jamaal Tinsley were clearly agitated. Something thrown from Artest's right nearly hit him and got his attention briefly, and Wallace later threw a towel at him. Artest started to get up to go after Wallace, but was restrained and lay down again. Soon, and inevitably, a beer cup came flying from the stands, landed squarely on Artest's chest and splashed the contents in his face.
As Artest ran toward the fan he (incorrectly) thought had thrown the cup, the first thought to run through my mind was that this was going to be really bad for both Artest and for me. Him, for obvious reasons. Me, because it was going to mean a lot of extra and unpleasant work.
My next thought, as the rioting ensued, was something along the lines of "Holy spit." I never felt unsafe, but it was a stunning thing to behold, like watching brush fires in the forest break out faster than they could be put out.
Artest, contrary to common opinion, didn't hit the fan he thought had thrown the beer. He grabbed him, lost his balance and the two grabbed on to one another. After Artest's teammates ran into the stands, however, a bar-room brawl erupted. The man who threw the beer at Artest, a convicted felon named John Green, grabbed Artest from behind and began hitting him. Artest turned and threw a soft punch at Green, then walked back onto the court. There, another fan, wearing a white Pistons jersey, approached Artest with a menacing look. Artest threw a forearm to his chest, but it was blocked. Artest tried to throw another punch, but by then teammates and security officials tackled him. Another fan, also wearing a white Pistons jersey, tried to join the scrum, but Jermaine O'Neal came rushing in to throw a punch. O'Neal slipped on the beer-soaked court, which reduced the force and accuracy of his blow. Anthony Johnson also threw a punch at a fan who had walked freely onto the end of the court.
"And it gets worse and worse!" Pacers television announcer Al Albert shouted over the air to fans in Indiana.
Albert's color analyst, Quinn Buckner, followed with the question of the night: "Where is the security!?"
By then some police officers were starting to show up on the court, but security officials were still hard to find. Most, it seemed, were either in shock or in hiding.
"This may be the worst ever seen in an NBA game," Albert said as beverages rained onto the court and chaos reigned in the stands.
"They need to call this off and get these guys out of here," Buckner said.
"Hard to even find the officials," Albert said. "And this is an utter disaster."
Former Pacers forward Chuck Person came out of the stands to get Artest off the court. He put his right hand over Artest's face to protect him from the debris falling from the sky and walked him through the exit to the locker room. Reggie Miller covered Artest from the left side, grabbing him around the waist and hanging on.
As chaos continued throughout the Palace, Larry Brown grabbed the public-address microphone and shouted to the fans: "Please stop. Leave the players alone! Stop!" Realizing it was too late to restore order, he threw the microphone onto the scorer's table and shouted something to the public-address announcer, clearly livid that nobody but players and coaches seemed to be trying to control the situation.
Eventually, the announcement came that the game was over. A buzzer was sounded from the scorer's table -- a comical coda, because the referees, players and coaches had already abandoned the court by then. What seemed like an eternity actually had transpired fairly quickly. The whole thing, from Artest's foul to the announcement that the game was suspended and the Pacers had won, took 4½ minutes.
So many things could have prevented it from happening. What if Pacers coach Rick Carlisle had taken Artest and the other starters out of the game once the victory was secured? That's a small quibble in the grand scheme of things, because coaches often let starters finish out a game. Wallace, for one, was still playing. What if Artest hadn't been in position to foul Wallace, or simply hadn't done it? What if Wallace hadn't overreacted? What if the referees -- Ron Garretson, Tim Donaghy and Tommy Nunez Jr.-- had taken control of the situation rather than letting it fester? What if Artest hadn't lay down and practically invited fans to throw something at him? What if the fan who threw the beer had missed? What if security officials had done their jobs?
Perfect storm, indeed.
In the hours immediately following the game, Detroit's fans took most of the blame from newspaper columnists in other cities.
"Let's be very clear about this. The riot was caused by fans, drunken fans, riotous fans," William C. Rhoden wrote in TheNew York Times.
ESPN's commentators seemed to agree. At first.
"Everybody is to blame, the fans in particular," Greg Anthony said.
"If you're walking down the street in Times Square and someone throws a beer on you, it's assault and you have the right to defend yourself," John Saunders said.
