The infamous “Malice At The Palace” brawl that went down on November 19, 2004, is one of the moments the NBA did whatever it could at the time to move on from and “learn” from. In the process of cleaning up, the league came down hard on those involved, mainly the members of the Indiana Pacers at the time, Jermaine O’Neal, Ron (Metta World Peace) Artest, and Stephen Jackson.
Fast-forward, roughly 17 years later, a new Netflix sports documentary series titled Untold focuses on that fateful night. This time we get to hear from player’s mouths themselves as they get to tell their side of the story that was sadly swept under the rug. The documentary also shares never before seen footage from the fight that shook the sport’s world and led to the NBA Commissioner at the time, the late David Stern, handing out some crazy suspensions with Artest being suspended for the entire season, Jackson hit with 30 games and 25 for O’Neal which are still till this day the longest suspension in NBA history. Stern also instituted the highly debated dress code in response to the media’s ridiculously biased coverage of the incident started by one crazy fan who decided to chuck a drink at Ron Artest.
Ahead of the Floyd Russ-directed documentaries release, we got a chance to speak with 6-time NBA All-Star Jermaine O’Neal, who also served as an executive producer on the documentary. During our Zoom interview, we touched on a myriad of topics regarding his career, and of course, the infamous night at the that he revealed to Complex he is tired of being asked about. Hopefully, this documentary will answer those questions that people still have about the night sh*t hit the fan in the now-demolished Palace of Auburn of Hills arena in Detroit.
CL: Before the brawl, there were plenty of red flags when it came to Ron Artest. The ill-timed flagrant foul on Richard “Rip” Hamilton that secured the Pistons the Eastern Conference Finals victory, the odd break that came out of nowhere to make music, showing up at the Source Awards. Do you think the Pacers should have done something with Ron sooner?
JO: So every pro team has situations. Winning is a solution to everything. It’s a level of sacrifice that is made amongst players, coaches, organizations to win. Ron Artest is the hardest working player that I’ve ever been around. He was dynamic in many ways because of his size, his strength as a guard. He was able to guard really one through four.
He was an animal bro, and I can understand why they wanted to hold on as much as possible. I also think we have to understand that the Pacers knew more about Ron’s mental health than any of us.
Winning is a solution to everything.
JO: Right? They did a phenomenal job, to the best of their ability, on trying to keep things quiet. Because he was a tremendous talent, he was a guy that wasn’t a bad person; he just struggled with his mental-emotional deficiencies. Right? And it was one of the things where I look back at this entire process, as a player, as a brother, and as a teammate [and ask] Can you imagine if we were educated back then? When we are educated now about mental health and how to deal with it.
That we could have been… I could have been a better teammate, better brother. Our team could have been better. Ron had to deal with that pain on his own because nobody knew. And then when you talk about mental health back then it’s like, “Oh, he’s crazy.”
That’s the death of… it’s like a torn Achilles and a torn ACL meniscus like it’s hard to come back from because people have a perception. And that’s the thing where I thought that that’s a long-winded way of answering your question. I felt like they held on to him as long as they could. And they did as much as they could for him. And it just didn’t pan out at the end of the day. It’s just one of those luck of the draws that every team has to deal with.
CL: Now, we have seen the footage countless times, but watching again, always strikes a nerve. One scene, in particular, shows you walking through the tunnel after the brawl went down and seeing the fans literally just throwing food at you and literally just pouring their drinks on you. And then the chair. We can only imagine what was going through your mind. Could you possibly share how you were feeling during that entire thing? Like what was going through your mind?
JO: Well, I think at that point, like you are already at your highest alert of intensity, aggressiveness, scared, nervousness, anger. It’s just a mixed bowl of soup of a lot of emotions. Because at that point, we had done been on the floor 10 plus minutes. So it was like, we had been through everything that you can possibly go through, where there are people spitting on us. People lining us up with water bottles. People grabbing us and really trying to fight. And so it’s a perspective of trying to understand how the hell you got there. You go into a game, and you got on a basketball uniform, and you saw one, I think, maybe two chairs been thrown, but it was more. You see people rocking chairs and try to break them away.
