StMU Research Scholars

The War in Detroit: The Malice in the Palace

The Palace of Auburn Hills was home for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons from 1988 to 2017. It was one of the most iconic and important basketball arenas in the country, before it was demolished in 2017. Nonetheless, it was home to three NBA championships, a multitude of conference titles, and a collection of other accolades and championships from other teams, like the Detroit Vipers. Multiple NBA All-Stars and NBA Hall of Famers have called the Palace their home. Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Richard Hamilton, and Ben Wallace have all brought trophies home to the Palace. With all its glory and prestige, it is easy to see why the legacy of the Palace of Auburn Hills is as coveted as it is, but an event overshadows all that glory completely. The “Malice in the Palace,” that sole incident, is just as, if not more famous, than the arena itself. In all honesty, more people know about the incident than the arena itself. The Malice in the Palace was a brawl so dangerous and severe that it turned the NBA upside down, and almost ruined the reputation of the league entirely.1

The event, or the “Malice in the Palace,” took place on November 19, 2004, but the seeds of the brawl were planted months prior in the post-season of the 2003-2004 NBA season. The Eastern Conference finals were held between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. The trio of Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, and an aging Reggie Miller led the Pacers on their journey through the season. On the opposite side of the floor, the duo of Ben Wallace and Richard Hamilton stood before them. At the time, these two teams were the best in the entire league, each with a good offense and an especially great defense. It was the talent and hard work shared between these two teams that got them here, and it was easy to see, so easy in fact, that most fans believed that whoever won this series would most likely go on to win the entire championship. Tensions and emotions were high, so all players were playing as hard as they could while on the floor. The series as a whole can be described as war itself. Both teams played next to perfect basketball, and each player, especially among their All-Stars, gave every ounce of effort they had. Both teams played hard, smart, and especially physical basketball. In game six of the series, the Pistons led 3-2, and if they won this game, they would go on to the NBA Finals. The Pacers had their backs against the wall and fought with all they had. Near the end of the game, Ron Artest, who is credited to be one of the more emotional and physical players on the court, alongside Jermaine O’Neal, committed a dumb and crucially flagrant foul. That gave the Pistons two free throws and the ball back. It was that foul that let the Pistons pull slightly ahead, winning 69-65. The Pistons then went on to win the NBA Finals, bringing home their third trophy. At the start of the next season, it was clear something was off with the team. Ron Artest, who later stated that he had been going through severe mental issues, had asked to take time off to promote his upcoming rap album. NBA players wanting to be rappers was nothing new; players did it all the time, and they often can keep up with the intense physical demands of being a professional basketball player. What made Ron’s case so different, however, was that he was requesting to take an extended leave of absence at the start of the season, which tends to be one of the more crucial parts of the season. This would take a toll on his relationship with his teammates. For Jermaine O’Neal, the final straw was when Ron lied about a death that had occurred in his family, but then showed up to the MTV Choice Awards on stage. With most of their starters at odds, the Pacers were always butting heads and could not recreate their former chemistry. The off-season was notable for the Pacers because they added a crucial piece to the already great team they had, Stephen Jackson, another high-tempered, hard-nosed basketball player. It was Stephen that made the roster complete and championship ready. The addition of Stephen Jackson would help bond the team together, and he was that crucial glue guy that all championship teams tend to need. Hopes were high in Indiana, as the Pacers were the consensus favorite to win the Eastern Conference and make it to the finals. The start of the season was upon them and they were ready to take on the challenges that faced them.2

