This past Wednesday marked the tenth anniversary of the so-called Malice in the Palace, the brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers that spilled over into the stands at Auburn Hills and resulted in unprecedented suspensions for Ron Artest and others. In many ways, that fight and its aftermath marked a turning point in NBA history.
Some years ago, I wrote about Commissioner Stern’s handling of that melee and the ways in which Stern hoped his actions would forge a new era for the NBA.
Two quick footnotes to what I wrote way back when:
1) none of the discussions I heard this week about the brawl called attention to the fact that prosecutors themselves deemed the fan, John Green (no, not *that* John Green), to be criminally culpable for having escalated the brawl. In popular lore, Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace) is an unhinged guy who over-reacted to a fan doing nothing more than impishly tossing a beverage on Artest. Green had a criminal record, though, and did more than just wet Artest’s beak.
Down the memory hole.
We live in a crazy world, so naturally Artest and Green later (apparently) became friends. But the story of that fight continues to be mistold.
2) Stern, as I’ve written before, quite self-consciously addressed himself to the racial conundrum at the heart of his former empire: how to sell big, incredibly athletic young black as physical specimens to a largely white fan base that loves spectacle but whose sensibilities, collectively, run very quickly to the perception that young black men, as a group, teeter on the edge of menace and malice.
It happens that the current generation of NBA stars – LeBron, KD, CP3 and so on – walk that fine line extraordinarily adeptly. But one way to understand the very swift efforts of Stern’s successor to banish Donald Sterling from the NBA is as payback for the players willingness to go along with the league’s racially self-conscious approach to image management.
The recent controversy surrounding the email sent by Atlanta Hawks’ owner Bruce Levenson about the team’s difficulty attracting fans shows clearly that the ghosts of the Auburn Hills still hover over the sport.
The league may have successfully recast its image after the Malice. But it did not succeed in expunging the dilemmas of race from our collective conscience.