This is a roughly hour-long episode from a new Netflix documentary series about the infamous “Malice at the Palace.” I was just getting into basketball then – I think Pistons/Lakers may have been the first NBA finals I really watched – but I did not watch this game live as far as I know. But for weeks afterward, it felt like it was the only thing in sports. (Remember, this was during the NHL lockout so it was just the NBA and football. And though I was much more of an NFL fan then, I still paid far more attention to this.)
This is a necessary corrective. The media coverage was…not good. Though this film is too short to really go into great depth about that coverage, they show enough of it that you get the gist if you were not there. The NHL lockout was the first time that I had to think about sports labour issues as an adult, and I was confused. I’m not sure where I landed at the time – probably too pro owner for my liking now – but I do believe that the coverage of this game felt reasonable to me at the time. Some of that was because I didn’t know the full story until later – probably until the classic Grantland oral history, me thinks – but some of that was because I still subscribed to childish ideas about sports and the world. By focusing on O’Neal, Artest, Jackson and Miller (and, to a lesser extent, Ben Wallace), we get the player’s side properly. And we learn, if we didn’t know it already, that the Pacers entering the stands to fight Detroit fans was provoked. (I suspect most of us already knew about the beer throwing, though.) As O’Neal points out, nobody cared about the arbitration of the sentences or the criminal cases afterwards. They just cared about what was on ESPN. (I’m guilty of that as anyone.)
This is brief. You could argue if this incident could really support a feature film but I do think a little more time on the coverage of the incident by the media and a the reaction of the public would add to the piece. (30 for 30 would have done 90-120 minutes on it, not 68.) And there’s very little about the on-court consequences for the rest of the league outside of the Pacers. (That is perhaps the biggest omission. People get mad now about players getting suspended for leaving the bench. Well…) But I think telling this story from the Pacers’ perspective was necessary, especially “on TV” for lack of a better word. (How many read the Grantland piece?) And it’s good to see people who were employed by the “other side” having sympathy for what happened to the Pacers. It’s also interesting to learn about the criminal investigation. There are both interviewees that might surprise as well as some notable omissions. (Perhaps none greater than Tinsley. I wonder why he declined…)
So it could be more in-depth, sure. And it could be better as a film. But I still think it’s important to have a piece like this – made during an era of increased awareness of mental health issues as well as during the so-called “player empowerment” era – that reevaluates how we felt and thought about this. Because if you still think this was about “thugs,” well, you should really watch it.