The Pacers started red hot. They were so good at the start of the 2004-2005 season that they might have been literally on fire. They were destroying teams and started with 7 wins and 2 losses walking into the Palace the evening of November 19.3 It was clear from the get-go that the Pacers were all business this season and did not care about who stood in front of them. The former champion Pistons started with four and four. They were still a great team; however, both played with similar styles but only one of them would come out of this grudge match a victor. Ron has stated that it was this specific game that he wanted to win the most. Tensions were high; during the introductions it was clear that the crowd was going to play a major factor in this night’s game. Although it is something that is typically considered, the crowd plays a huge factor in the playing ability of the players on the court. The pressure could make or break a player’s game. Alongside that, the incident occurred during a time when NBA arenas still sold alcohol. Alongside those factors, Jermaine O’Neal had openly stated that Detroit was one of the hardest game settings to play in, because of their fans. With everything in place, players motivated, fans going crazy inside the stands, every big basketball fan knew that this would be the game to watch of the night. The game itself was an absolute masterclass on what, hard, physical, and intense basketball looked like. While most were expecting a bloody back and forth game between both teams, it was clear that the Pacers, especially Ron, were here to send a message, showing the entire league that the Pacers were going to be the team to beat that season.  By the end of the 4th quarter, Ron led all scorers with 24 points, proving despite all the nonsense off the court, he was still a top player in the league on the court. Jermaine O’Neal finished with 20 points, and Stephen Jackson finished with 13 points.3 It was near the end of the 4th quarter when things began to take a slight turn for the worse. It was near the very last minutes of the game, the Pacers were up by 15, and most players were just coasting till the clock ran out of time. It was a clear and easy victory for the Pacers, and it was evident how good they were. While the clack was nearing its end, Jamaal Tinsley, the starting point guard for the Pacers, yelled out to Ron, “You can get your foul now.” It was a clear call back from the season prior. It was that comment that ignited Ron to give Ben Wallace, the power forward of the Pistons, a hard foul for no apparent reason. Little did Ron know, alongside the rest of the Pacers, Ben Wallace had just lost his brother recently; alongside his on-corrections, his off-court emotions were at full power as well. In the sleuth of the foul, Ben and Ron start to shove each other. Most of the time when players start to shove and get physical, it hardly ever leads to punches being thrown; that is because most of all players are friends outside of basketball, good friends too. It takes something disrespectful either towards an organization or towards the player himself. In this case, Ron did something disrespectful. While they were pushing each other, and trying to get the other to step off, players from both teams were quick to rush them and try to separate them. Ron ended up against the scorer’s table and Ben was placed near the Piston’s bench. With the situation seemingly over, everyone sort of let their guard down. Then Ron set Ben off; Ron did not insult him or disrespect him personally. What he did was lay on the scorer’s table. To Ron, and only Ron, this was a form of anger management; what he was doing was trying to count inside his head so that he did not do another irrational act like he has been known to do. Ben on the other hand went close to inside, yelling and berating Ron to no end. He even threw one of his wristbands. He was going insane, and everyone’s attention was on him. Then it happened. Something flew through the air, almost in slow motion. Some Pacers players saw what it was, exactly where it was going, and who it was going to hit. Things were about to take a heavy turn for the worst.5

By this time in the game, most fans had already left, because of how badly the Pistons were losing; the only fans that remained were those who were the most die-hard and typically ones who had the most to drink. What happened during the situation with Ron and Ben, a fan had the wonderful idea of throwing a full cup of beer at Ron, who was lying defenseless on the scorer’s table. It hit Ron right in the face. In a fit of rage, Ron rushed to the stands, looking for whoever he thought threw the cup. Ron rushed to the fan who he thought was the culprit and started to throw punches. Unfortunately for Ron, he punched the wrong fan.

Ron Artest attacking Michael Ryan, the fan who Artest thought was the one who threw the cup | Courtesy of Television broadcast of the Pacers-Pistons brawl on ESPN

