David Aldridge: The media failed to tell full Malice at The Palace story

David Aldridge: The media failed to tell full Malice at The Palace story

David Aldridge was a guest on my weekly show, "The Collision: Sports and Politics," with my co-host, Dave Zirin, and we discussed the Malice At the Palace documentary that was just released on Netflix.

The documentary presented a thorough and complete examination of the infamous 2004 melee that turned the entire basketball world upside down. 

"Untold: Malice At The Palace" does something that the media as a whole failed to do back in 2004: Tell the whole story from everyone’s perspective who was involved, including the players and fans who played a part in the fateful night — Auburn Hills security, Auburn Hill police officers and the specific Oakland County prosecutor handling the case. This is the complete viewpoint everyone should have been privy to back in 2004, but instead, the vast majority of basketball fans were only presented a one-sided, skewed view of what actually took place. 

To discuss this in more detail, we had David Aldridge as our guest. Below is our conversation about the event itself, and its mishandling.

Dave Zirin: Welcome to The Collision! He's Etan Thomas, I'm Dave Zirin, here from your home of jazz and justice, 89.3 FM. WPFW also being broadcast on 99.5 WBAI in New York City. Etan Thomas?

Etan Thomas: Yes, sir.

Dave Zirin: So proud to introduce D.C.'s own, American University's own, the Hall-of-Famer, the dean of basketball broadcasting and sports journalist for The Athletic, the man himself, David Aldridge. David, how you doing, sir?

David Aldridge: Gentlemen, what's happening? How you doing?

Dave Zirin: Well, Etan and I have been talking all week about this Malice in the Palace documentary on Netflix. So we've been thinking about what we were talking [about] before, about what we were discussing 17 years ago, and how our perceptions have changed, who got it right [and] who got it wrong. So I just wanted to ask you if you could take us back then, for yourself, where were you and what was your first reaction when you saw the punches flying in Auburn Hills?

David Aldridge: Ah, man, my first reaction... I was sitting on my couch and my first reaction was, "Ah, man, I wish I was still at ESPN," because I knew exactly how this was going to go down. But they decided to go in another direction, as TV companies do. And it's okay, that's what happens to all of us eventually. But it was bad. Look, the visual was bad. The reaction was bad. We had Jermaine on our show, our podcast, a couple of weeks ago when it was premiering on Netflix. And I've talked to Jermaine about it over the years and I know it's obviously a very difficult subject for him because of all of the different things that were going on at the time. People don't realize this, that Jermaine had lost his stepfather the year before, who was in Indiana with him, was really kind of looking out for him, and had to deal with that on top of everything else, and then trying to compete for a championship at the same time.

I had always liked Jermaine. When I interviewed Jermaine the first time, he was 17 years old at the RTP in Orlando in 1996. And Jermaine was always one of the most thoughtful young cats that I talked to. He just always was a very deep thinker, even at a young age. And I'm just happy that he's gotten a chance to kind of get a more balanced view of what occurred that night out to the public, so that the public can kind of make up its own mind. I would say, [and] you asked Dave at the beginning who got it right and who got it wrong, look, when it comes to mental health, we all got it wrong. I'm at the top of the list. I did not know how to deal with people that had mental problems in 2004. I don't think many people did in the NBA.

And I think, if that had... If Ron Artest, Metta World Peace, Metta-Santiford Artest, as he likes to call himself now, if he was coming up now, it would be a completely different — there would be a support system in place for him that just wasn't there in 2004. And I think that would've... That may have changed everything in terms of how his career turned out. What happened that night, the perception of what happened that night, all of it would have been different if it had happened now.

Etan Thomas: D.A., thanks for coming on The Collision, always appreciate your commentary. Let me ask you, because watching the documentary and reminiscing about everything... I was in the league at that time, and I just remember the way that the media covered it — ESPN in particular -- and the way that it was shown and how they criminalized the athletes. It was all the athletes. The word "thug" was thrown around a lot, [as well as] menaces, savages, all these different descriptive terms, but then nothing was really said about the fans. And I remember talking to my peers about it. We had this big conversation in the locker room with the Wizards right after it happened, and I want to ask you this question: do you think that a lot of the media, after seeing this documentary and being shown different parts of it that they weren't privy to, do you think a lot of the media maybe owe the players an apology with the way that they described it, and described it so one-sided?

