Ten Years Later, the Fallout of the Brawl Still Hurts


The Indiana Pacers had won 61 games and claimed the best record in the NBA, but they once again fell just short of the NBA pinnacle. After peaking at the wrong time against Michael Jordan and again against Kobe and Shaq, the franchise — with Jermaine O’Neal as its centerpierce — was finally the cream of the basketball crop. That 2003-04 squad was just a little too young though.

O’Neal, Ron Artest, Al Harrington, Jamaal Tinsley, and Jonathan Bender were all under 25. They weren’t quite ready to beat a Detroit Pistons team that had all the experience and savvy of Larry Brown, the Wallace brothers, Rip Hamilton, and “Mr. Big Shot” Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot”  Billups. So instead of a trophy awaiting a franchise that had seemed just on the cusp of one since 1994, the Pistons beat out the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals before whipping the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

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But that was fine though. The 2004-05 season would be Indiana’s turn. And everybody knew it.

Jermaine O’Neal was the NBA’s next great big man. He had finished third in the MVP voting the prior season after his second straight season averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. O’Neal may have still been a clear notch below the two men who got more MVP votes — Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan — but so was everyone else in the league. And with his ability to defend and score in the paint, O’Neal was at their heels.

And some fans thought Artest was even better. The Queensbridge cornerstone was the reigning defensive player of the year as the year started, and his physical strength and demeanor on the perimeter was feared throughout the league.

In the offseason, the Pacers had also flipped the sulky Al Harrington to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for young swingman Stephen Jackson, who would had won a ring with the San Antonio Spurs and would be groomed into an even better player, with fewer rough edges, by Reggie Miller.

Everything seemed to be in place for the title run that the franchise had earned after being a contender for the past decade.

The season began with some early-season injuries and a bizarre 34-point home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. But the Pacers had already rounded into form before a Friday night matchup against their rivals from Detroit. What took place that night was a message.

In a show of utter dominance, the new-look Pacers (without the injured Reggie Miller and Jonathan Bender) thrashed the Pistons for 47 minutes. All five starters had reached double digits, Tinsley had harassed Billups on his way to 8 steals, and Artest was — without a doubt — the best player on the court. The Pacers led by 15 with a minute left.

The revenge of that night was oh so sweet. The Pistons didn’t look the same and were about to fall to 4-4 while the Pacers were better than ever even without their beloved superstar. The buzz around the team was palpable all summer long, and this convincing win seemed to validate what so many Hoosiers believed: This was a team that not only could win a title, but was going to win the title.

Uncle Reggie

I once saw Reggie Miller stay two hours longer at a car dealership than he had originally agreed upon in order to sign autographs for every last child that had attended. It was common for Reggie to show up at local high school basketball games and challenge kids to games of H-O-R-S-E. The player who had once enraged fans for not being Steve Alford now had the universal love of every basketball fan in the state.

Reggie was no longer the player who had so audaciously challenged Michael Jordan, Spike Lee, and the entire Madison Square Garden. He has slipped in his old age. The 2003-04 season had seen him take less than 8 shots a game, barely crack double digits in points per game, and end in the worst way imaginable. (I will maintain to my death bed that Prince goal tended on that play.) Reggie had come back for one more season, but was most likely going to come off the bench behind Stephen Jackson for some instant offense.

But, oh, what a season it was going to be. Cheryl’s little brother, the guy who had repeatedly turned down greener pastures in order to keep playing for “The Hicks” against the big boys, the guy who had come up big in so many moments was finally going to get his ring.

The Death of Basketball

Unfortunately for the Pacers, it was not meant to be. Artest fouled Ben Wallace late in the game and Wallace objected to the nature of the foul. Big Ben shoved the man who would later rename himself World Peace and, for a time that night, Artest was a passive as a cow. He ended flailed backwards towards the scorer’s table, where he decided to lay down.

Then it all happened. The Malice at the Palace. The Brawl. The Beginning of the End for the Indiana Pacers. Whatever you want to call it.

I’m still bothered by the numbers 73 and 6: the amount of regular season games that Artest and Wallace had to miss, respectively. I remember the next week, watching Peyton Manning explode in the first half against the Lions on Thanksgiving and asking my dad, “Do you think Peyton would run up the score and try to win 73 to 6 for the state of Indiana?”

These are the depths to which Indiana fans were affected in the following weeks. Even after Jermaine O’Neal’s suspension was shortened from an initial 25 to 15 games, it quickly became clear that the Pacers were no longer good enough to win it all. Not without Artest, who was David Stern banned for the rest of the year.

The rest of that 2004-05 season was one slow, painful death. Box scores like this were outrageously depressing. Watching Reggie come back too quickly from injury in order to save the team was disheartening.

As fate would have it, of course we had to see the Pistons once more in the playoffs. In classic Reggie fashion, he went out guns-a-blazing in his final game with 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting. The anger I had for Larry Brown when he hugged Reggie after he came off the court still burns deep inside of me as I think about what should have been.

Within two years, Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley had turned the Pacers’ reputation into the “Jail Blazers Midwest,” a broken-down Jermaine O’Neal needed a change of scenery, and the Pacers were hopeless. The steady rise the team had been on since it drafted Reggie Miller in 1987 was snapped, and the franchise entered a dark period of mediocrity and declining fan interest that wouldn’t be broken until after Paul George and Roy Hibbert were going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the playoffs.

From a slightly more optimistic (read: bitter) view, The Malice at the Palace didn’t only affect the Pacers. While the Pistons once again made it to the NBA Finals the following year, they were only a few years away from trading for Allen Iverson, overpaying Charlie Villanueva, and falling into an even deeper despair than even the Indiana Pacers. Even now, with the Pacers battling seemingly insurmountable injuries, the Pistons and Josh Smith are languishing below the Pacers in the standings at 3-8.

Still, basketball would forever be different in the Hoosier State because of The Title Team that never was.