AUBURN HILLS — Inebriation and impulse spending. For many folks, these two go together like peanut butter and jelly.
And on the night of Nov. 19, 2004, this killer combo was in full effect for yours truly.
Because that it was the eve of the Michigan-Ohio State football game, I spent the night in a Columbus-area Holiday Inn bar, downing overpriced brews and pumping George Washingtons into the bar-top Megatouch video game console. The Pistons-Pacers game on TV had already become a distant afterthought when Indiana opened up a double-digit lead late in the fourth quarter. But in the middle of my umpteenth game of Astro Joe (the only Megatouch game with attainable high scores), my friend tore me away from the machine to witness the events unfolding on the silver screen. Before I knew it, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal had unleashed a foray of haymakers on Pistons fans, John Saunders had slammed the entire city of Detroit, and I had found my way back to a computer in my room to purchase four tickets to the Pistons game on Friday, March 25 — the Pacers next scheduled game at the Palace.
Now I’ll admit it. Although at the time I did believe that this game would boast playoff implications, the true motivation behind this impulse buy had little to do with watching a quality NBA basketball game. Like the cynical sports fan that watches NASCAR for the crashes, I just desired a train wreck. I wanted to attend the Malice at the Palace Part II.
In the next four months, a slew of friends promised that they would join me at the game if provided with one of my three extra tickets. But of course, come Friday, Rick’s and Touchdowns took precedent over all things fun and exciting, and I was scurrying to find at least one person to join me. Finally, Willow (yup, just like the movie) signed on, and the two of us were Detroit-bound.
As college days dwindle, so do the opportunities to throw all integrity out the window and make an idiot of oneself at a sporting event. So, Willow and I decided to make this game a memorable one by producing Ron Artest popsicle stick heads (fashioned after the heads in “Pardon the Interruption”) and a pair of signs. My sign — “Stephen Jackson Eats Babies” — was an obvious reference to Jackson’s crazed antics during the Basketbrawl, while Willow’s sign — “Joe Dumars Smokes Crack” — was just a senseless and obnoxious low blow at one of Detroit’s most beloved individuals (Willow’s a proud Pittsburgh native).
Upon arrival at the arena, I quickly discovered that the Palace didn’t share my desire for a repeat of Nov. 19’s circus show. Entrance security personnel forced every fan to empty all pockets and spread all limbs so they could administer handheld metal detector friskings. While the Artest popsicle stick heads cleared security, the signs did not. Our usher uttered a simple “That’s not going to fly” to my sign and then followed with a perplexed “Come on, man” to Willow’s before pointing to the garbage bin next to him. Appalled at this injustice, Willow and I donned Artest’s popsicle stick grill over our own faces during the walk to our seats and received some equally strange looks from passers-by.
When we arrived at our section, I eagerly anticipated locating our seats because I had splurged and bought the $22 tix instead of the cheapest offered. But our assent up the stairs seemed never-ending. Finally we came to our seats, which were one row down from the back wall. So basically, I had shelled out the extra dough to move a grand total of two feet closer to the action. Spectacular.
Moments after we sat down, Mason (the Pistons’ P.A. announcer) proudly recited two words — “Joe Dumars.” And then the scoreboard screens flashed a four-minute highlight reel of the team’s President of Basketball Operations during his playing days to the tune of The Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” I wonder how Willow’s sign would have been received by surrounding Pistons fans during this lovefest?
When 8 p.m. rolled around, there was no sign of the players. 8:15 … 8:30 … still no players. The Michigan State-Duke game came on the big screen and suddenly the Palace turned into the Breslin Center. As the crowd passionately cheered for Sparty, the loudspeakers belted out the Michigan State fight song. A few minutes later, an announcement brought out the night’s first boo birds: “Continue to enjoy the Michigan State-Duke game, but until further notice, this game has been delayed due to unforeseeable circumstances.”
My original hypothesis was that Jackson had gone postal on fans outside the locker room, but Willow dispelled this theory by calling some friends that were watching the game (or lack thereof) on TV. They informed him that the Pacers would not leave the team bus because of a bomb threat. At this point, I was somewhat confused at what my next action should be. Do I leave? Somehow I found myself laughing at this potential disaster. Other people in our section confirmed the bomb threat through cell phone usage, and their reactions were quite similar. It was like everyone was somehow content with the current, endangered status, and I could almost hear a collective rationalization of the situation: “Bomb threat? Eh, whatever, I don’t wanna miss the end of this State game.” But one guy sporting an Isiah Thomas jersey seated directly behind me refused to accept the bomb threat as a viable reason why Indiana players wouldn’t leave the bus: “They just scared to come out on the court — they scared we gon’ beat they ass.” Touché, Isiah, touché.
At 9:10 p.m., an announcement said the game would start in 20 minutes. Of course, this perfectly coincided with State’s finish. With just under two minutes left in what looked to be a huge upset win for the Spartans, the scoreboard screens opted for Pistons player introductions. And as the Pistons faced deafening boos courtesy of the hometown fans for the first time since the teal days, I knew that this rowdy crowd — which had already been drinking for an hour and a half — was basketbrawl ready.
Jackson’s intro confirmed the crowd’s maliciousness. And, come game time, boo birds re-appeared each time he had the ball.
But the first half elapsed without a single abnormal occurrence. At halftime, a scoreboard message asked that fans “Please refrain from throwing any objects.” It was like a kindergarten teacher pleading with students to stop pulling each other’s hair.
My interest was piqued with 4:27 left in the third when Jackson received a technical foul for arguing with officials. The Brawl-O-Meter in my head skyrocketed. Jackson’s response to the tech was subdued though, and play continued without incident.
As the game played on, it became eerily similar to the Nov. 19 contest. Indiana opened up with a huge lead, the arena emptied out and Ben Wallace mixed it up with an opposing player (Scot Pollard in this instance). I was almost positive a plastic cup would fly, and Palace-style malice would ensue. It seemed as though the fans seated in the lower deck section (where the infamous November brawl had taken place) shared my belief, as very few of them had left. Guess they all craved a souvenir of the black-eye form.
With just under two minutes left in the game, a fistfight broke out between two fans across the arena, instantly drawing 30 security guards. And the slight rush I felt finally made me realize how sickening my entire approach to this game had been. I had entered this game basically hoping for another horrific incident.
Leaving the Palace, I was ashamed at myself. Brawls are not among the desires of a true sports fan. What had happened to me? When did I lose my values? What about the kids?
As I walked through the parking lot, I didn’t feel like showing my face.
So I donned Artest’s likeness instead.
Gennaro Filice can be reached at email@example.com.