Instead, the fan who threw the cup was right next to him and tried to trip Ron on his way to attack the person next to him. A sleuth of fans started to rush Ron and try to tackle him. He was getting rushed from all sides and was outnumbered. That’s when it all hit the fan. Stephen Jackson rushed to help Ron inside the stands. He threw an absolute haymaker at a fan on top of Ron, hitting him with near direct contact. More and more players started to rush to the stands from both teams. Some players tried to separate all parties and control the situation while other players went in to fight. It was chaos, to say the least. If you were asking where security was, you would not be the only one. Security for the night was two officers located near the east side of the stadium. Only two officers to control over 22,000 attendees! While security was virtually out of the picture, it was up to players and coaching staff to regain control of the arena. That was much easier said than done. Ron and Stephen were finally separated from the crowd, and most players were being escorted by two or three members of their respected team staff. When everything seemed to calm down, Ron was finally walked back to the Pacer locker room. That when he was confronted, not by police, not by an arena official, not even by his coach. He was confronted by Charlie Haddad and Aj Shackleford, who were Piston fans. What had happened was Charlie and Aj had drunkenly snuck onto the court of the Palace. For a split second, there was a pause between Ron and those two, most likely out of confusion. That’s when Ron realized these two were looking for a fight, a fight with him. That’s when Ron went on to defend himself from those two. He threw a punch but then was tackled by Shackleford. While everything was happening in that split second, Jermaine O’Neal saw what was about to happen and broke free from his escorts. In an act of rage, Jermaine took a running start, wound up, and tried to throw a nuke of a punch toward the face of Haddad. In most likely the luckiest moment of Haddad’s life, Jermaine slipped and barely connected. Reggie Miller, the veteran of the team, has come out saying that he felt that punch may have very well killed Haddad. Not only was Haddad drunk, and out of shape. He had his guard down, giving Jermaine the clearest of targets. Also, Jermaine O’Neal was one of the most physically gifted humans in the entire world. He was fast, agile, and very powerful. He very well could have ended the man’s life that night. After all that had happened, Ron was finally corralled by his coaching staff and taken back to the locker room. Everything seemed over now; but that just was not the case. The fans noticed where Ron was going and immediately followed him back to the tunnel. They were in the stands throwing everything they could at Ron and at any Pacers player who followed him. Stephen was taken to the back next, all while getting pelted with food and drinks.

Stephen Jackson yelling during the brawl | Courtesy of Ballislife

As more and more players were escorted to the back, more and more items were being thrown. While Jermaine O’Neal was being dragged to the back, someone had taken a chair out from the concrete and threw it towards Jermaine, hitting not only him but fans and staff around him. Jermaine was the last Pacers player on the court. Finally, it was over. Police had arrived and they were starting to regain control of the near-riot level brawl. It was finally over for the night. The battle with the fans was over, but now the players had to fight someone else, someone entirely worse than all 22,000 Detroit fans: David Stern.5

The aftermath of the fight was a switch and severe. The Chairman of the NBA dropped the hammer down on Jermaine and Stephen, and especially on Ron. Ron was fined and suspended for the remainder of the season. Stephen was fined and suspended for 25 games, and Jermaine was fined and suspended for 30 games. This killed all hopes for a championship for the Pacers. That was not all, however; David Stern also enforced a strict dress code for players. No longer could players be whatever they wanted, only showing up to games in strict business casual attire. That was just the tip of the iceberg for the players, however. The media covered the situation like a pack of wild wolverines. They constantly belittled and put down players of the league, calling them thugs and other terms that held, some felt, a slight racial undertone added to it.7 Titles of articles released added words like “criminal,” only adding more fuel to the fire.8 They were relentless in their attack, not only on the players, but on the image of the league itself. Reporters like Jon Saraceno have gone on saying that the sport was in shambles because of the actions taken by the players that night.9 Action by the league was not over yet. Stern allowed David Gorcyca, the Oakland County prosecutor, to go through hours of footage from the game to identify and charge whoever was responsible for their actions on that night. Regardless of status, whether a player or a fan, he looked through each second of each camera to find out what they did. He was able to identify every fan who tried to instigate the brawl throughout the night. He was able to point out Haddad and Shackleford, the two fans that snuck onto the court; he was able to identify the fan who threw the chair, and charged him with felonious assault, and Gorcyca personally identified the man who incited the entire brawl, the cup-thrower himself, John Green.