So it’s a staggering moment to go from playing a basketball game that we had just dominated against a very good defending world champion, Detroit Pistons [team]. Right. And that’s the narrative that was just totally forgotten. But I’ll tell you this, by the time I got to that tunnel, I had already been through a couple of things. So people always go watch the sliding punch. It’s amazing how much beer that was on the floor. Beer and drinks were thrown [by fans] from everywhere on the floor.
But what people did not see, I had literally just got a guy off my neck. He came up from behind me, jumped up, and his hands were wrapped around my neck. SoI reached back and grabbed the guy, and I threw him on the table. I literally slam him on the table. And I just happened to look left. And at the time, it was Anthony Johnson who was in a brown suit. So you see me slide and punch, but look at Anthony Johnson in the brown suit. He has on a cast. And so I see that Haddad guy [Charlie Haddad] standing over. So at that point, there are people on the court, a guy just tries to chokeslam me. I’m at the heightened stage where I’m going to clean up everything that comes at me or my teammates.
And so, at that point, I hit Haddad. I stand up, and I’m looking, because now I’m in a cloudy space of aggression. Get through, get to the tunnel, which by the way, all the tunnels are blocked. People don’t realize that these fans were not trying to let us out. We get through that and go through that part, and we’re hit with everything possible.
And I just remember getting back to the locker room, and it’s like three memories that I have from that particular night in the locker room when I first got back. I just remember coming into the locker room and seeing guys bleeding, knots, lumps, scratches, debris, popcorn in their head. It was like a movie. And the second one, obviously, it was a situation with Ron actually getting in trouble. And I lost my mind in that one. And I remember sitting there. Guys were like falling in and out of the shower; some guys didn’t even take showers. They were just sitting there. And it was so quiet. Right. And we knew right away that it was the calm before the storm; we knew hell was coming. We just didn’t know where it was coming from. And it was a perspective that was very interesting to me in many ways. And ultimately ended up living that storm for 17 years.
CL: Being that you were really upset with Ron and understandably so after everything you went through that night and following. Are you guys actually on speaking terms now? Are you actually speaking with Stephen Jackson as well too?
JO: Me and Jack have been brothers forever. Me and Jack, we’ve been brothers since high school. Same class in high school. McDonald’s All-Americans together. So I’ve been knowing Jack for a long time. And we were very, very tight-knit. I was just with Jack a week ago. So that relationship did nothing but get stronger through time. The situation between me and Ron was broken even before the brawl. We had some tough conversations. I felt like he didn’t care about our time. Felt like he wasn’t as focused on winning a championship. I felt like he was distracted by this rap career or award ceremony or whatever it may be.
But I was uneducated. I was uneducated about what mental health is and what that struggle is for a person on a day-to-day basis. And so, through time, maturity happens. Perspective gets better. The viewpoint is sharpened. Things aren’t as tilted. It’s being corrected. We sat down and had a man-to-man conversation over lunch two years ago at the Big Three in California. And that’s literally the first conversation that we had since the brawl. And it was much needed because I think you have to acknowledge when things are wrong, how you can right them. He said what he said to me, and I said what I said to him. I apologized for not being a better teammate because I truthfully believe if we had the information and tools that we have today about mental health, that situation doesn’t ever happen. Now, I will say this, and I got to say this, right? So when people watch this doc, we never filmed together. That doc was filmed separately.
through time, maturity happens. Perspective gets better. The viewpoint is sharpened. Things aren’t as tilted.
And I was really amazed at how he broke down, how he dealt with his mental health—the five-count. I’ve never heard the five-count situation, but when you go back, and you look at the doc, and you see he’s going through his process of trying to mentally get stable. First, the hard Ben Wallace foul, and it sends him into that heightened mode. He then goes to lay down on the scorer’s table, and Ben’s throwing the armbands, the headbands at him, and he jumps up again, right? He’s at like stage two. Water’s boiling now, like really starting to boil over. And he goes back, and he lays down, and he’s into his count. And when the guy throws the cup, that takes him overboard, and I understand a little bit more now on why he chose to do that versus fight, Ben, because now I understand how he’s dealing with his mental health.
CL: Following the brawl, the coverage on news outlets and Sportscenter was very toxic. It labeled you guys as thugs, and you seeing words like hooligans and overpaid athletes and spoiled. You were still pretty young, so how did that affect you seeing that on a daily basis? Cause they ran that video footage on a loop throughout the day.