"The punches that Artest and O'Neal threw at fans on the court should be exempt from suspension because all bets should be off when a fan comes onto the court and goes after a player," Tim Legler said. "When fans go after a player and threaten him physically, they deserve what they get."
Something changed after commissioner David Stern announced his suspensions two nights later, however. Artest was suspended for the remainder of the season, 73 games in all, as well as the playoffs. Jackson was suspended for 30 games. O'Neal was suspended for 25, although an arbitrator later sliced 10 games off that penalty. ESPN's commentators jumped on board, shifting their focus from the fans to the Pacers' players. Stern had to do this, they agreed.
Over time, public opinion shifted that direction as well, even in Indianapolis.
The fans there rallied behind the team for the remainder of the season, partly because the team's skeleton crew played valiantly until the suspended players returned, and partly because they were caught up in the emotion of Miller's 18th and final season.
Gradually, however, perceptions changed. Artest, for varied reasons, snubbed the franchise's loyalty to him and asked for a trade after playing just 16 games the following season. He eventually was traded to Sacramento. Jackson, who had no off-court incidents in the NBA to that point, was involved in a night-club incident during training camp two years after the brawl, firing a gun into the air to break up a fight that involved a few of his teammates. While the legal system determined he was more the victim than the instigator, he, too, was traded under the weight of public pressure. Tinsley, also incident-free until the brawl, was later involved in three club incidents, one that ended with downtown gunfire that injured the Pacers' equipment manager, Joe Qatato. Again, Tinsley's personal errors were either minimal or uncertain according to the legal system, but the Pacers sat him out last season to appease the angry fan base and bought him out of his contract over the summer.
As those unseemly incidents unfolded, many weary fans revised their opinions of the brawl, viewing it as further evidence of the players' poor character rather than unfair punishment. A parade of callers to local talk-radio programs labeled them "thugs."
The brawl was as much a story of the modern media culture as a sports story. Talk to basketball players of past eras and they'll proudly tell stories of their fights, some of which involved fans. Those episodes, however, were lightly reported by the newspapers, barely punished by the league and quickly forgotten by everyone. Not so in today's 24-hour news cycle.
Replays of Pacers' fighting in the stands ran endlessly on television and no doubt influenced opinion. That was one reason Stern reacted so swiftly and firmly -- to send a message to fans and sponsors alike that his league didn't tolerate lawlessness.
He also sent a message of inconsistency, however. In February 1995, for example, Houston's Vernon Maxwell rushed 12 rows into the stands and struck in the head a man who had heckled him. That seemed as bad an offense as the one Artest committed, with less provocation. Maxwell was suspended for 10 games and fined $20,000. Stern himself later admitted to second thoughts about his punishment of Artest and considered bringing him back for the playoffs, but decided against it.
The most tangible impact of the brawl, aside from the fact Artest lost more than $5 million in salary during his suspension, was that the Pacers lost a legitimate championship opportunity. The 2004-05 team was athletic, experienced, balanced and deep, and appeared capable of contending for years to come. O'Neal had finished third in the league MVP voting the previous season and Artest was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Miller, who came back to play 66 games and average 14.8 points after his injury, was still a strong locker-room influence and viable starter. Jackson, signed the previous summer, had started on San Antonio's championship team two years earlier and was to be Miller's successor as the starting shooting guard. Tinsley, who had outplayed Chauncey Billups the night of the brawl, was one of the league's best playmakers.
The Pacers' suffering was made worse by their feeling that the Pistons were let off easy. Wallace, whom many felt was at least as guilty as Artest, was suspended for just six games. The Pistons went on to eliminate the Pacers in the second round of the 2005 playoffs on their way to the Finals, but lost to San Antonio in seven games. Injuries and the turmoil from constant roster upheaval have kept the Pacers out of the playoffs since 2006.
Digging for the brawl's silver linings doesn't reap much reward. The NBA updated some security procedures, such as requiring arenas to place covers over the exits leading to the locker rooms so players can't be bombarded with trash as the Pacers were in Detroit. It also devised a Fan Code of Conduct, which consists of common-sense guidelines for behavior, and established restrictions on the sale of alcohol.
Mostly, it was just an ugly event. Damaging, confusing, unsettling and in some respects, unfair.
Five years later, the storm has passed. For some, the clean-up continues.