David Aldridge: Do they owe them an apology? Maybe. Would they give them one? I doubt it. So, I mean, I'm just being real with you, Etan. People, whether it's the media or just society in general, very few people have the kind of self-reflective gene in them to realize when they've made mistakes and to own up to those mistakes.

It is a failing of the journalism business in general that the resolution is never as prominently displayed as the charge. You know what I'm saying? The charge is on page one, the resolution is on page 18. And that's a failing of journalism but, again, it doesn't have anything to do with sports. That's journalism. We just fail at that as journalists. But there's no question that the media went overboard, just like they did with Latrell Sprewell, with PJ Carlesimo. And again, I'm not trying to make myself the center of this, but I think when I was at ESPN, when the Sprewell thing happened, I was able to go on TV and say, "No, the NBA does not have an epidemic of players choking their coaches."

Etan Thomas: Right, and that was important because that was becoming the narrative. 

David Aldridge: Right, so I was there to say no, this is not something that's going to happen... I remember, literally, one guy in particular with ABC News asked me that. "Is this going to happen a lot now? Is this just the way things happen now?" No, it's not. Look, the majority of reporters, media in the NBA... whether they're covering the NBA, or the NFL, or baseball, or whatever, are white males. And those are the people that, especially, certainly in 2004, were setting the agenda in terms of, this is how we're going to view this incident. Right? And in the documentary, you see Bob Costas, who usually is a pretty thoughtful guy on many subjects, just going right to "thug". You know what I'm saying?

Etan Thomas: Yeah, and a lot more media too.

David Aldridge: And it's not surprising in retrospect, because in 2004,  the league didn't know what to do with Allen Iverson — had no idea what to do with him. [The NBA] could not figure out the first thing about: how do we deal with Allen Iverson, the most popular player in the league?

So, how did they deal with him? Well, they airbrushed the tattoos off of his body when they put their hoop magazine out. I broke that story, by the way. Me and Rick Telander, at the Chicago Sun-Times, broke that story. So, they didn't know what to do with it. Allen has an incredible following, not just among fans, but among players. AI was the guy that a lot of guys looked up to coming up at that time. And so, the league didn't know what to do. And they had no idea how to handle it. They didn't know how to talk to these young men. They didn't know how to... They didn't relate to these young men at all. And so, they went to the default, which is, "Well, it's got to be the music that they listen to." And you see this today, with people in my business — some people in my business, I'll put it that way. Continually talking about rap culture and rap this, and rap that and rap the third.

And that's unfortunate, because it's a total mischaracterization, I think, of the circumstances under which a lot of the young men grew up and what they relate to and what they consider important. And the media failed. And what happens when you have an incident that goes beyond sports, is that a lot of people who don't know anything about sports wind up talking about sports.

So, you have people on network news, who've never been in an NBA locker room, who don't know anybody in the league, talking about the league as if they're experts, and that's problematic. But that's what happens when things like this happen that go beyond the sports page.

Dave Zirin: David, my mind is exploding with questions based on what you just said. But if I just have to choose one, I'll start with this. When you say that the league did not know how to relate to Iverson, the league did not know how to relate to hip-hop, the league did not know how to relate to this generation of players, are we really talking about [former NBA commissioner] David Stern, or was it broader than David Stern?

David Aldridge: Well, it was broader than David Stern, but David Stern had the hammer. Now, let's not get that twisted. David Stern was the guy, okay? He was the guy that set the tone. It's in the documentary. "Was this the unanimous decision?" he said, "Yes. One, nothing." There was no doubt that David Stern was making the decisions about how the league was going to react to this. Now, did he get advised by owners or other people that are in his circle of influence? I'm sure he took some calls and talked to people. But there is no question, and I don't think anybody, even in the league, would deny that this was Stern's call. He was wanting to set an example on somebody and it happened to be the Pacers, much more so than the Pistons. And he did. And it was David's league. He ran the league with an iron fist for 30 years. And he told the owners that: "It's my league."

