Eight years ago, when the Detroit Pistons went up against the Indiana Pacers, the arena erupted into the biggest fight in NBA history. A commentator for the Lakers/Thunder game earlier this season feared that history would repeat itself after Metta WorldPeace regressed into the old Ron Artest that stoked the flames of that brawl as an Indiana Pacer. This year, MWP was relatively tame, that is until Oklahoma City’s James Harden had his lights knocked out after colliding with MWP’s thundering elbow. Metta had committed another wrong that he has tried to right over the course of a seven game suspension, explanations to referees and even Conan O’Brien. Soon, MWP will return to the lineup. If the Lakers face the Thunder in round 2 of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, the tension will be thicker than your average rap beef. Come full circle with us as we revisit the Ron Artest cover story from Issue 43.
Mass Appeal Issue #43: After getting physical with a fan, Ron Artest became the NBA’s most infamous all-star overnight. With a rap album and a new NBA season serving up a fresh start, the Queensbridge native takes Mass Appeal on a journey into the housing projects that made him the man he is today.
It all started with a push. No, actually, it all started with a hard foul, delivered from behind, an added “fuck you” at the end of a game whose outcome was already long-decided. No, actually it started years earlier, miles away in the Queensbridge Housing projects.
What the nationwide viewers (NBA on ESPN!) of the Pacers/Pistons game on November 19, 2004, saw was this: A Ben Wallace drive to the basket. A hard foul by Ron Artest. A retaliatory push in the back by Wallace. At that point, Artest did the right thing. He walked away. There was less than a minute left in the game, more than 70 games left in the season. His team was up by double digits, in the house of the defending NBA champs. This was no time to blow things out of proportion. Artest walked over to the scorer’s table, sat on the padded top and then laid down on it. A Dennis Rodman move. Wallace, already irate at the turn of events—the loss, the foul, the seeming disrespect in his house—threw a towel in Artest’s general direction. Then a fan, emboldened by anonymity and alcohol, tossed a half-full beer that landed square on Artest’s chest. And before anyone could react, Artest sprang off the table, cat-quick, and bounded into the stands.
As it turned out, he attacked the wrong guy—some four-eyed little dude who will forever know what it means to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was only the beginning. Teammate Stephen Jackson joined him in the stands, throwing haymakers like some Golden Glover gone mad. Jermaine O’Neal cold-cocked some other fans who were dumb enough to rush onto the court. And all of this went out over the airwaves. Mike Breen called the play-by-play, as it were, but it was color man Bill Walton who delivered the mea culpa in his usual droll tone. “This is a disgrace,” he said, delivering what may have been his first-ever understatement. And then as the Pacers were escorted off by a phalanx of security guards, game over but win intact, with beer continuing to pour down like rain, he got in one more shot. “This is a low moment in NBA history.”
It may have been the lowest. It certainly wasn’t the first brawl ever—fights were pretty typical back in the ABA days. And there had even been higher-profile battles—Dr. J once attempted to choke Larry Bird, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kermit Washington delivered what may have been the most devastating punch in history in 1977, forever changing the face of a young Rockets forward named Rudy Tomjanovich. But this was different. This broke down the invisible barrier between the athletes and the fans, and delivered—again, on national television—the image of finely tuned and enraged (and enormous) black athletes charging into a rather sedentary, out-of-shape, mostly white, crowd. It didn’t help that the guy Ron went after looked like a cross between Macauley Culkin and Harry Potter.