August 18, 2021
Early on in Netflix's new documentary concerning the "Malice at The Palace," director Floyd Russ hits viewers with a barrage of sound bites from news personalities of all sorts — commentators left and right of center, invested or uninterested in sports, forceful and understated. Yet they all seem to settle on the same story, painting the 2004-05 Indiana Pacers as a bunch of miscreants, with one analyst going so far as to refer to the entire league as the, "Thug Basketball Association."
The pilot episode of Netflix's new Untold documentary series does not ask us to absolve the Pacers of blame or excuse their role in the fracas, but it is a window into one of the biggest events in recent NBA history, a useful example of how the world has changed over the last decade-and-a-half.
At the center of the story are the three Pacers caught up in the borderline riot that went down in suburban Detroit — center Jermaine O'Neal, forward Stephen Jackson, and forward Ron Artest, known these days as Metta Sandiford-Peace. Much like they settled into roles during their playing days, the three men paint very different pictures as a function of their personalities. O'Neal is calm and measured, the man others interviewed say lost the most from the brawl; Jackson wears the duty of brotherhood as a badge of honor; and Artest is the loose cannon who believes in his heart he was trying to do the right things, even as his mind and his actions betrayed that suggestion.
The brawl, which took place at the end of a dominant Pacers win over a hated Eastern Conference rival and the defending NBA champions, is only part of the story. Russ takes viewers on a journey that begins with a teenaged O'Neal making the leap to the NBA, finding his footing after being traded from Portland to Indiana. Reggie Miller, in street clothes on Indy's bench the night the brawl took place, provides useful color about the franchise he spent his entire career with.
It should come as no surprise that Artest is the "star" so much as a documentary of this nature can have one. Viewed as an enigmatic basket case throughout his career, his actions that night (and many other nights) come into focus. The famous image of him laying on the scorer's table, moments before being struck by a flying beverage? That turns out to be the product of a therapeutic exercise recommended by his therapist, rather than a product of madness. Celebrating his greatest team triumph, a 2010 NBA Finals victory with the Lakers, Sandiford-Peace has his former Pacers teammates on his mind, regretful at leaving O'Neal behind.
O'Neal, mind you, had his own thoughts on Artest's decision to request a trade after putting the events in motion to derail their team.
"That was the most coward scenario I have ever f*****g seen in my life," O'Neal says.
By his own admission, Sandiford-Peace was a bad teammate who abandoned his teammates when they needed to pick up the pieces, but you come away from Untold understanding him better as a man.
Unlike a lot of recent sports documentaries — The Last Dance being the biggest culprit — this episode of Untold does well to include perspectives outside the orbit of its stars, telling a fuller story in the process.
For my money, the most important inclusion is a sitdown with Charlie Haddad, the man who narrowly missed being sent into next week by O'Neal after storming the court:
"It was the best miss of Jermaine's career. Because if Jermaine would've connected on that punch, that fan would have been dead." - Reggie Miller on Jermaine O'Neal's punch at Malice at the Palace pic.twitter.com/Xgdc5fCTA2— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) August 10, 2021
Now 17 years removed from the incident, Haddad is not all that interested in examining what he did wrong that night or showing contrition for his own role in the madness. In fact, Haddad goes the other way, accusing the Pistons of doing wrong by him when they banned him from returning to the arena in perpetuity. Interviews with arena personnel paint Haddad and fans like him in an even worse light, with a security member overhearing fans who were hoping to line up opportunities to sue by jumping into the fight.
(The documentary doesn't say this outright, but it does seem to imply Haddad is one of those guys. And a bit of cursory research suggests that characterization is on the money — Haddad attempted to sue O'Neal for long-term repercussions of the punch, but the lawsuit was thrown out by a judge when it was discovered Haddad traveled to Las Vegas the day after the brawl and many times thereafter.)
If it falls short of classic material, it is in the exclusion of greater exploration of everything concerning the late David Stern, whose suspensions ultimately defined the seasons (and in some ways, the careers) of the three men in question. Stern discussed the Malice at The Palace to some extent in the years before his death, but Untold hints at a darker side to this story, with claims that the league wanted stricter criminal punishment of the players than the state was ultimately able to justify.
Thanks to previously unseen footage acquired by the crew, we see why a district attorney wouldn't push it any further — fans attempt to throw chairs at the players, with security and local law enforcement useless at best and actively harmful at worst. But whether out of respect for Stern following his death in 2020 or disinterest in going deeper down the rabbit hole, Untold settles on telling a story centered mostly around the Pacers, for better or for worse.
A deeper examination of the NBA's misplaced cultural war, touched on briefly during the documentary, would have made for great material in a longer, more pointed documentary. As it is, this is a great re-telling of a league-altering event, and one worth watching for most sports fans.
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