And the fact of the matter... I mean, the real of it, guys: David Stern is hired by the owners, which means that he can be fired by the owners. If they don't like what he's doing, they can get rid of him. They didn't for three decades.

Okay? Because they liked what he was doing. They liked the kind of law-and-order mandate that he had, and the way he kind of kneaded out justice as he saw it over the years, along with other things. And he made them a lot of money too, don't get me wrong. I mean, that's part of it too, is that he made the owners a lot of money. [But] you didn't hear [Pacers owner] Herb Simon complain and say, "This is unfair to my team. Why did you do this to my team? You shouldn't have suspended Ron Artest for the rest of the season. That was wrong." You didn't see no interviews from Herb Simon. So they were all in line with what David wanted to do.

Etan Thomas: Let me ask you this. After you left ESPN — and I can say this, you don't have to say this, but I can say — if you were at ESPN, I think, at that time, there would have been at least a more balanced discussion as to, "No, this isn't all one-sided. Let's also take a look at what the entire NBA culture, including the fans, need to improve on as well." You know what I mean? And that just wasn't the discussion. There were panels, there were, "What's wrong with the NBA? Is the NBA full of thugs. Are they all criminals?" The rap music, like you said, the clothes, the hair, all of this stuff — was there anybody at ESPN to have that balance? Or after you left, was there just nobody else.

David Aldridge: I think there was a conscious decision made that they were going to go towards more debate. I'll put it that way. They wanted to have debate as their central thing. I was there for eight years, and when I got there, they had Peter Gammons and Ed Werder. Peter Gammons had been in The Boston Globe, Ed Werder had been in The Dallas Morning News, Chris Mortenson had been in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I've been with The Washington Post. They hired sportswriters. They hired people that knew the leagues that they were covering, knew the people in the league, knew everybody, knew the players, knew the owners, knew the GM's, knew the coaches, knew the agents. They started to get away from that because they felt like they had to do more than just cover the games.

And you can do that, but you then sometimes leave yourself kind of vulnerable on nights like the Malice at the Palace, when you need somebody who's covered the league for 15 years at the time who might be able to have some context. Then what was missing was context. Yes, this is bad, but the NBA has had way worse fights in the 50's and 60's. They used to go in the stands all the time in the 50's and 60's. Red Auerbach used to fight fans on the regular back in the day. So you need somebody who can say that, to point that out and say, "This is bad, but it's not the first time this has ever happened in the NBA's history." And they didn't have that.

Dave Zirin: Yeah. And I'll tell you, watching the documentary, and I was wondering if you had the sense of this at the time, David, because I did not have a sense of this at the time: the degree to which the players were besieged. Because that's what the documentary did so well, was that. Because ESPN, I remember at the time, it was all about Artest going into the stands. It was all about Stephen Jackson throwing punches. It was all about that slide across the floor with Jermaine O'Neal, but not about how, and they showed this in the documentary, them looking around and wondering where the security is and seeing the encroaching thousands. I mean, that must've been just absolutely terrifying.

David Aldridge: I will say, this is the one thing I learned from that documentary. Because if you're immersed in this stuff, as people cover the NBA, you knew most of it, right? But what you didn't know, where were the cops?

There were no cops. There are cops at every NBA game. There are hundreds of cops at every NBA game that I've been to. You see cops everywhere. They're in the voms. There are the voms, which are the little areas where the players go, between the court and the locker room. They call them vomitoriums, that little area underneath where you see them throwing everything at Ron Artest, beer and popcorn and everything, right? The cops are always there. You know what I mean? They're always ready to go wherever they need to go, to break whatever they need to break up.

