A new documentary on Netflix deconstructs the National Basketball Association’s most disastrous night: the 2004 brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, which ensnared fans and led to arrests and several player suspensions.
Untold: Malice at the Palace, the first episode in the Untold anthology series, interviews several players and staff from both teams involved in the Nov. 19 incident, which took place at the Palace of Auburn Hills during the waning moments of the intense game. The punishments doled as a result of the brawl were the most strict in the history of the NBA, including Ron Artest being suspended the entire season. Several fans were arrested for their involvement in the altercation.
Along with the interviews and in-depth explanations as to what created the perfect storm between two rival teams and personal issues individual players were going through at the time, the documentary includes new footage of the incident from different angles, detailing exactly how the brawl unfolded. Just as interesting, Untold: Malice at the Palace also examines the media’s reaction to the brawl and how the narrative changed overnight turning NBA players into pariahs and labeled simply “thugs,” thereby letting culpable fans off the hook.
Retired iconic Pacer turned NBA analyst Reggie Miller explains how the initial incident was a “dust-up” between teams, a common occurrence. “That happens all the time,” he says in the doc. “That’s all fake.” Miller explains Artest exacerbated the situation by laying down on the scorer’s table, which Artest says in the doc he did just to cool down for a moment, a tool he learned from his psychiatrist. It was at the point Artest was hit by a beer can thrown by a fan and then all hell broke loose as fans got into altercations with players, throwing objects, including a chair.
As the players watched the news reports the next morning — which seemed to be on every channel, not just local news and ESPN — they saw zero onus placed on the fans’ involvement, just their own actions, making them immediately dismissed as “thugs” and the “hip-hop generation” of players. “The narrative had changed. It was all about us, the players,” says Miller.
Then Pacer Jermaine O’Neal was stunned by the reports and how the scope of the incident narrowed extensively.
“All of a sudden, my character is in question,” he says. “These are thugs. That’s literally the word that they used. And everyone signed off, ‘Yeah, it’s rap music and it’s this.’ Well, they are not saying that when hockey [players] are beating the hell out of each other for decades.”
Donnie Walsh, then Indiana Pacers president, said of the media coverage, “It wasn’t just the amount of people who were saying it, it was the stature of the people who were saying it.”
The player suspensions were widely reported. Coverage of the fans’ punishments, which included the man who threw the beer can that ignited that brawl, was to a lesser degree.