John Green, the fan who threw the cup, sitting inside the Palace stands | Courtesy of HITC

All fans involved were subsequently banned from all Piston home games for life, and were prosecuted in criminal trials. The only punishments brought on them were community service, fines, and probation. After the criminal charges, Jermaine O’Neal was able to bring an appeal for his suspension to court. When the case made it to the federal court, a judge deemed that he had every right to do what he did. He was then able to get his suspension reduced. Artest and Jackson did not get their sentences reduced whatsoever. In the end, the Pacers would not win the championship that year. After coming back from suspension, Ron requested a trade. It was a move that he openly admited was cowardly, but he felt he had no other choice but to do so.10

The Palace in Auburn Hills would stay the home arena for the Pistons until 2017. It was then demolished after they moved stadiums. The ghost of the battle in Detroit remains, however. Time lost, money gone, opportunities wasted, and worst of all, legacies were dead. The Malice in the Palace will most likely go down as the worst day in NBA history, and with the Palace gone, all that remains as its legacy is that dreadful night.

  1. Floyd Russ, Untold: Malice at the Palace, Documentary, Crime, Sport (Players’ Tribune, Propagate, Stardust Films, 2021).
  2. Floyd Russ, Untold: Malice at the Palace, Documentary, Crime, Sport (Players’ Tribune, Propagate, Stardust Films, 2021).
  3. “Pacers vs Pistons, November 19, 2004,” Basketball-Reference.com, accessed April 15, 2022, 1.
  4. “Pacers vs Pistons, November 19, 2004,” Basketball-Reference.com, accessed April 15, 2022, 1.
  5. Untold: The Malice in the Palace, Streamed (Netflix, 2021)
  6. Untold: The Malice in the Palace, Streamed (Netflix, 2021)
  7. Richard Craig, “Malice in the Palace: The Incident,” Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men 4, no. 2 (2016): 22.
  8. Micheal Wilbon, “Friday Night Fracas Was Criminal on Every Level,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com, November 21, 2004, 1.
  9. Jon Saraceno, “USATODAY.com – Athletes Don’t Get to Cross the Line, No Matter What,” USA Today,  November 21, 2004, 1.
  10. Untold: The Malice in the Palace, Streamed (Netflix, 2021).

6 Responses

  1. Very informative article. the Pistons were known for there rough attitude and tough play which gave them a negative reputation of playing rough and breaking rules, but it shows that competition is fierce and sometimes can cause a breaking point for some who can’t handle it. This was a very good article.

  2. This article was something! I have always been an NBA fan ever since I could remember and during the times I’ve watched games, I’d always see players every now and then get into conflict, but nothing super serious. I didn’t think a day like this even existed in NBA history. I also loved reading how the fight between Ron and Ben kept escalating by the minute. This event is pretty captivating to pretty much anyone who comes across it. Well done!

  3. Hey Gabriel.
    I love this article very much. As a huge basketball fan, this is probably one of the best articles I have read that describes this situation. I saw a few documentaries on this, including plenty of journalistic accounts from reporters and commentator who were there, as well as some accounts from the players. It’s easy to say this was probably a very dangerous situation, and was probably one of the most dangerous in the history of sports. (this is that ‘Bottle gate” happened in the NFL prior to this, a collection of NHL hockey fights, the Nolan Ryan fight in baseball, and plenty of Laker-Celtic fights in the late 70s and 80s) I think it really defined the rivalry at the time, and made a statement from the build up from last year. However, was it out of hand? Yes, indeed.

  4. Hey Gabriel, as an athlete myself this article caught my attention. I enjoyed reading this article about the “Malice in the Palace”. My dad told me about this incident and said it was probably the worst day in NBA history during that time. This sport is so captivating an important part in any athletes lives. Basketball is like soccer…at some point in their lives someone has played it. This article was a very interesting one. Thank you.

  5. Hey Gabriel, I have to say that I really enjoyed reading your article! I am more in tune with the modern NBA so to read this piece really enlightened me.

  6. Hey Gabriel, as a sports and basketball fanatic I very much enjoyed reading this article. It was nice to see someone write an article on a specific sporting event that really is captivating to not only sports fans but any reader that comes across it. Truly a unique article, very good job Gabriel.

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