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What a Brawl!  An Analysis of the Piston-Pacer-Fan Rumble

Last Friday night (November 19th, 2004) saw the most eye-popping, dubious, frightening, and out-of-control spectacle seen in the NBA's long and illustrious history in a game between two top championship contenders: the defending champions, Detroit Pistons and last-season's best record producer, the Indiana Pacers.   

The whole fiasco began with only 46 seconds remaining with the Pacers having a dominant 97-82 lead against the Pistons.  Detroit's center and undisputed leader, Ben Wallace, went in for a lay-up before being fouled hard by the Pacer's all-star guard, Ron Artest.  Wallace turned around, obviously very angry, and walked towards Artest, delivering a hard, two-handed shove to Artest's upper chest and chin.  This led to some commotion where the players from both team ran to the action to break up any further problems. 

The brew-ha-ha seemed to settle in its usual fashion, with players, coaches, and referees restraining the hot heads of some individuals.  Ron Artest, no stranger to these type of commotions, appeared resigned to let the situation cool down on its own by lying down on the scorer's table.  He even appeared to take light of the situation by putting on a radio broadcaster's headset and even mocked as if he was being interviewed.  His behavior incensed Wallace further, who proceeded to throw his sweat-drenched headband at him.  Still all relatively harmless until the major incident occurred that led to the proverbial "excrement" hitting the fan (no pun intended). 

The major igniter that fueled the whole fracas occurred when an unidentified fan near midcourt hits Artest in the face with a cup filled with ice and a beverage.  You could just see the instantaneous change in Artest's face.  One second, a playful instigator lying on the scorer's table with no intention to further escalate the problem, (cue: SPLASH), to a focused predator leaping of the table and into the stands hunting down the assailant who had dared served him this injustice, challenging his defiance against NBA authority and accountability.  Yes the excrement certainly did hit the fan – or was about too.   

Infuriated by the action, and without any hesitation, Artest charged the stands towards the direction of the hurled beverage.  This led him to the mid-level seats near center court where he attacks a fan that he thinks hurled the cup at him.  That fan would be Mike Ryan of Clarkstown.  According to Ryan, "He was on top of me, pummeling me and he said, "Did you do it?  Did you do it?"  And I said, 'No, man, no."  He kind of shoved me and went off on other people."  Before I go any further, I have to give credit to Ryan for remaining conscious after a 6'7", 250-pound, superb physical specimen begins hammering away at him.     

Back to the action where we last left Artest pummeling Ryan:  As Artest was punching away, his teammate, the newly acquired guard, Stephen Jackson appeared to also be in attack-mode.  Jackson was the second player to rush the stands taking on whatever Piston fan would stand in his way – and their were some they were ready to tick off the "Fight an NBA player" from their "to-do" list.  Jackson threw and landed several wild punches on fans.  He was also hit hard across the head by a fan that had attacked him from behind.  At this point players from both teams jumped into the crowd to try and pull the players involved out of the whole melee.  It was at this point where several stirring storylines began to form involving players, coaches, and fans.   

David Harrison, Eddie Gill and Fred Jones of the Pacers, and Detroit's Rasheed Wallace and former Piston Rick Mahorn attempt to break up the fight between the Pacers players and Detroit fans, who land their share of punches.  Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle was instrumental in getting both Artest and Jackson out of the crowd.  However that was not the end of it. 

As Artest began to walk of the floor, he was confronted by a young rotund fan in a Piston's jersey who begins shouting at Artest.  Still in his predatory manner, Artest punched the fan without any hesitation.  Artest was pulled away, and the fan charged back.  That is where TV camera's picked up a running Jermaine O'Neal (6'11", 242 pounds) who used all his force to sucker punch another man in the head who joined the scrum.  That man was identified as Charles Hadad.  Hadad had run onto the court after O'Neal.  He had to encounter Pacer guard, Anthony Johnson first, who landed a punch.  Before O'Neal ran in for his super-samurai action punch, on bended knees at that.  Hadad was knocked out cold and was carted off the court on a stretcher.