JO: Yeah, it was hurtful in many ways. And yeah, I think even when I… Before I get into this, I wanted to do this doc, not for any vindication for myself, but to actually have my voice be heard just in general and have other people that was involved voice be heard too. We lost a lot, and people celebrate this anniversary every year, every year, every year. And they don’t know the real impact of what it meant to us. The NBA has a special place in me. And I’ve tried to do this doc for about eight to 10 years. And I sat down with many of the directors, and I didn’t feel like they got the vision. They didn’t get the vision because I didn’t want to alienate anybody. The NBA, the Pacers, nobody. I wanted to just tell a story about what actually happened because so many people took stabs at it.
I didn’t have a criminal record. I spent as much time in my communities as I spent on the court. Doing for others, giving people an opportunity that was in the same position that I was in inner cities, right? That had a broken home, right? Speaking to people about what life is supposed to look like and what the opportunities are, no matter what color your skin is. And when you hear those conversations with some of the most respected people in journalism, that was hard. That was hard. And then, on top of it, we could not speak. We were muzzled.
It sucked. It was a difficult thing. I mean, people don’t realize we dealt with this thing for like 10 years afterward. 10 years. I mean, it was like this thing and I understood it was a price to pay. Right? I understood no matter where, right, wrong, indifferent. What I did not understand, and this is for me, particularly, I can’t speak for Jack’s situation, Ron’s situation. I wasn’t involved in all of their situations legally. There was some information out there for me that knowing what the league knew about me, or the Pacers’ knew about me, or my whole situation that you could have just said, “Oh, by the way, Jermaine went to court and won his legal case against the NBA.” Right? That got him reinstated by a judge that said he had the right to do what he did because the judge was able to see everything.
He was able to see the guy, the people lining me up, and all this stuff. And then I become the protector. The word leader is only supposedly used in sports. But what happens when you’re put in an environment that all of a sudden now people trying to hurt you? Where is the leadership then, right? And so, the definition of a leader is just to protect me and others. We walked in when we walked out, and that’s together. And that part was just disappointing that it was never even told. And you just allow people to say, okay, well, you know, this is how we want to remember this guy or these guys based on this fight.
CL: There’s a scene where they show the Palace of Auburn Hills being demolished. And I felt that was very symbolic for you because do you feel like with that building going down, like your promising career at its peak at the time went with that building. Do you feel that way?
JO: No. I mean, yeah. I feel like the opportunity to win the championship did, though. I think it was a domino effect on many things. You know, I ended up –people don’t realize– I still ended up making the All-Star Game as a starter that year. But one thing I realized, even in that particular year, was that the damage was done.
I felt the separation of being loved in my sport from an executive standpoint to being, hey, it’s a little too toxic. We like him, but it’s a little bit too toxic. And that’s why this film was so important to do, not for the NBA fan. This was not done for the NBA fan. This was done for the person that does not watch the games but knows about the brawl. People I’m running into in board meetings or business meetings are asking me about this. The NBA fans are always going to be there. They have always been super supportive, but I needed to take it a step further. And shout out to Netflix, The Way Brothers, the director Floyd Russ who really, I felt like got the vision to almost pinpoint accuracy. And to have the timing be perfect, where they understand the vision, have us involved in the incredible series of Untold stories in sports history, it was really the perfect timing for me.
This was done for the person that does not watch the games but knows about the brawl.
CL: Looking back at your career, are there any regrets? Would you have approached that situation any differently now that it’s in the rearview?
JO: The brawl, I would’ve done the exact same thing. Put in that same position where people are trying to bring them bodily harm to you, for whatever reason, I’m going to do the exact same thing a hundred times over. Is that situation regretful? I regret that that entire situation happened, but being put in that position, I would do it again. I think the only regret that I had probably in my career, feeling like we had time. In Indiana, we were very young, very talented. Our thought process and our conversation in that locker room, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this thing and have a chance to win this thing multiple years over multiple years.’ And the brawl happens, injury happens, coaching change happens. I mean, a lot can happen in pro sports. And that’s the one regret that I felt like I could take back looking at my career.
UNTOLD Vol.1: Malice at the Palace is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.
The interview was condensed for time.
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