And one of the police officers literally said there were three cops in the building. There were three cops on the floor, let's put it that way. And that, to me, is the most damning part of this documentary — that there was no law presence whatsoever. It was literally fans just coming on the court. When do you see a fan just walk on the court?

Etan Thomas: And not just popcorn and drinks. They were throwing chairs. Multiple times. They showed the one chair that almost hit Jermaine O'Neal, that hit the other fan, but there were multiple chairs. And I was just so curious as to why the media never told that part of it.

David Aldridge: I think part of it is, as the doc says, some of this was not available to the media, but some of it is just being lazy, I think. And again, the narrative kind of leaps ahead of the conclusion.

The narrative is, players go into the stands and fight fans. The conclusion is, fans get sentenced to prison, you know what I mean? For doing dumb stuff. The D.A., in this piece, I think, comes off as one of the heroes, who said, like, "No. We're going to prosecute these people. They need to be prosecuted for instigating." The guy said, if John Green doesn't throw the cup, none of this happens. You know what I mean? It's squashed. It's like Reggie said: it's what happens all the time in NBA. Guys come together, there's a little push, a little shoving. Ain't nobody really trying to fight in the NBA, you know what I'm saying?

So it would've been that. It would've been, like, maybe Ben gets suspended for a game and that's it. And it didn't happen that way. And again, I'm not excusing, but Ron shouldn't have gone to the stands. He shouldn't have done it.

Stephen Jackson shouldn't have gone to the stands. You can't do that. No matter how stupid people are acting, you just can't do that. Now, was it [warranting] a season-long suspension? I would argue it shouldn't have been a season. I would have argued 30 games for Ron, and maybe five games [or] ten games, for the rest of the guys. But again, David Stern's operating with a different set of priorities than maybe David Aldridge is, you know what I'm saying?

Etan Thomas: We're about to end, and it went so quick, but I want to ask you this related to today, because we still have issues with fans today. So as soon as fans were let back in from the COVID-19 pandemic, you saw the incidents. A fan spit on Trae Young, they threw the popcorn on Russell Westbrook, a fan ran onto the court right in front of Dwight Howard. So is the NBA doing enough now with fans, or what should be done moving forward?

David Aldridge: I think, Etan, it's very dangerous what's going on now. Because I think it is a combination of people coming back from COVID, wanting to get back in the stands, wanting to get back to their normal "lives" and be able to be fans and yell and scream and do all the things that, I think, most of us understand fans have perfectly within their rights to do. You can boo, you can cheer, you can hope the opposingguy misses, but when you start throwing the N-word around and throw popcorn and beer at people, now you've crossed the line.

You just can't do that. So, it's a combination of that, with people paying a lot of money for these tickets, and the NBA's got to think about this, and I don't think they think enough about this. People feel like, "I paid $4,000 for these two tickets. I can do whatever the hell I want, and I can say whatever the hell I want." And they have to think about that. I don't know what you do. You can't have seminars with fans. I don't know. But there's got to be some way to articulate to fans that... It doesn't matter if you're sitting courtside, you don't get to just say whatever the hell you want. You know you don't. That doesn't give you the right to do that. Maybe you do PSA's [or] you have some sort of public relations campaign, I don't know. But they have to do something, because I think this could be a real problem, as I suspect the league will be pretty close back to normal in most places by the start of next season, with regards to attendance.

I think most people are going to let fans in. And look, I think 95% of fans are great, and they're fine and they don't go over the line. And they're good people, and they want their home team to win, and I get that. And they handle themselves accordingly, it's just that lunatic 5%. And again, another good point they made in the documentary, and I think Reggie Miller made this, was the fact that the game was a blowout meant all the knowledgeable fans were like, "Well, this game is over. We're leaving."

So the arena was half-empty by the time the brawl started, because all the — I hate to say it this way — but I think all the more intelligent fans were like, "Well, this game's over. We'll come back. We'll get them next time." And then they left. And so that left all the drunks, basically, in the stands to kind of act ridiculous. And yes, you’re absolutely right. The media failed at not showing the full story back then. I can’t argue with that. 

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