The sports world is currently reliving the fateful night at the now-demolished Palace of Auburn Hills on November 19, 2004, that saw one of the worst sports brawls break out between fans and NBA players thanks to the new sports doc Untold Vol.1: Malice At The Palace.
Ahead of the docs release that lets the players and other individuals involved in the brawl tell their side of the story while sharing never before seen footage, Cassius Life had the opportunity to speak with retired NBA hooper Jermaine O’Neal about his involvement in the brawl that shook up the sports world and changed the perception of the league. We also touched on his relationship with Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) 17 years later after the incident. During our very inciteful Zoom interview, we also touched on O’Neal’s time as a Portland Trail Blazer and his relationship with NBA Hall-of-Famer and a constant thorn in Spike Lee and the New York Knicks’ side Reggie Miller.
Cassius Life: Before we get to the fateful night in Detroit, the doc touches on your early career in Portland. You showed plenty of flashes. Why do you think Portland dropped the ball when it came to playing you?
Jermaine O’Neal: Well, that’s kind of a loaded question. I think one, you always got to start with the appreciation for Portland drafting me, giving me the opportunity. Back then, obviously, the rules were a lot different. If you’ve made yourself eligible for the draft, you basically fulfilled your college eligibility. So having an opportunity to go in and play a lifelong dream, that’s one thing within itself.
You have to also understand that historically, Portland was a playoff team. They had these pretty incredible runs, and they were about winning right away. PJ Carlesimo was my coach in my rookie year, who really understood more of what the youth movement was. Obviously, they ended up firing him because there’s a wind-down situation. Obviously, PJ Carlesimo was a very aggressive coach. As a team was changing, they felt like the coach needed to change.
So they bring in Mike Dunleavy, who is strictly about winning and veteran players. I happened to go to the team that was loaded at the power forward/center position. So my rookie year was more of a learning experience. I didn’t know if I was ready to contribute on a night-in, night-out basis. Second-year, I felt like I was getting there for sure. Third-year, I knew I was. I was completely ready because I’m starting to outplay the people that were playing in front of me. And obviously, my fourth year, I was an angry version of myself and couldn’t understand why the hell I wasn’t getting on the court.
The city accepted me as their second child… it was the perfect place for a kid from Columbia, South Carolina.
But ultimately, when I look at this is that Portland was an organization that was fully prepared for a 17-year-old kid out of high school. They gave me all the tools and information that I needed to become a professional athlete and become a pro, and they took the time with me. The city accepted me as their second child, and it was just one of those scenarios that it was the perfect place for a kid from Columbia, South Carolina, going directly from high school to the pros, to Portland, Oregon, which is two different cultures considering where I’m from to where I went, but it was a learning experience in my college 101.
CL: Immediately after you got traded, you asked to have your locker next to Reggie Miller’s, a bold move by a young player. What was it like playing with him?
JO: Well, knowing what I knew about the business of basketball and about players, is it’s easy for franchise players to dead trades. They had just come off a finals appearance maybe a month before my trade, which was the first of his career. He could have easily say, “No, you know what? If you carry one of my guys away or go with this youth movement, you might as well move me.” And he never said that. He could easily put a lot of pressure on the organization not to make a move for an unproven guy, and he didn’t. One thing that he told me when I first came in was, “Hey, look, kid, I’m going to let you be whatever you want to be as long as you work for it.” That meant the world to me because I understood what the business of basketball was as an athlete. And it’s not every day that you’d get a franchise player and one of the best players in the game who’s allowing a new movement. Really in many ways, it’s a replacement as a franchise player. That’s not the easiest thing to do in pro sports, and he did it.
So I wanted to soak up as much information as I possibly could. Reggie is a pro’s pro. He is almost tedious to his craft, and he does everything on a timely basis, the exact time every day, which is crazy to see he’s methodical. To be a part of him and next to him and listen to the information on the wealth of knowledge that he was handing me that meant the world to my development.
CL: If you don’t mind sharing, what was one of the dopest pieces of advice he gave you?
JO: It was so much, but to me, the dopest thing that he said to me was, “I’m going to let you be whatever you want to be as long as you work for it.” To me, you don’t understand the impact of that, especially back then, where it was very difficult to break into stardom, and it was very difficult to hand it over to somebody.
So to me, that was the dopest. Reggie, we were so tight-knit. I could probably go on and on on a lot of the things that he just told me, but that one was the most impactful to me.
Hey, look, kid, I’m going to let you be whatever you want to be as long as you work for it
CL: We were really disappointed that you guys didn’t bring it home, especially for Reggie in his last year.
JO: Yeah. That one hurt, though. It’s like everybody wanted to win it for themselves. But their self was second in line. Reggie Miller winning it for Reggie Miller was first. That was the guy that we were like, yo, because he’s the pro’s pro. He’s the guy that leads by example. He’s a vocal guy. He sacrificed a lot to have many of us there, and it was like, ‘Nah, Reggie. We got you.’Don’t worry about it. We got you this year.’ And so, people don’t realize we had won 64 games the year before— the best record in the league, losing conference finals.
I didn’t necessarily know how good we could be. We just were talented, and we were just beating people. Well, going into the brawl year, we knew that we were ready to go. I brought the team back a month before training camp. We were in the best shape of our lives. I mean, we were rolling. Had the best record at the time, then the brawl happened. And just beat the Pistons by almost 20. A tough Pistols team that was probably going to be another tough adversary down the road. There’s no guarantee we were going to win it that year because they already had the championship pedigree. They already knew how to win it. But that’s the one that I always look back, and it’s like, damn. We missed. We missed on that. And between the cultural breakdown nationally or locally, the pressures that were put on our league or the pressure that was put on our team, the Pacers, the Simon family, Donnie Walsh, and those guys were unprecedented.
Untold Vol.1: Malice At The Palace is exclusively streaming on Netflix.
The interview was condensed for time.