Do you remember where you were on November 19, 2004?
I remember exactly where I was: Sitting in the Old Point Tavern after having watched a flaming trainwreck of a comedy show by soon-to-be-dead comedian Mitch Hedberg at the Murat Theater. I’d just ordered a Guinness when the television screen above the bar caught my eye.
There was Ron Artest, the infamously volatile power forward for my Indiana Pacers, careening up stadium seats like a mountaineer. There was Stephen Jackson, headband askew, throwing wild haymakers at whatever poor bastard crossed his path. There was Jermaine O’Neal, laying out a Pistons fan with a one-punch stunner. There was Jamaal Tinsley, waving a dustpain above his head like a damn fool. And there was Artest again, now held back by the clutching arms of Austin Croshere, his jersey hanging off his body and his eyes projecting a weirdly Zen-like furor.
And there I was, watching, but not really computing, what I saw. The TV screen replayed the scene again and again. Slowly, it began to sink in.
This was bad for my Pacers. This was very, very bad.
I hurried home to watch the aftermath on ESPN. Initially, the consensus among the talking heads was that the Detroit fans were to blame. It was a fan who struck first by pelting Artest with a cup of beer after all. But the narrative quickly changed and it was the Pacers, and specifically Artest, who was in the wrong for retaliating. That was also the view taken by the NBA, and commissioner David Stern suspended our team right into oblivion.
Stern’s logic seemed to follow from a premise that the NBA had already been losing fans who’d been turned off by an influx of what they perceived as “thuggish” players. The truth is, there was plenty of culpability to go around for what happened at the Palace of Auburn Hills that night. But the Pacers were an easy scapegoat for a commissioner who wanted to send a strong message to his league.
For the Pacers and their fans, the punishment was a death blow. A season that started with very real championship hopes was reduced to an exercise in futility. And it lasted for far more than one season.
With the Pacers brand suffering locally and nationally, the team’s leadership over-corrected by bringing in a bunch of unthreatening players with negligible talent (read: Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy). The following five years were an ugly time to be a Pacers fan.
Things eventually got better. We got rid of Artest and Jackson. The Murphleavy era came and went. We lucked out in the draft and got Roy Hibbert and Paul George. We smartly acquired David West and George Hill. We became contenders again.
Then the damndest thing happened. This past summer, I was bum-rushed by a feeling that was unnervingly similar to the one I had on Novemember 19, 1994. I was walking into my living room when my wife, who looked like she’d just eaten something rotten, said, “You’re not going to want to look at the TV.”
Paul George had broken his leg in spectacularly gruesome fashion. Here the Pacers were, stacked with talent and poised to compete for a championship, and now it was all gone, just like that. Again.
It would be easy to say that enduring soul-crushing misfortune is just part of being a Pacers fan. Bad luck is written into our team’s DNA. We’re the Cubs of the NBA, only without the million-strong fan base. But that would be too easy.
The truth is, bad things happen to good teams. And that’s what the Pacers are: a good team. Few other NBA teams could have recovered from the staggering blow dealt by the brawl to be a championship contender within a decade.
Yes, the brawl was a nasty black eye for the team, and for our city. But 10 years on, I think it’s safe to declare that shiner healed. And like any punch in the face, it has left its us with something of a gift: an incredibly interesting story to tell–a dramatic, roller coaster of a yarn that Indianapolis alone owns. And that’s really not such a bad thing, if you ask me.
If you haven’t already, you really should read the excellent oral history of the Malice at the Palace over at Grantland featuring contributions from the players, coaches, play-by-play men, and journalists who were there.