Lessons Learned (and Forgotten) from the NBA's Darkest Hour

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 17, 2013

The NBA has never experienced a darker hour than the one that took place in The Palace of Auburn Hills on Nov. 19, 2004. 

Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovic came close. So did the drug problems of the 1980s, as have multiple other occasions, but nothing was worse than watching the melee unfold as NBA players ran into the stands and engaged in brawls with unruly fans. 

There's a psychological principle called "the flashbulb memory," and it involves moments that just remain with you forever. As Saundra K. Ciccarelli and J. Noland White wrote in "Psychology, An Exploration:"

A special kind of automatic encoding takes place when an unexpected event or episode in a person's life has strong emotional associations, such as fear, horror, or joy. Memories of highly emotional events can often seem vivid and detailed, as if the person's mind took a 'flash picture' of the moment in time. These kinds of memories are called flashbulb memories. 

It's true for life-changing real-world events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, but it also happens on a less-significant scale in the world of sports. 

You likely have a collection of your own moments like this, depending on your age. You remember where you were, what you were doing, who you were with and exactly what happened, although retroactive changes are inevitably made to the memories as we're inundated with post hoc information. 

For me, moments like the Tiger Woods' chip-in on No. 16 at Augusta stand out. I remember jumping off the couch in my parent's basement. Or how about David Tyree's infamous helmet catch? 

But despite the vivid nature of all those memories, they all pale in comparison to the Malice at the Palace. 

I was 13 at the time, still young enough that I had a parent-mandated bedtime. But on that fateful night, my uncle was in town, and I wanted to do everything possible to ensure that we could hang out as late as possible. So, on came the game, and I was desperately rooting for the Detroit Pistons to fight their way back into the game. 

Little did I know how literally my wishes would be answered. 

Through the years, the memory has remained intact. The initial brawl under the basket on the left side of the screen. Ben Wallace going into super-aggressive mode. Ron Artest retreating back to the scorer's table and laying on his back. Everyone cooling down before Artest shot like a bullet into the stands, fists a blazin'. 

And then all hell broke loose. 

But my memory—likely very similar to that of everyone who watched the game—isn't as important as what the NBA thinks of the game. How has it remembered its darkest hour? What changes have been made? 

I'm not talking about the aftermath of the brawl, one that included the Artest suspension and the legal trouble John Green endured. Has the Association changed its viewpoint on fighting and cut that type of nasty behavior out of the sport? 


The Rules

First, let's take a look at the rules about fighting in the official NBA rulebook. 

Here's the entirety of what the league's official site posted on January 31, 2001, preserved for posterity's sake: 

Violent acts of any nature on the court will not be tolerated. Players involved in altercations will be ejected, fined and/or suspended. 

Officials have been instructed to eject a player who throws a punch, whether or not it connects, or an elbow which makes contact above shoulder level. If elbow contact is shoulder level or below, it shall be left to the discretion of the official as to whether the player is ejected. Even if a punch or an elbow goes undetected by the officials during the game, but is detected during a review of a videotape, that player will be penalized. 

There is absolutely no justification for fighting in an NBA game. The fact that you may feel provoked by another player is not an acceptable excuse. If a player takes it upon himself to retaliate, he can expect to be subject to appropriate penalties. 

Now, here's the relevant excerpt from this season's official rules

Violent acts of any nature on the court will not be tolerated. Players involved in altercations will be ejected, fined and/or suspended.

There is absolutely no justification for fighting in an NBA game. The fact that you may feel provoked by another player is not an acceptable excuse. If a player takes it upon himself to retaliate, he can expect to be subject to appropriate penalties. 

Wait. What? 

There haven't been any changes made? 

Well, technically there's been one. That middle paragraph from the 2001 version has been expunged, and it doesn't appear anywhere in the current set of rules. Other than that, everything appears exactly the same. 

