By Bomani Jones
Special to Page 2

On Nov. 19, 2004, Ron Artest rolled off the scorer's table at The Palace at Auburn Hills and incited a riot. Of all the days of the NBA's first 58 years, that is the one that will live in infamy. It surely wasn't as significant as Pearl Harbor, but for NBA fans it shares something with John F. Kennedy's assassination -- nearly everyone remembers where they were when they heard what happened.

It was an ugly scene, replete with haymakers, flying chairs and crying children. It was also the most addictive piece of television of the new millennium, one that combined comedy, action and drama to create a 15-minute scene that could only be described as cinematic.

The Brawl
We all remember Artest tangling with fans in the stands.

But this wasn't cinematic in only a general sense. This was a reminder of a classic from 1989, one that raised a lingering, unanswered question -- is there always a "right" thing to do?


Sixteen years ago, Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" was released in theaters. The film is a perfect storm of imperfections; it stands as Lee's masterpiece, the accomplishment that separates the Knicks' No. 1 fan (poor guy) from former NBA heckler Robin Ficker in untrained eyes. Using the hottest day of summer as a backdrop, "Do the Right Thing" is an attempt to weave roughly 79 social issues into two hours of screen time about less than 24 hours of life in Brooklyn. Like the film's de facto score, Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," it was effective, brilliant chaos.

And on that scorching summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant -- where it appeared no one had air conditioning -- years of frustration and hostility simmered like water in a tea kettle.

Then the pot whistled. Then it exploded.

The Palace Brawl
• Sheridan: What November 19 means 
• Stein: Jermaine O'Neal's new leaf
• Scoop: The evolution of Artest
• Nichols: Remembering the Brawl
• Photo Gallery: The Major Players
• Mail form: Send us your thoughts

ESPN Motion Video:
• Remembering the Brawl: A.J. Shackleford ESPN Motion
• Remembering the Brawl: Rick Mahorn ESPN Motion
• Remembering the Brawl: Anthony Johnson ESPN Motion
• Remembering the Brawl: Jim Stoinski ESPN Motion
• Remembering the Brawl: Bernie Smilovitz ESPN Motion

At the end of that really bad day, a riot broke out, and it ended when the neighborhood pizzeria burned. But that fire had nothing to do with one day. That day was simply the background, a simple metaphor for age-old problems. The fire had to do with a swirl of circumstances, including -- but not limited to -- gentrification, racism (both real and imagined) and generational differences.

The film's climax was Spike's finest, most challenging work. Aside from being visually striking, it was nearly impossible to watch without taking sides. You were either with the owner of the pizzeria or the cats from the neighborhood. You either flinched or cheered as Sal (Danny Aiello) smashed Radio Raheem's boom box. You were either with the cops or the neighborhood when Raheem got choked to death by two officers. You either clapped or booed as Mookie (Spike's character) threw a trash can through the window of the pizzeria, the moment that took the riot to another level.

But no matter your allegiances, you couldn't help but wonder if the fire was Shakespearean -- sound and fury signifying nothing, a mob tantrum that said little in the end. The pizzeria burned down.

But the match that lit the fire, the fury held by so many in the film, continued to burn. And no truck or hydrant was going to change that.


After watching the brawl in Detroit countless times over the past year, "Do the Right Thing" is the only thing that served as an adequate comparison. That's not just because the scene at The Palace was so unreal that it felt scripted. Instead, it was because only in that movie have little things served as proxies for overarching and salient issues and brought them together perfectly in a thought-provoking, entertaining fashion (sorry, but anyone that claims to not enjoy a brouhaha isn't telling the truth).

The brawl itself was a screenwriter's dream. Not only were all the main characters in the right places for something to go wrong, but they all played predictable roles. Only Ron Artest would commit a playoff foul to stop Ben Wallace from scoring a meaningless basket in the last minute of a game in mid-November. Artest is so gentle that he'll tap you on the shoulder if you say hello, but his play is ferocious and his behavior erratic. He was blessed with a power forward's body and a swingman's game. But he was not blessed with an "off" switch.

So it was fitting that Artest would lie on the scorer's table while bedlam ensued on the floor, a move that appeared to be less about taunting the crowd and the Pistons than Ron-Ron performing a bit of anger management (trust me, I know a bit about the latter).

