Death Of A Laptop: Ron Artest vs. The Palace
I don’t know what to say.
That’s the first line of the blog post I wrote at 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 20, 2004 — shortly after I got home from that night’s NBA game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers.
More than fifteen years later, it is still impossible to fully explain what it was like to be in the middle of the worst riot in American sports history. As I’ve said many times over the years, there have been a lot of games where I thought, “I can’t believe this is happening,” but this is the only time where I distinctly remember thinking, “this can’t be happening.”
In my recent post about covering the Armando Galarraga/Jim Joyce game, I said it wasn’t the second-craziest event I had ever covered, but it wasn’t close to #1. I can’t even imagine what would knock Ron Artest off the top spot — some kind of unspeakable tragedy, I fear.
I’ve been asked many times over the years to tell the story, but I’ve never come up with a better version than what I wrote that night. So here’s the rest of the post with some 2020 annotations.
First, the important thing. I’m basically OK. I got knocked over a table, which set off a minor bout of back spasms. My laptop got knocked onto the concrete floor at the same time but seemed to have survived intact. We’ll have to see about that.
Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist in 2004, so this LiveJournal post was the first chance I had to tell anyone I wasn’t dead. The only communication I’d had with the outside was a quick call to my parents because I knew they were watching the game. They called my girlfriend (now wife) Angie, who had no idea anything had happened and was baffled as to why Mom was assuring her I was OK.
As you probably guessed from the headline, the laptop didn’t make it. The keyboard stopped working over the next day or two, and everything started getting extremely hot.
Here’s what happened. The Pacers were wiping out the Pistons. With less than a minute left, Ron Artest shoved Ben Wallace in the back as Ben was going for a shot. Wallace turned around and shoved Artest in the face, and Artest staggered back. He eventually ended up on the scorer’s table, lying on his back like he was relaxing.
Both benches emptied, there was a lot of pushing and shoving and general mayhem. The refs, incredibly, didn’t have Wallace and Artest removed from the court. Eventually, Artest, being a hot dog, grabbed a radio headset and started giving an interview while still lying on the scorer’s table.
Artest wasn’t giving an interview — the headset was unplugged.
That set Wallace off again, and he threw a towel at Artest, hitting him in the head. Things got tense again, and Ben threw his headband toward the stands. I remember watching the headband fly through the air. At that point, this was probably the nastiest basketball fight I had ever seen in person, but that was it. It happened on the other end of the court, and I was just trying to keep track of things for Larry.
Larry = Larry Lage, the Associated Press’ sports editor in Detroit.
Oh, yeah. Since it was a big game, both Larry and I were there. So he was in our front-row seat next to Mahorn, and I was sitting behind him in the second row of media seats. That got very important.
As I watched the headband fly, I saw motion out of the corner of my eye. I turned that way, and to my horror, Artest had charged into the stands and was trying to kill some guy. Seconds later, he was joined by Stephen Jackson, who laid out a guy with one punch. Instead of being at the other end of the floor, this was now happening a few feet away from me.
The second row of the media is back against the old hockey boards, so we were trapped. We couldn’t go forward, and we couldn’t go back. It is a hard process even getting in from the sides, and that’s not with massive NBA players going over you and around you and things flying through the air.
I was trying to duck and help protect Dana, who was right next to me. At some point, I got pushed into the table, which tipped over, sending laptops, phones, and TV monitors crashing to the ground. Dana was begging Chauncey Billups not to go into the crowd, telling him it would only make things worse.
I was wrong about the table but didn’t know it until a Zapruder-level viewing of the video. A member of the Pacers staff tried to jump over the table to get to Artest, but lost his balance and fell backward, knocking it over.
By this point, the arena was in utter chaos. We didn’t see a lot of the stuff live, being concerned about the insanity in our immediate area, but Jermaine O’Neal sucker-punched one fan and could have easily killed him. Morons dumped beer and threw ice at the Pacers players and coaches, and one fucktard threw a chair.
O’Neal was 6'11" and 255 pounds at the time. He sprinted at the fan and threw a Superman punch that would have decapitated the guy. Luckily, he slipped on some beer.
Eventually, the floor was cleared, and the game was officially ended. Dana and I went to the back, and then I headed for the Pacers locker room, where I listened to one of their assistant coaches try to talk the police out of arresting O’Neal. Within a few minutes, the media was removed from the area, except for Jim Gray of ESPN, which pissed me off no end.
I’m still angry about that, mainly because Gray claimed he got maced in the aftermath. A police officer pulled out pepper spray to stop Reggie Miller from charging back into the melee, but he never used it.
