The images are just as striking almost a decade later. A cup splashes off Ron Artest in the closing moments of a blowout win against the Detroit Pistons. He leaps into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills and into sports infamy. Mayhem follows. Players fight fans, fans fight players, a chair is thrown, bottles are tossed — in seconds, the invisible wall that separates athletes and spectators is demolished; the social contract of arena behavior is left in shreds.
What happened that night went well beyond nearly $10 million in forfeited paychecks and 146 games lost in suspensions. The melee transformed the Pacers from a Finals contender into a fringe playoff team and, eventually, a hopeless lottery case. Artest commenced a bizarre journey that took him from being one of the country's most loathed athletes to Metta World Peace. The careers of Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal were forever tainted by split-second decisions that no human could have possibly premeditated. The media debated security, fan behavior, and the tenuous relationship between players and spectators for weeks. It represented the NBA's worst nightmare: confirmation of the broad-stroke stereotype that its athletes were spoiled thugs.
"There were roughly half a dozen elements that caused that brawl to happen," says Mark Montieth, who covered the Pacers for the Indianapolis Star. "If Artest doesn't make that hard foul on Ben Wallace, it doesn't happen. If Ben Wallace doesn't react the way he did, it doesn't happen. If the referees control the situation, it doesn't happen. If Artest doesn't go lay down on that scorer's table, it doesn't happen. If the fan doesn't throw the beverage, it doesn't happen. There was a continuation there, a succession of things. You take away any one of them and the whole thing doesn't happen."