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
Etan Thomas: Yeah, and a lot more media
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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