It was less than a minute to go and the Houston Rockets were on the verge of clinching a first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers last May. Suddenly, the Rockets' Ron Artest went barreling into the stands for a loose ball.
"I've been in the stands before," Artest joked with reporters later, after scoring 27 points.
Five years ago this week, when Artest went into the stands as a member of the Indiana Pacers, it produced the ugliest incident ever between fans and players, a brawl fomented, in part, by a fan throwing a drink at Artest. When he went into the stands last spring, a fan offered Artest a beverage.
"When he did that, I wanted to sit down and enjoy this -- he's not throwing it at me," Artest said. "I was actually going to take a sip, but there were too many cameras."
That Artest can joke about the brawl in the Palace at Auburn Hills -- and even re-enact it in China (a warning: some of the language and comments in this clip may be objectionable) -- indicates how differently one of the WORST moments in NBA history is viewed now.
Time, to some degree, has healed the wounds opened that night in suburban Detroit, but the fight between the Pacers and Detroit Pistons left an indelible mark on sports and became a watershed moment for the NBA.
With 45 seconds left in the game and the Pacers ahead by double digits, Artest fouled Ben Wallace; and after some pushing and shoving, Artest lay down on the scorer's table. A fan threw a drink at him, and he then raced into the stands, fists first. Stephen Jackson followed Artest, dropping his own haymakers, while Jermaine O' Neal punched a fan who confronted him on the court. As the scuffles developed, fans at the Palace hurled beverages, popcorn -- even chairs.
"The brawl was a low point for all involved," Pistons president Joe Dumars said last week.
In the aftermath, nine players were suspended for a total of 146 games, with Artest incurring the stiffest penalty. He missed the rest of the season, including the playoffs, and lost $5 million in salary. Also, five players and seven fans were charged with criminal offenses.
"My little boy was a ball boy that day," Larry Brown, the Pistons' coach at the time, told ESPN.com on Monday. Brown is now Jackson's coach in Charlotte. "I was so worried about him -- not only what he saw, but his safety, because it was such an ugly scene. The only way I look at it now is, it was the ugliest thing I've ever been involved with."
The brawl sent both franchises in completely different directions. The Pistons went on to appear in the NBA Finals that season and advanced to the next four Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers were never the same. They haven't made the playoffs since losing to Detroit in the 2005 postseason, and not a single Pacer involved in the fracas is on the roster today. At the time, O'Neal, Jackson and Artest were considered the nucleus of a championship team in the making. Today, Artest is with the Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson is with the Charlotte Bobcats (as of Monday, his sixth NBA team) and O'Neal is a member of the Miami Heat.
"It really tore apart a great team," Orlando Magic guard Anthony Johnson said on Wednesday. Johnson, who was a Pacer back then, was suspended five games by the NBA and given one year's probation and community service for his involvement in the brawl. "The year before, we had won 61 games. Detroit had beat us in the Eastern Conference finals and they won the NBA Championship, and we basically kept the same team and probably were even better than we were the year before. A whole season, a talented team, just went down the drain. It ruined a perfectly great opportunity."
As embarrassing as it was, the fight brought some fascinating issues to the surface, including the declining relationships between fans and players and, of course, the racial tensions created by a nearly all-black league being marketed, covered and consumed by a mostly white media and fan base.
"We all knew the league is 80-85 percent black; we all know that," O'Neal told the Indianapolis Star shortly after his 25-game suspension (later cut to 15 games) ended that season. "We didn't talk about the baseball player [Texas Rangers relief pitcher Frank Francisco] just breaking a lady's nose with a chair because she was talking. They didn't talk about that for weeks, did they? Every day for six weeks, you see something on TV about it. They didn't talk about [former St. Louis Blues player Mike Danton] trying to kill his agent.
"These are people that are not black, and that touched me a little bit because that's totally unfair for this league to be judged off one incident."
Looking back on it now, race wasn't much of an element in the actual fight. Certainly, fans of all races participated in the ugliness; and it's likely that the tipping point -- the thrown beverage -- would have incited the brawl no matter the race of the person who threw it. For the record, he was white.
But there is no doubt that, sadly, the Palace incident was a culmination of what most people had come to expect from NBA players. At the time, the league was bubbling with racial tension created by its alignment with hip-hop culture. You had young, black men making millions of dollars, unafraid to flaunt it with gaudy platinum chains and throwback jerseys -- an image the NBA attempted to dissolve by instituting a dress code a year after the Palace brawl.
"At that time, a lot of people were jealous of what kids have in our league," Brown said. "Unfortunately, we don't always focus on all the good kids we have and all the good things they do in their community and how they represent the league the right way. That incident, I think [for] a lot of people, maybe reinforced what they thought without knowing."
Race continues to be an element in the NBA's image issues, but it isn't the prevailing reason many sports fans look disdainfully at the league. In 2008, before the NBA All-Star game, ESPN The Magazine explored the disconnect between NBA fans and players. A poll commissioned by the magazine found that nearly 50 percent of fans believe "it's a shame what's happening to the league." Only 38 percent felt that way about baseball, despite numerous steroid scandals, and only 21 percent had that feeling about the NFL, whose image seems to be Teflon despite numerous criminal transgressions by its players. The poll also showed that respondents believe the typical NBA player is less likely to respect the fans, remain loyal to his team and love his wife, and is more likely to carry a gun, use recreational drugs and have an entourage.
In fairness, that poll was done before the galvanizing performance by NBA players in the Olympics last summer, but it comes at a time when the NBA is enjoying a healthy period. You have stars like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James -- players who have never been in trouble and are as image-conscious as NBA commissioner David Stern is -- leading the way with fundamentally sound basketball. You have the Celtics and Lakers back at the top, and emerging teams such as the Nuggets and Magic. And in the wake of the Palace brawl, the NBA beefed up security leaguewide in an effort to ensure there is no "Malice at the Palace 2.0." So far, it's worked fabulously.
"We learned from the situation but we have moved on," NBA spokesperson Tim Frank said this week.
But if just a year ago people thought that little of NBA players, it makes you wonder whether the only thing that has changed in the past five years is that we can now joke about an ugly incident that might not have inspired any real growth.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.