Netflix’s new documentary about “The Malice at The Palace” is now streaming, and it is many things. Most effectively, though, it is a window into the 2004 version of the NBA—a re-sparking, an un-memory-holing of a slice of the league’s zeitgeist in keeping with HBO and The Ringer’s new Woodstock 99 documentary. Here we are all over again, marinating in the turn from the 20th century into the 21st, wondering what went wrong; if anything can be said to have gone meaningfully wrong, that is. Tonally speaking, the documentary, like the one about the infamous music festival, suggests that something did very much turn rotten, and so much so that the odor of the moment’s transgression still wafts up to our noses today.
Atop a soundtrack of driving dread, we are introduced to Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, and Reggie Miller. We are shown baggy uniforms, t-shirts, and jeans that the music has us believing are ominous harbingers. We are reminded that an Eastern Conference Finals game ended with a score of 69 to 65. This, contrary to what anyone else might tell you, was thrilling stuff. The logical endpoint of the era’s sludgeball—soon to break way for, and gradually become, the three-point berserkery of the game today—was the burgeoning rivalry between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. Who, their matchups asked, could come out of a tunnel of brutal basketball crap still alive?
We would be remiss to rush the set-up. Let’s remember some more important details. Artest had just changed his jersey number from 23 to 91, perhaps trying to say something about an archetype shift in his game—or, less generously, about which famously bodacious player’s behavior he was about to not just emulate, but top. Jamaal Tinsley had the biggest shorts this side of T.J. Ford. Journeyman Lindsey Hunter was around, acting as the bridge between the Bad Boy Pistons of yore and whatever you wanted to call the iconic defending 2004 NBA champions. Rick Carlisle was coaching the Pacers, working closely with the team’s front office guru Larry Bird, who kept trading away nostalgic Pacers mainstays of the 90’s for young, increasingly athletic players to make a championship run for the 39-year-old Miller before he retired.
Then, of course, the thing happened. You know what it is. It started over a disagreement in etiquette, similar to what you see in baseball every time a batter gives himself a greenlight on a 3-0 pitch in a blowout. Up big late, on the road, Artest fouled Ben Wallace too hard. The game was too far gone, too stripped of its gravity for a thing like that, was the breach in manners in question here. Wallace, as Wallace does, pushed back. Before you know it, Carlisle’s tie is flapping in a frenzy, trying to get the gaggle to stop—he had seen much worse, and on a regular basis, for the record, as a member of the 1980’s Boston Celtics. None of this was out of the ordinary.
But something extraordinary followed, flying through from the stands: a lobbed beer. From the seats onto the court, a liquid tool fashioned in one tense moment for the purpose of piercing the veil between audience and performer, and interrogating the unseen goo between them. (It was, it must be said, a spectacular throw that landed the beverage upon Artest’s head as he laid on the scorer’s table, marvelous in its arc and accuracy). What was found out right away was nothing too surprising: Artest, along with the rest of the heated athletes, are not people who anyone not physically made for professional sports on the highest level should ever want to deal with oppositionally.
The next developments were, to say the least, bad. The danger that the Pacers and their staff instantly faced from a riled arena of losers with a sudden license to attack was serious—watch the raw old broadcast footage, and you’ll see it clearly, as the commentators working that game did: the crowd, not any of the players, were the scariest thing in that building. As O’Neal is dragged off the court, he is drenched in soda and covered in popcorn. It certainly could have been worse.
The media cycle that followed did not correlate with this or any reality, aside from the magical one that racists are always manufacturing on the fly, one that in this moment gave a comically undue level of responsibility to Hip Hop, and that featured the makeshift placeholder for the n-word of “thug,” used liberally as a stigmatic brand. Unfortunate stuff, to put it lightly, but hardly unpredictable. The NBA has always existed on tenuous terms with much of the public, with Michael Jordan’s perfection of corporate branding and performed charisma guiding an era of elevated praise and attention that stands as the exception for most Americans.
As that period wound down and the sport struggled to maintain similar cultural magnetism, many were already looking for something like this to protest the game over. The NBA had its own dreadful 2004 ecosystem of bloviating pundits, eager to attack various characters and make unsubstantiated, hugely moneyed claims—but in this case, the sport was subject to the exponentially poisonous rhetoric of the even worse talking heads of the broader infotainment economy, as the sport was put back into what many believe to be its proper place by the vile, criminal voices of cable and network news; and by the most cloddish of columnists, and by the dumbest and most bad-faith fans imaginable.
We could call that something gone wrong—the occasion that the documentary’s scary musical score was teasing us towards. Or we can see it as something already wrong, brought back into focus. The re-surfaced fragility of America’s racial imagination became, and to some extent still is, the thing the league would bend over backwards to please, even if its related demographic was determined to always inch further and further from reach, so much so that at some point they became content to burn their own $150 jerseys, once brought into a moment where they must, for thirty seconds, question how people have historically been treated within their country’s borders. The blunt assertion of that reflexive, hateful unthinking should always be remembered as The Malice that was unleashed at The Palace.