It took fifteen minutes, in what seemed like an eternity, to have the whole scuffle conclude.  The major Pacers involved with the whole scrap – Artest, Jackson, and O'Neal (coincidentally the Pacer's top three scorers); were restrained by coaches and officials who led them back into the dressing room.  On their way out through the tunnel leading to their dressing room haven, fans continued their onslaught pelting the players with obscenities, cups, drinks, pretzels, popcorn, ice, and even a folding chair.  The liquid-drenched O'Neal almost got into another altercation in the tunnel with another fan, in front of Auburn Hills police. 

The whole kafuffle took the league by surprise, which have never experienced a fight escalating to this level of magnitude.  Here are some quotes given by various people in response to this conflict:

"The events of the game were shocking, repulsive and inexcusable, a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA."

-         David Stern, NBA commissioner

"I felt like I was fighting for my life out there…  I'm sorry the game had to end this way."

-         Rick Carlisle, Indiana Pacers Head Coach

"It was the ugliest thing I ever seen in my life.  I am embarrassed for our league and disappointed to be part of this and disappointed for our young people who saw that."

-         Larry Brown, Detroit Piston's Head Coach

"There's no place in the game for what went on with this incident.  It was just an ugly scene."

-         Joe Dumars, President of Detroit Piston's Basketball Operations and future Hall of Famer

"We'll put it all together, take it to the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office and have them review it and they'll decide if there are any charges…  I hope we can do it before Thanksgiving."

-         Jim Mynsberge, Auburn Hills deputy chief

"You can literally count every time a punch is thrown and that would constitute an assault and battery.  Now, whether or not some of them are justifiable under law remains to be seen.  Some players could state they were coming to the defense of, say, Artest when he entered the stands area, but this is all going to have to be straightened out and there are going to be voluminous reports from people on press row, who were there just rows in front it, player personnel, the players themselves, coaches, referees, fans, literally hundreds of reports to review."

-         David Gorcycka, Oakland County prosecutor

"It was a disgraceful situation…. There were no winners whatsoever.  There is no excuse for players to go into the stands.  The privilege and honor that goes with being an NBA player prohibits you from ever crossing that line.  It was a frightful, devastating experience and there will be major ramifications for both teams and will have an impact on the rest of this NBA season."    

-         Bill Walton, ESPN basketball analyst and NBA Hall of Famer

"I have never seen a fight like that in a game since I was in high school…  Man, there are going to be some lawsuits. You don't think some of those fans aren't going to want some NBA money?"

-         Quentin Richardson, guard for the Phoenix Suns

"Whoooo.  When you see things like that, just think about what it takes for NBA players to go into a crowd.  Sometimes fans get kind of out of hand, but it must have taken a lot for NBA players to go into a crowd and start a fight."

-         Lamar Odom, forward for the Los Angeles Lakers

"That was unbelievable"

-         Chris Chelios, Detroit Red Wings (NHL) defensemen and tough guy (who sat courtside for the game)


 The Aftermath

As expected, the NBA was quick to react to the unfortunate incident.  It was obvious that the whole skirmish had landed the NBA a black image that is usually reserved for the National Football League, National Hockey League, and even Major League Baseball to some degree.  Commissioner David Stern, the architect of the NBA's global success, thanks in part to limiting any negative image cast upon the NBA, was swift to react, and doled out the harshest penalty ever seen in NBA history.  No doubt, a statement to the rest of the league, that this behavior is not tolerated and harsh penalties will be incurred if it occurs again.   

A total of 143 games in suspensions were sentenced out to players from both teams involved in the brawl.  The bulk of the penalty went to Ron Artest, the lead character during the Malice at Auburn Hills.  Artest was suspended for the rest of the NBA season – an unprecedented total of 73 games.  Pacer's guard, Stephen Jackson was suspended for 30 games, Pacer's forward, Jermaine O'Neal was suspended for 25 games, and Piston's center, Ben Wallace was suspended for six games.  Four players: Indiana's Reggie Miller, and Detroit's Chauncey Billups, Elden Campbell and Derrick Coleman were suspended one game apiece for leaving the bench during the first scuffle between Artest and Wallace.

Artest's 73-game suspension beats out the previous best – Latrell Sprewell, then of the Golden State Warriors, who was suspended for 68 games for physically assaulting (choking) his then-head coach, P.J. Carlisemo.  The previous player-fan altercation resulting in suspensions occurred in 1995, when the Houston Rocket's guard, Vernon Maxwell was suspended 10 games for hitting a fan in the stands.