If you’re a sports fan, and particularly if you’re a fan of basketball and the NBA, I encourage you to do what I did a few months ago, independent of this essay, and go watch unedited footage of the so-called “Malice at the Palace.” Even if you lived through it, even if you think you remember it, I can guarantee you that you’ll be astounded by the ferocity of the whole spectacle, from the point when Ron Artest races into the stands to fight the (wrong) fan, to Jermaine O’Neal’s haymaker that somehow managed not to kill another fan, to the full-on assault as the Indiana Pacers left the floor of the Palace of Auburn Hills, getting bombarded by everything from popcorn to water to bottles to an actual chair. We’re less than 20 years removed from it, but I guarantee you that it has been diminished in your memory from its original, unbelievable intensity.
All of which is to say that it’s an excellent subject for a sports documentary, and one which ESPN’s series 30 for 30 somehow hasn’t covered. Stepping into that vacuum is Untold, the new five-part Netflix sports documentary series with episodes planned on everything from Caitlyn Jenner to Mardy Fish. There are three basic metrics by which sports documentaries should be judged, and they are:
1. The strength of storytelling (is it riveting, is it fun?)
2. The thoroughness (is it a comprehensive work of journalism, with attempts to at least consider all sides and along with the broader societal elements?)
3. The ability to convince you that this is something important.
As a recent example, ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance was a smash hit on the first and third metric, but made almost no effort at anything like objectivity, which limits its artistry despite its massive popular success.
Malice at the Palace succeeds on all three fronts, and it does so in the tidy span of an hour that you’ll wish was longer. Director Floyd Russ makes the wise choice to focus most of his attention on the three Indiana Pacers who were suspended for fighting—Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace), Jermaine O’Neal, and Stephen Jackson—and one, the superstar Reggie Miller, who was not. Set in dim, low light, they are the narrative engine; but the brilliance of this documentary is that it’s not limited to their perspective. With tons of footage from the melee itself, interviews with police, prosecutors, announcers, Pistons star Ben Wallace, Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh, and even one of the fans who tried to fight Artest, it’s an incredibly efficient work of drama, made more so by the fact that it’s clear there were interviews he couldn’t land, from the late David Stern to Rick Carlisle to Larry Bird.
In short, the story is that the Pacers and Pistons were two of the best teams in the NBA, their long-time rivalry had reached a fever pitch in the fall of 2004, a season after the Pistons won the NBA title after beating the Pacers in the conference finals, and both teams appeared poised to compete for a title. When the Pacers came into Detroit on Nov. 19, 2004, and proceeded to beat up on the defending champions, they were understandably ecstatic. Ron Artest, who struggled with emotional issues, provoked a fight with Ben Wallace, and in the aftermath of their shoving match—the kind you see routinely in the NBA, and that rarely escalates to fisticuffs—he was hit by a fan with a beer bottle, raced into the stands, and provoked utter chaos. Eventually, he, O’Neal, and Jackson were hit with long suspensions, and Artest’s lasted for the remainder of the season.
That microcosmic story is worth the price of admission alone, as a study in miniature of how the tension of competitive sports can provoke violent passions that look, with hindsight, truly insane. But if the minute study of what actually happened in Detroit is fascinating, so is the story of the aftermath. When you really boil down the incident to its essentials, a basketball player was assaulted from afar by a fan, attacked in response, and was defended by his teammates. Where should the blame in that situation lie?
At the time, the answer in the sports media, and hence with NBA commissioner David Stern, was the players. The word “thug” was tossed about liberally in commentary, and thinly disguised racial stereotypes, doled out in phrases like “hip-hop mentality,” were used as a catch-all to paint the guilty Pacers as reactive, emotional, and mean. It will shock you, watching, when you’re reminded that all of this happened not in 1970, but in 2004. The entire basketball landscape was so in sync in the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the players, and painting them with racial stereotypes that it’s hard to imagine pundits or journalists using today without consequence. It worked, too; David Stern brought the hammer down on the three Pacers, functionally ending their hopes of an NBA title and derailing so many careers.
The cup-thrower and various other Pistons fans were eventually prosecuted, and Jermaine O’Neal’s suspension was reduced by a federal arbitrator, but the enduring message that came across was that Black men were to be blamed as a rule during these altercations, and Stern’s follow-up moves included such cosmetic bromides as establishing a dress code. It’s the same thing you hear about Stern all the time—a main part of his job was making the sport of professional basketball comfortable for a white audience who looked on the players as something to fear or hate.
All of this is told comprehensively and with impressive speed by Russ, who has managed to say something profound about what looks like nothing more than a chaotic fight at a basketball game. The Untold series is off to a fantastic start with “Malice at the Palace,” and has already put forth a claim to stand in rank with the best examples of other series like 30 for 30. With this installment, Netflix has a winner, which is more than can be said for anyone who endured the events of Nov. 19, 2004.
Untold’s first episode, “Malice at the Palace,” is now streaming; subsequent episodes will be released weekly on Tuesdays.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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