Ten years later: 'The Brawl' prompted change in NBA

Vincent Goodwill Jr.
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — At halftime of every NBA game, a standard message is read aloud by recording from the public address announcer and displayed on massive Jumbotrons, warning them about how bad behavior could lead to ejections from games and in extreme cases, arrests and prosecution.

It stemmed from the events that took place on Nov. 19, 2004, when a powder keg of emotion exploded from the floor to the stands at The Palace, simply known as "The Brawl."

"I don't think people in the league office ever thought that would happen," said George Blaha, the Pistons longtime play-by-play man. "Ever since then, they've done their best to educate the fans and the players. More than that, they beefed up security. It would be very difficult for that to happen."

"I said it to a few people but, fans and players have to understand, fans especially, they're playing and you're watching for a reason. They have no business being in the crowd and you have no business being on the court."

Suspensions were handed down, money was taken away — replaced by labels, stereotypes, which led to an all-out image change from an image-conscious league — to which the league has recovered and prospered.

"The line is drawn, and my guess is this won't happen again — certainly not by anybody who wants to be associated with our league," then-commissioner David Stern said upon announcing suspensions, adding that "shock, revulsion and fear" were his initial reactions to the spectacle.

'I told you so'

Former Piston and current ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups said it gave the NBA's detractors something to hold onto.

"Often times as professional athletes, basketball players and football players, you're looked at (a certain way), because you come from the neighborhood or poverty-stricken areas, you're looked at as a thug or this or that," Billups said. "And for once, we gave everybody a reason to say, 'I told you so.' "

The league eventually recovered, along with the Pistons and Indiana Pacers, forcing the NBA to take a look at how its players were perceived by the public along with examining security measures to guarantee it wouldn't happen again.

Stern instituted a dress code for players, and although they believed it had racial undertones, they complied and it's played a part in moving away from the "thug" image, even if it was more perception than reality.

"It's certainly helped with the image, of how people see players and what the consumer or the fan sees. That's a big deal," Billups said. "If you see players being professional and responsible, then that affects everything. It affects the bottom line, affects if people want you to represent their company brand. In the end, it was forward what he did."

But before the think pieces were authored decrying the NBA's "Bad Boys," before Stern instituted a dress code for players upon entering an arena, before a cup containing ice and a beverage landed on Ron Artest's chest, on a Friday night in November, the NBA champions were facing a fierce rival poised to take them out.

Beasts of the East

"The Pacers and Pistons were the best in the East," Blaha said. "Indiana didn't feel like the Pistons should've gotten by them the year before, but the Pistons with their confidence and cohesiveness, did just that and won the championship. Indiana was coming back after them that next year. There were some heated feelings before the game even started."

The Pistons defeated the Pacers in a hotly contested six-game Eastern Conference Final five months prior, and the two tough, physical teams engaged in what the Pacers felt was the first salvo in dismantling the champs, on their home floor.

"It took an incredible series of events for that to even happen, and unfortunately they all unfolded … and then we had a problem," Blaha said.

The facts are indisputable, aided by the many angles of videotape from ESPN's cameras, but the vantage points differ depending on who's doing the talking. The fingers haven't truly stopped being pointed in the time since, the damage irreversible and the images indelible, tattooed in the minds and hearts of players and fans.

It changed sports forever.

Of all the imagery from that night, the one that sticks out the most to Billups was seeing a 64-year old man in tears after the game, Pistons coach Larry Brown. It contributed to Billups calling it "one of the darker days of my career".

"Crying, real tears man," Billups said. "He's a big stickler of respect the game, this is the best game in the world, handle it with grace. We gave the game as a whole a black eye. A memorable night for anybody who was there or watching, memorable in the worst way."

A night unravels quickly

As the Pacers were completing a 15-point beatdown, Pistons center Ben Wallace drove for what appeared to be a harmless layup with 45.9 seconds remaining, and most of the 22,000 fans headed for the exits.

Artest had other plans, hacking Wallace from behind before an enraged Wallace took exception, shoving Artest in the throat, sending Artest backpedaling with amazing quickness.

Then all hell broke loose.

Wallace kept charging toward Artest, and emotions became more heated especially when adding the combustible Stephen Jackson to the mix. Things looked to be slightly under control when Artest planted himself on the scorer's table, trying in his own way to remove himself from the potential altercation.

"It could've exploded in a fight — and in a fight between those two, we know who would've won but all it would've been was a fight," Blaha said. "Maybe some suspensions. But the way it turned out, it was bigger news than that."

A West Bloomfield ticket broker named John Green apparently found the situation amusing, making a friendly wager with his friend who accompanied him to the game.

"I bet I can nail him with this cup," Green said on 105.1 FM Tuesday afternoon. "(I) launched it underhand, and the whole thing busted loose. I aimed for his face. I wasn't trying to injure the guy. It was an empty cup."

No matter Green's intent, Artest jumped up and ran into the stands after his perceived assaulter, unsure of who tossed the cup, seeking retribution. Jackson and teammate Fred Jones soon followed, with Jackson throwing haymakers to fans and Jones getting pelted. Current Pistons radio analyst and former Bad Boy Rick Mahorn extended his arms to Jackson, imploring him to stop.

Some Pistons tried to jump in to play peacemaker between the agitated players and aggressive fans, while Pacers center Jermaine O'Neal landed a sliding right hand to a fan who wandered onto the playing court.

The whole incident didn't last longer than 90 seconds but it felt like a lifetime, as ESPN announcer Bill Walton belted, "this is a disgrace," before Artest was pulled from the stands and led to the locker room by William Wesley, a longtime figure in NBA circles.

Of course, the Pacers were met with thrown objects by Pistons fans on the way to the locker room as Larry Brown tried to get on the public address to calm the situation and Palace security couldn't contain the situation fast enough.

"I think clearly, as bad as some people think it was," Blaha said. "It could've been worse. There weren't any serious injuries and the sad part to me is, it gave, in some people's mind The Palace and Detroit a black eye when it could've happened anywhere."

The aftermath

After the dust settled — and it took quite awhile to — Artest was suspended for the entire season, destroying Reggie Miller's last chance at a championship and losing $5 million in salary. Jackson was banned for 30 games while O'Neal served a 15-game suspension.

Ben Wallace served a six-game suspension while Chauncey Billups, Derrick Coleman and Elden Campbell each sat out one game.

The Pistons went on to the NBA Finals while it sent the Pacers on a downward spiral that took years to recover from.

The cup thrower, Green, who was on probation stemming from a DUI, served six days in jail.

It served as a stark reminder about the intimacy of the NBA compared to other sports should be respected, a "game-changer," in Blaha's words.

"We try to give fans, especially those who pay for those seats, incredible access now," Blaha said. "They're right on top of the game. I don't think any of them, 10 years later, would even consider going on the court, no matter what would've happened. It's a different world now and that's for the better."



Suns at Pistons

Tipoff: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, The Palace of Auburn Hills

TV/radio: FSD/105.1 FM

Outlook: The Suns are sixth in the NBA in scoring (105.3 points per game). … Pistons G Brandon Jennings leads the Pistons in scoring (16.4) and assists (6.0)