Although basketball is a contact sport, and sometimes emotions can get the better of players, such as when Kevin Garnett headbutted Dwight Howard back in 2015, all-out brawls between teams are a very rare occurrence in the NBA.
Whilst team brawls are basically just part of the entertainment of an ice hockey game, and occur frequently in the NFL and MLB, they have been almost completely removed from the NBA in recent decades, following two high-profile scuffles which we will round up in this article.
We will then take a look at what punishments were given out for these brawls, as well as how both the public and media reacted to them.
Malice at the Palace
First up, we have perhaps the most legendary NBA brawl of all time, one that sent shockwaves through the world of basketball and spurred the league into immediate action. The altercation occurred in a 2004 game between reigning NBA champions the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, with just seconds left on the clock.
With the score at 97-82 to the Pacers, and the result seemingly decided, Pacers small forward Ron Artest violently fouled Pistons center Ben Wallace, who was attempting a layup. Wallace was left fuming, and pushed Artest in the face in retaliation, a move which prompted a short scuffle between the two players, which several players from both sides joined. However, this was quickly broken up by the match officials, who then began discussing suitable penalties for the incident, until…
A Pistons fan named John Green then threw a plastic cup of diet coke at Artest from the crowd, hitting him in the chest. Artest had been lying on the scorer’s table, following advice that he had previously received from the Pacers team on how to calm down in tense situations. However, Green’s attack enraged Artest, who decided to, Eric Cantona-style, head straight for the stands and attempt to get his hands on the cup-throwing fan.
However, he got the wrong guy, and mistakenly grabbed a fan named Michael Ryan. Several of Artest’s teammates then followed him into the crowd, and more drinks, along with a number of punches, were flying as a vast brawl broke out between players from both teams and members of the crowd. The melee eventually had to be broken up by police, as fans seemed to have relished the opportunity to get on to the court and have a scrap. Following the brutal brawl, Chuck Pearson, the assistant coach of the Pacers, described the events as a “gladiator-type scene where the fans were the lions and we were just trying to escape with our lives.”
Following this almighty brawl, the game was, as you might have expected, ended by the referees, awarding the Pacers a win that they quite literally had to fight for. As security then attempted to escort the Pacers team off the court, the violence continued, as more objects were launched at them by fans, including a steel folding chair. This left the NBA and the police with the very tough task of breaking down the events of what was dubbed the “Malice at the Palace”, to determine what the appropriate punishments would be.
What Punishments Were Given Out?
Following the brawl, Artest and teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal, along with the Pacers’ Ben Wallace, were immediately suspended by the NBA. A day later, the official punishments were handed out. Artest was given by far the toughest punishment, as the small forward was banned for a total of 86 games, the remainder of the season, which cost him almost $5 million in salary. Jackson was banned for 30 games, O’Neal for 15, and Wallace for six.
Alongside these bans, several players also received criminal charges; Artest, Jackson and O’Neal, along with Pacers teammate David Harrison, all received one year’s probation, 60 hours of community service, and were ordered to undertake anger management classes. Anthony Johnson, the team’s point guard, also received the same punishment, except he was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service.
The reaction to the hugely controversial incident was one of complete shock, with many of the players and coaches at the game remarking that it was the worst fight that they had ever witnessed. However, a large amount of the blame was placed on the shoulders of the Pistons fans, who 46% of voters in a SportsNation poll thought were responsible for causing the incident.
This led to the NBA bringing in new security policies at all of its games, which included reducing the amount of alcohol that could be sold to fans, and making it a requirement for at least three security guards to stand between the players and spectators.
Next up, we have a brawl which took place just two years after the infamous Malice at the Palace. This incident occurred during a match between the New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets in 2006 at Madison Square Garden, and started in very similar fashion to its predecessor. With just over a minute left on the clock, Knicks small forward Mardy Collins put his arms around the neck of Nuggets shooting guard J.R Smith during a fast break, pushing Smith to the ground. For the foul, Collins was immediately ejected by the referee.
After getting up off the floor, Smith went to confront Collins, but was prevented from doing so by the Knicks’ Nate Robinson, who pulled the Nuggets player out of the way and then shoved him, angering Smith. Although David Lee was attempting to hold him back, Smith quickly broke free and hurled himself at Robinson, causing the pair to fall into the courtside photographers. The two were then separated, and it all seemed to be calming down, until Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony inexplicably punished Collins in the face, causing another scuffle to break out.
With Collins now on the floor, Jared Jeffries attempted to retaliate and hit Anthony back, but was prevented from doing so by teammates and coaches. Following the incident, all of those currently on the court were ejected by the referees. Whilst this was a violent altercation, one that again tarnished the NBA’s reputation, it thankfully did not involve fans, and therefore was prevented from escalating to the level of carnage that was seen at the Malice at the Palace.
What Punishments Were Given Out?
David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, reacted harshly, as he was intent on preventing any similar skirmishes from occurring in the future.
Carmelo Anthony received the biggest punishment, a 15-game suspension (ironically he would go on to play for the Knicks) , whilst J.R Smith and Nate Robinson had to sit out 10 games each.
All in all, seven players were suspended, with the total amount of salary lost being over $1.2 million.
Whilst many agreed that this brawl was less violent than the Malice, some argued that the role of the players in escalating the altercation made it worse.
They were certainly quick to engage in the action once it all started.