But only something divinely devilish would allow the stars to align in such a way that would leave Artest -- the biggest villain of the post-Rodman era -- with a clear path to a man with a rap sheet full of alcohol-related offenses, a full cup of beer and incredible pitching accuracy for a drunkard.

And allow that gentleman, John Green -- sporting an extra-medium shooting shirt he must have won by Stumping the Schwab -- to nudge Artest toward an unsuspecting soul who didn't know whether to wet himself or give Ron-Ron his lunch money. Or both.

And leave Stephen Jackson, the only man at The Palace who didn't appear overwhelmed by the scene, in a position to vault over the scorer's table before anyone could stop him.

And all of this happened in a section where Wallace's brother was sitting, only moments after Wallace's shove of Artest got this whole thing rolling.

The Brawl
Rasheed Wallace had one of the cooler heads that day.

And while this happened, Rasheed Wallace, formerly the poster boy for NBA bad behavior, played Dalai Lama for a day, his incredible wingspan spread as far as it could reach in an attempt to stop the violence from escalating. That's right, Rasheed Wallace.

In no way could anyone expect a more explosive set of coincidences. In the words of the great philosopher Homer J. Simpson, it's funny because it's true.

But it was compelling because, in the crowd, sides were drawn. Though a section of fans saw Green throw his drink toward the crowd, no fan did anything to him. As Artest charged towards him, no one pointed out Green as Artest's assailant. The fans did not become participants until Artest grabbed the wrong man.

From there, the stands became the pizzeria. They burned because of something bigger than an on-court fight or a thrown cup. In the stands, there were two sides -- players and fans. Fred Jones jumped in the crowd to try to stop the fight and took a series of blows. Each of Jackson's haymakers connected with a spectator. Ben Wallace's brother, whom one would assume would be sympathetic toward players in such a situation, threw hands at the Pacers in the stands.

Broadcasters Mike Breen and Bill Walton called the game for ESPN, and both reserved their criticism for the fans. The immediate reaction from the "Shootaround" crew was to blame the fans, many of whom behaved in a way rarely seen in modern American sports. On top of dumping food and drinks on players as they entered the tunnel, some moron threw a folding chair into the fray. The normally reserved John Saunders was livid.

"It's easy to hit a man when he's down," said Saunders, who saw that abusive behavior as an ill reminder of what he endured as a hockey player. "Show that you're not a sissy."

Greg Anthony and Tim Legler, both former players, came down firmly on the side of the players. Stephen A. Smith, known as a player-friendly NBA writer, also sided with the players.

At that point, it became clear what this fight was really all about. NBA fans may think the action is fan-tastic, but they didn't feel the same way about the players. And the sentiment seemed to be mutual.

That fire had to be put out. And only one man had the power to do that.


David Stern was left with the biggest challenge of his career. He saw the distaste those fans had for his players and, really, his league. There was a thirst for punishment that didn't develop spontaneously that night. It developed as players' images and personalities became less palatable to ticket buyers.

The template for the modern NBA star was no longer Michael Jordan and his fresh-to-death suits. The new stars, those marketed by the shoe companies, looked more like Allen Iverson, the kid from Newport News, Va., who did a stint in jail before he got to college (Iverson's conviction on assault charges was overturned on appeal). The two players most closely associated with the brawl came from notoriously tough environments -- Artest is from the Queensbridge projects in New York City, and Jackson is a blood from Port Arthur, Texas -- who do nothing to obscure their roots.

With those two players as the principle villains, Stern had to flex his muscles in a way that made an example of the players and demonstrated to ticket buyers that he looked past the fans' behavior and saw their concerns.

So Stern reacted in a way that showed little loyalty to the players. Sticking up for them was a job for National Basketball Players Association chief Billy Hunter. His Majesty represents the owners, and owners have tickets to sell. Stern had on his hands a battle between his main attractions -- the players -- and the fans who pay the money to keep the league in business. He could see everything that went wrong that night, from intoxicated fans to nonexistent security, but his primary job was to take care of the bottom line. He had to make NBA fans comfortable with his players again. He could increase security to make players feel safer, but he had to do something to make things right with his customers. He had to show that the NBA had control of its players, that they couldn't be expected to barge into the stands under any circumstances.

After all, the customer is always right.

