Former Pacers star Jermaine O'Neal opens up about 'Malice at the Palace,' felt 'criminalized'

Former six-time NBA All-Star center Jermaine O'Neal is opening up about his role during the infamous "Malice at the Palace" brawl nearly 20 years after it stunned the sports world.

The brawl, which took place during a November 2004 game against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan, involved several members of the Indiana Pacers, fans, coaches, personnel and Pistons players. O'Neal, who was starting for the Pacers when it happened, has recently tried to explain his side of the story, including his being an executive producer in a 2021 Netflix documentary called "Untold: Malice at the Palace."

O'Neal, now 45, recently sat down with the Indy Star, part of the USA TODAY Network, to open up on the matter.

Jermaine O'Neal wants to change the 'Malice at the Palace' narrative

In particular, O'Neal still takes exception with the way the brawl was covered, feeling that it led to unfair narratives about the Pacers players.

Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal is escorted off the court following the fight.
Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal is escorted off the court following the fight.

"I think the brawl itself is one of the most understood and misused things," O'Neal told the Indy Star. "Even from just a media standpoint, it was disappointing to say the least how it was handled.

"Many people (say) that about this or the average fan who wonders about this as a Pacers fan, they don’t realize that we were, by law, not able to talk about the brawl because of the criminal, civil and federal cases that were pending that went on years after the brawl.

"For whatever reason, it was as if I was criminalized for something that when you look at it, I would do it again if put in the exact same position."

Furthering that point, O'Neal also said he wishes that fellow NBA players and members of the Pacers organization would've defended O'Neal more than they did.

"I was disappointed that my family, my sports family, didn’t speak about it. You let a narrative continue to be built over time and over time, when I’ve won the community assist award three times, when I invested real time and became a community leader. I’m a father as well.

"... To sit back and watch that narrative be created and just be handed off year after year after year after year, it was just crazy. So I don’t understand the disconnect between me and the Pacers or anybody that doesn’t like me here because of the brawl."

What was the 'Malice at the Palace?'

The fight started late in the fourth quarter of a November 19, 2004 game between the Pacers and Pistons, in Auburn Hills, Mich. Pistons center Ben Wallace received the ball in the low post and drove to the basket when he Pacers forward Ron Artest, currently known as Metta Sandiford-Artest, fouled him. Wallace took exception to the contact and shoved Artest, while several players, officials and coaches tried to separate the two. Several other players became involved, pushing each other back and forth.

Artest, for his part, stayed mostly away from that initial confrontation and eventually lay down on the scorer's table while the fight ran its course, though it took a couple of minutes to dissipate. While Artest lay on the scorer's table, a fan threw a beer at him, striking him in the torso. Artest immediately ran into the stands and confronted a fan he thought responsible. Artest came to blows with that fan while several other Pacers including Stephen Jackson, Fred Jones and others went into the crowd, in part, to defuse the situation. A number of Pistons staffers also ventured into the stands to try to control the situation.

After Artest had been removed from the stands, a number of fans continued to throw drinks and other items at him and other Pacers and several fans rushed the court. When one approached Artest quickly, Artest threw two punches, leading to a number of players and staffers eventually separating Artest from the fans. One of the players who came to Artest's defense was O'Neal, who rushed toward one of the fans and punched him in the jaw. O'Neal appeared to slip on the court, which had become wet with all the drinks thrown onto it, as players and staffers tried to further defuse the altercation.

Some security personnel and police officers came onto the court and Artest was then ushered off the court, as fans showered him with drinks, cups and bottles as he was whisked through the tunnel. As Pacers players tried to leave the court, fans continued to instigate them, throwing items, including a folding chair, at the players.

The public address announcer told the crowd that the game had been called and asked fans to peacefully leave the arena.

Malice at the Palace - Finally In Good Quality

Malice at the Palace - Finally In Good Quality16 years ago today, the most infamous brawl in NBA history took place. With less than a minute left in the game, a fight broke out on the court between several players. After the fight was broken up, a fan threw a drink from the stands at Pacers player Ron Artest while he was lying on the scorer’s table. Artest then entered the crowd and sparked a massive brawl between players and fans that stretched onto the court.After the game, the NBA suspended nine players for a total of 146 games, which led to $11 million in salary being lost by the players. Five players were also charged with assault, and eventually sentenced to a year of probation and community service. Five fans also faced criminal charges and were banned from attending Pistons home games for life.This is by far the best video of the incident out there, in terms of quality. 🙌🙌🙌🙌🙌🙌

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The brawl eventually led to the suspensions of nine players overall, including five Pacers. Artest was suspended for the remained of that season, while O'Neal faced a 25-game ban that was later reduced to 15 upon arbitration.

The game was broadcast nationally on ESPN.

What Jermaine O'Neal thinks about the 'Malice at the Palace'

O'Neal acknowledged that he should've faced discipline for his role in the incident, but has continued to justify his actions as a mode of self-defense.

"What happens when you’re actually in a situation when people are trying to hurt you? What do you do then?" O'Neal told the Indy Star. "People didn’t realize that the person that I ran over and hit was the guy that was on top of (Pacers point guard) Anthony Johnson. People don’t know that. People don’t know that in the federal case that I won — I took the NBA to court and won — I never served my full suspension. I was reinstated by a federal judge. Nobody ever knew that and nor did they care enough to research it. The narrative was already made. It was like whatever they wanted to say, people just took on to it."

O'Neal was 26 at the time of the brawl and was in his ninth NBA season. In the three seasons prior to the one in which the brawl took place, O'Neal was an All-Star in each, won the NBA's Most Improved Player award for the 2001-02 season and was third in Most Valuable Player of the Year award voting for the 2003-04 season.

"I never thought that I shouldn’t be punished. That was fine. But to be labeled is crazy. It is crazy. There are people who have done all kinds of crazy stuff – domestic violence, drugs – but all of a sudden that is not remembered. But you have the brawl and there’s this attachment that comes with it."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jermaine O'Neal felt 'criminalized' for role in 'Malice at the Palace'