Malice at the Palace: how Netflix’s documentary dives into the notorious NBA brawl
Netflix's Untold docuseries offers up a new perspective on the infamous 2004 fight that forever altered the culture of the NBA
In my opinion, the enduring image from the Malice at the Palace — the epochal 2004 on-court fight that pitted NBA players against fans and spectators — wasn’t Ron Artest jumping on that fan in the stands. Or Artest and his fellow Indian Pacer teammates making their off-court escape as the fiery crowd threw down their alcohol, their food, and even their chairs from up top. Or even the aggressive shove Artest committed on Detriot Pistons’ Ben Wallace at the conclusion of the nationally-televised Pacers already-secured victory that started the disgusting battle.
Nope, the enduring image for me was Ron Artest exhaustingly lying on the scorer’s table just before a can of beer was thrown at him, kickstarting the Malice at the Palace as the NBA is labeled a league of thugs. However, Artest wasn’t lying there to be antagonizing; he was trying to stay calm. Many people couldn’t see that back in 2004, which is primarily why the Malice at the Palace came to be seen as the moment when players lost their cool and assaulted fans — not the opposite.
The new perspective comes from a Netflix docuseries called Untold, which re-examines some of the more interesting sports dramas of the past decade. And the Malice at the Palace was ripe for reexamination.
With the NBA facing more judgment than ever before, commissioner David Stern gave the benefit of the doubt to the fans and visitors. Ron Artest was suspended 86 games. Stephen Jackson was given 30 games and Jermaine O’Neal was given 25, which was eventually reduced to 15 after an appeal. In addition to the near $12 million fines imposed for violating league protocols, those players had to deal with assault and battery charges. At the beginning of Untold, O’Neal flat out says this is how people view him — this was clearly the most gut-wrenching moment of the episode considering O’Neal’s potential as an NBA superstar.
However, the most important thing we learn as O’Neal and Artest reexamine the Malice at the Palace is how rapidly the narrative came to be around the players. But, Untold features never-before-seen security shots from inside the Palace. Those images, which many will be seeing for the very first time, highlight horrendous security, drunken-up spectators, and Pacers players that felt as if they didn’t have a choice whether to fight or not. And when the police showed up, things got even worse. One police officer almost maced Reggie Miller.
In terms of Artest, he was quickly labeled the true villain — a loose cannon who had been wanting time off all season. However, below that persona and temperament was a man crying out for help. In the episode, Artest says that him lying down on the scorer’s table was actually a coping mechanism he put into practice, taught to him by his therapist. Artest’s therapist wanted him to lie down and count to five before acting on any anger or frustration.
The repercussions of the Malice at the Palace were severe. To get rid of its thuggish persona, the NBA created a dress code and stopped players from entering directly out of high school. For the Pacers and Pistons, it changed everything for the organizations. The Palace was destroyed. Reggie Miller retired. The Pacers went from an Eastern Conference powerhouse to a mid-tier team. That was the moment everything changed for the Indian Pacers.
Overall, Untold doesn’t save Artest from what he did or change the narrative of the Malice at the Palace to a coincidental moment in history. What the episode does do is demonstrate how easy it is to jump to conclusions before being presented with all the facts and information, and how quickly people move on without ever having the full picture.