The league also hasn't instituted any official rules about fan behavior since the Malice at the Palace, nor has it dictated how players and fans should interact. In fact, if you search for the word "fan" in the official rules, you get three results: 

  1. A technical foul shall be assessed for unsportsmanlike tactics such as...Use of profanity. 
  2. It [unsportsmanlike conduct] consists of acts of deceit, disrespect of officials and profanity. 
  3. Any spectator who verbally abuses players and/or coaches in a manner which, in the opinion of the game officials, interferes with the ability of a coach to communicate with his players during the game and/or huddles, will, at the direction of the crew chief, be given one warning by a building security officer. If the same spectator continues to behave in a like manner, the crew chief shall direct a building security officer to eject the spectator from the arena.

The third is listed under a section called "Verbal Fan Interference," and it appears in both version of the rules that we've looked at. There's no mention of "Physical Fan Interference," and I've included the first two search results to satirize the lack of changes that have been made in the wake of the darkest hour.

That said, it's alright if there were no big rule changes, so long as the aftermath of the fight has been filled with less physical violence.  

Is that the case?


Actions Speak Louder than Words

Since the brawl between Indiana and Detroit, there's only been one major incident that resulted in significant suspensions for on-court activity. Sure, we've seen Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton banned for lengthy periods of time, but that wasn't related to the Malice at the Palace. The same is true for drug-related suspensions. 

In December of 2006, the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks had one of the bigger scuffles the NBA has seen since the more infamous event, and the league handed out some strict suspensions: 

  • Carmelo Anthony, 15 games
  • J.R. Smith, 10 games
  • Nate Robinson, 10 games
  • Mardy Collins, six games
  • Jared Jeffries, four games
  • Nene, one game
  • Jerome James, one game

The two teams were also fined, which was another step in the positive direction. They say actions speak louder than words, and this is just such an example.

Although the NBA's words (the lack of rule changes) weren't particularly strong, the suspensions have been much more heavy-handed.

Back in 2002, the league suspended Derrick Coleman for two games after he grabbed Reggie Miller in the throat and then threw a punch. Miller, who fought back, received only a one-game ban. Earlier that year, Shaquille O'Neal was suspended three games for coming to blows with Brad Miller. 

Do those penalties sound nearly as strict? 

In 2006, the Collins suspension (six games) was simply for the flagrant foul that started the whole thing! He stood and watched the proceedings afterward until the 'Melo sucker punch. Can you imagine him getting anything more than a single game before the Malice at the Palace changed the league's view on physical confrontations? 

It's also worth noting that the NBA hasn't had many multi-player fights since 2006. There have been small scuffles and punches thrown, but that's inevitable. Fighting will always exist in a physical sport that pits elite athletes against one another in a competitive setting. 

I'm not condoning it, merely recognizing it as an inevitability.

What happens when manhood is challenged? What happens when someone fouls a teammate/friend in a manner that another someone finds far too physical? What happens when trash-talking goes too far? 

It happens, although the scuffles have been minimized in recent years.

And that, more than anything else, is the lasting legacy of the NBA's darkest hours.

It's not about cutting these minor fights out of the game, but rather making sure the big brawls don't happen anymore. It's about changing the image of the league, one that Stern spoke about in an interview on The John Feinstein Show (as transcribed by CBS Sports' Royce Young): 

But the brawl that happened between the Pistons and the Pacers provided much of the media in the course of that weekend to use the words 'thugs' and 'punks' with respect to all of our players which to me is freighted with respect to what they're really saying and brought up visions of the way the media treated us a decade or more earlier.

In today's NBA, you hear pejorative words thrown around like "spoiled," "soft," and "entitled," but the "thug" moniker has gone by the wayside. The league has regained its image, and a lot of that is owed to how players started behaving after the most famous brawl. 

They realized there were repercussions for their actions, both from the league and the general public. And—for the most part—they've acted accordingly. 

As we draw near the anniversary of the Malice at the Palace, it's tough to look back upon the events in any sort of favorable light. 

But let's at least take solace in the fact that positive changes have been made. They may not have manifested themselves in the league's rules, but you need only look through the list of the NBA's suspensions to realize how much more controlled and acceptable the extracurricular activity is in today's game. 

Ironically enough, Ron Artest actually did contribute a little bit to world peace, even if that peace is only coming in moderate doses in one corner of the world. 


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