Eventually, a decision was made to get the Pacers out of there. No players were arrested, but there is a good chance that warrants may be issued in the next few days after the TV tapes are reviewed by the police and by the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office. I also expect that there will be charges filed against some of the fans that were involved if they can be identified on the tape.
Artest, O’Neal, Jackson, Anthony Johnson and David Harrison of the Pacers were eventually charged with assault and battery, as were five Pistons fans. The five players all pled no contest and received a small fine, a year of probation, community services, and mandatory anger management classes.
John Green, the fan who threw the beer, received 30 days in jail and two years of probation. Bryant Jackson, who threw the chair, received two years of probation and paid $6,000 in restitution.
There was also an incident in the tunnel, off-camera, where O’Neal allegedly injured a fan with a punch. That happened right in front of at least one police officer, and was what they were going to arrest him for, not for the incident caught on camera.
Obviously, we were never allowed to talk to the Pacers players, and the Pistons were told not to talk to us. They all left the arena staring straight ahead, not even acknowledging our questions. The only person that we talked to was Larry Brown, who called it the worst thing he has seen in his 40+ years in basketball.
Smush Parker made his Pistons debut that night after spending the previous season in Greece. As the players left, I called out, “Smush, was this what you expected from your first game in Detroit?” He successfully fought off a laugh, but it was close.
I finally left the arena about 1:20, but Dana and I spent another 15–20 minutes talking in the parking lot. We were basically in shock. The last time I can remember something like this, other than a couple of minor-league hockey games, is the time in the 1970s that several of the Boston Bruins went into the stands at Madison Square Garden in New York.
There’s a lot of blame to go around. Artest started the incident with a chickenshit flagrant foul at the end of a blowout. The refs should have gotten him and Wallace off the floor immediately. Wallace should not have thrown the towel. Obviously, the fan shouldn’t have thrown the glass of beer at Artest, which is what sent him into the crowd in the first place. And after the Pacers went into the crowd, the behavior of many fans were utterly inexcusable. People talk about the “mob mentality,” and how people do things they would normally never do, but it’s terrifying to be in the middle of it.
Still, given all that, there’s just no excuse for Artest and Jackson going into the crowd and attacking fans. They had no way of knowing if the fans they were engaged with had anything to do with the stuff that was being thrown.
I have no idea what happens next. There are going to be long suspensions — the Pacers’ three best players are looking at possibly missing 15–20 games or more. They could also be facing criminal charges, as well as probable (definite?) lawsuits.
For the Pistons, I suspect that Ben Wallace will get 3–5 games, and Rasheed Wallace might get suspended for going into the crowd, even as a peacemaker. Six Pistons — Chauncey Billups, Darvin Ham, Darko Milicic, Derrick Coleman, Antonio McDyess and Elden Campbell — are also facing automatic one-game suspensions for leaving the bench during the original altercation. Tayshaun Prince was the only Piston smart enough to stay on the bench, so he should avoid any punishment at all. Smush Parker, Rip Hamilton and Lindsey Hunter were in the game, and shouldn’t get suspended, unless Rip gets a game for shoving various Pacers during the first fracas.
Artest got “more,” missing the final 73 regular-season games and the postseason. Jackson got 30 games, and O’Neal got 25, which was reduced to 15 on appeal.
Ben Wallace got six games, but the only other Pistons suspensions were the automatic one-gamers for leaving the bench. For some reason, Darko Milicic escaped.
(and no, they won’t suspend everyone at once — they will stagger things so that the team can put a reasonable squad on the floor for every game. Usually, it is 2–3 people per game, done in alphabetical order.)
The short-handed Pistons won a double-overtime game two nights later against the Charlotte Bobcats. Because of the suspension and players fouling out, they were down to five players by the end of the game — it was surreal to see a team with no one on the bench.
It’s 3:24. I’ve been home for a little more than 90 minutes, and the adrenalin is just starting to wear off. I was supposed to go to the Science Center tomorrow with Angie and Brit, but that’s off now. I’ll be at Pistons practice at 11 a.m., and quite possibly at AHPD HQ at some point for a press conference. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to go see a movie with them tomorrow night.
The press conference was a circus. Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca announced he had personally identified Green from the video — they were neighbors. Moments later, a TV reporter — a news reporter, not someone from sports — asked if the police were planning to do DNA tests on the beer cup to find the perpetrator. The baffled police chief pointed out they already knew who threw the cup and that hundreds of cups had been thrown during the melee. There was no way of knowing which one hit Artest.
I’ve always assumed the reporter was a CSI fan who decided to ask her question no matter what.
I’m just glad I got through it healthy — it could have easily been a lot worse. And, for all my doubts about myself at times, I did my job very well tonight.
What an unbelievable night.
Yeah, that still sums it up.