So Stern played the heavy and issued harsh suspensions. Artest was suspended for the rest of the season. Jackson got a 30-game suspension. And Jermaine O'Neal got 25 games for doing Palace security's job and knocking a trespasser into the next week. Ben Wallace got six games for starting the fight by shoving Artest.

Stern couldn't have been delusional enough to believe those punishments were fair. An arbitrator reduced O'Neal's suspension. Artest's suspension remained the same, though he would not have received such a stiff penalty were he anyone else.

Well, except for Rodman. Maybe.

Notions of fairness aside, Stern had no other choice but to play Draco. Tickets weren't going to be sold if he did not demonstrate that he was in charge, the boss powerful enough to make sure a catastrophe like this would never happen again.

And if anyone in professional sports is in control of his league, it's David Stern. Whether that's good or bad remains to be seen.


One year later, the question still remains -- during and after the brawl, did anyone do the right thing?

In answering that question, this brawl becomes far more compelling than "Do the Right Thing." As he typically does, Spike left the responsibility of sorting through the wreckage for viewers. He purposely left no easy answers, allowing anyone who gave his movie two hours to try to figure out his point.

Before and during the brawl, right and wrong were almost indistinguishable.

Wallace was wrong for starting the ruckus in the first place, but hard fouls in garbage time are dirty pool.

Artest may have been wrong for jumping in the crowd, and any claim of innocence he considered making went out the window when he snatched the wrong man. But I'm not comfortable with a world where people are expected to be the passive targets of projectiles. As writer jimi izrael said after the brawl, "There is nothing noble about letting people throw s--- at you. Nothing."

Jackson may have been wrong for handling a section of spectators like he was the One Man Gang. But after seeing what happened to Fred Jones, it's hard to fault Jackson for going in swinging. And anyone that wouldn't want Jax, who lost millions during his suspension, to have his or her back is foolish.

Perhaps O'Neal didn't have to lower the boom on the fan who reached the floor, but what else should be expected when a civilian is forced to do a security guard or policeman's job? The hired help who obliterated the gentleman in Cincinnati who took the football out of Brett Favre's hands was cheered two weeks ago. But O'Neal got suspended?

Fans showered the floor with debris. But with sides so clearly drawn, what else would be expected?

After the brawl, things remained murky. Artest appeared on the "Today" show three days after the brawl to push a CD by Allure, an R&B trio signed to his record label. He seemed totally detached from what transpired the previous weekend, weirdly aloof as he tried to shill his product.

Where some saw a lack of remorse, others saw a man trying to get paid as he prepared to lose 89 percent of his annual salary. After Artest asked for time off to recover from spending his summer promoting the album, his appearance on "Today" rubbed millions of people the wrong way. I'm not sure what else he was supposed to do. The Web site for his label, TruWarier Records, crashed in the days after the brawl -- which killed his most effective form of advertising. When most people lose jobs, they go get another one. I'm not sure what should have made Artest any different.

And as this season drew near, Artest told the media that he would not change his style of play. He was pilloried for that, even though his temper has always been his problem, not his play. That proved one thing, though -- even if he's not doing the wrong thing, Artest has an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing.

Which of those is better (or worse)? Guess that depends on perspective.

But the figure who will be scrutinized like no other will be Stern. With the suspensions, his fervent desire for an age limit and the imposition of a dress code, Stern has clashed with players more visibly in the last year than he had in his previous two decades running the league. Many deemed the age limit to be biased against young black males, but Stern avoided major claims of racism.

David Stern
The commissioner has a monumental task in front of him.

It is Stern's dress code that will be the legacy of his response to the brawl. After establishing that the league could control the players' behavior, he took things a step farther. He may try to sell the story that the dress code is about "professionalism," but he'd have an easier time selling me the Brooklyn Bridge (no thanks, I already bought the Golden Gate). This dress code is about changing the way fans view and relate to the players.

It's about narrowing the rift that the brawl brought into the light.

Will it be enough to sew together such a tear in the game's fabric? And even if the dress code accomplishes that goal, is it the right thing?

Like Spike, I have no easy answers. Insulting as Stern's dress code is to anyone who sees no correlation between dress and personal substance, his logic and goals are both understandable and justifiable. Whether this measure will be effective remains to be seen.

But while those questions linger without answers, a flame will continue to burn.

The league and the players better figure it soon. Another explosion may be too much for the NBA to overcome.

Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at