‘Malice at the Palace’ documentary is a reminder of the damage that coded language can cause


New doc on one of the darkest days in the NBA.

New doc on one of the darkest days in the NBA.
Screenshot: Netflix

“I’m never talking about this sh*t again. Can you get that on camera?”

Before the Jermaine O’Neal-produced Untold: Malice at the Palace documentary debuted on Netflix on Tuesday, Stephen Jackson had already set the tone for the rawness we were about to witness as the quote from above was featured in the trailer.

Malice at the Palace is one of those “I remember where I was” moments when it occurred on Friday, November 19, 2004, as a sports event became an ongoing cultural conversation about race and culture.

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Sound familiar?

And almost 17 years later, O’Neal, Jackson, and Ron Artest finally give us the lowdown on what really happened that night, but most importantly, the why. The film’s narrative is from the player’s point of view, as it’s the first time that O’Neal has publicly addressed all the details about the situation. And for once, the people who started it all (the fans), the ones that ignited it (the media) and the person who botched the entire situation (David Stern) are getting exposed.

“I think John Green precipitated this whole melee,” said former Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca about the man that threw the drink on Artest, triggering everything that happened between the players and the fans that night.

“If he doesn’t throw that cup, Artest doesn’t go in the stands, the players don’t go in the stands, fans don’t react to players in the stands, and probably the whole melee dies on the court,” Gorcyca explains in an old video featured in the film.

The documentary is the first time that the public gets to see previously unseen footage from the cameras inside the arena that show how reckless the fans were that night, on top of their willingness to run on the court looking to fight players.

And then, the racism shows up. Well, actually, it shows up within the first five minutes of the documentary.

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“Too many players in this league whose actions and attitudes bespeak kind of a thug mentality,” says Bob Costas in an old clip at the 5:16 mark. Midway through the film, there’s a montage of white media members opining on the situation, gleefully spewing the word thug – which is coded language for n*gger – with reckless abandon, as one man said Black players “don’t know how to act in a civilized, normal society.” Former sports anchor Keith Olbermann – the man that compared Donald Trump to Kunta Kinte last fall – even labeled players as “gangster wannabes” in an old clip.

“It wasn’t just the amount of people that were saying it. It was the stature of the people who were saying it,” said former Pacers executive Donnie Walsh in the film.

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However, the underlying part of the documentary that speaks volumes to how things in sports and society have shifted since then, is the absolute power that former NBA Commissioner David Stern had and how he was able to get away with wielding it. Stern alone was the man that decided on who would be suspended, and for how long. There were no arbitrators or checks and balances set in place as O’Neal, Jackson, and Artest received the brunt of the punishment that resulted in $11 million in salary lost, as a bevy of players were suspended for a total of over 140 games.

Never forget that what took place at The Palace of Auburn Hills led to Stern creating a dress code that was directly targeted at Black players, as he didn’t know how to sell the NBA as a global game with Black players being unapologetic about their Blackness.

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There should never be shame when admitting that you spoke or acted from a less informed place in the past. However, the film reminds us that many of those same mistakes are still happening. In the NBA playoffs, we watched as fans dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook, spit on Trae Young, and threw things at Kyrie Irving and Immanuel Quickley. And during the 2020 season, John Beilein’s short stint as an NBA coach was over when he “slipped” and said his players were no longer playing “like a bunch of thugs” during a film session. Beilein still insists that he meant to use the word “slugs.” Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice were all called “thugs” at one point.

Progress moves at a slow pace – like a slug.

But, if you really want to understand just how important Untold: Malice at the Palace is in terms of painting a picture of how bad some things were handled in the NBA back then, you will get a kick out of knowing that Tim Donaghy is featured – as he refereed the game that night.

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