Commentary

Remembering the Brawl

Updated: May 31, 2006, 1:37 PM ET
By Rachel Nichols | Special to ESPN.com

The Brawl at the Palace on Nov. 19, 2004, was one of the worst fights between fans and athletes in sports history. Yet while much of the focus of that night has been on the key players, they were just a small proportion of the people affected by what happened. Read a brief account of what five people who were in attendance saw and felt that night and then watch a videotaped interview with each of the five eyewitnesses.


A.J. Shackleford, college student

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Shackleford wandered onto the court and was slugged by Ron Artest.
Shackleford is a lifelong Pistons fan who remembers crying when the team won the NBA title in 1989.

He attended the Nov. 19 game with his friend, Charlie Haddad, and the two were still in their seats toward the end of the fourth quarter when Ron Artest charged into the crowd. Amped up by the action and wanting to get a better look at what was happening, Shackleford and Haddad walked onto the court -- and directly toward Artest. Artest, who would later say he felt threatened, punched Shackleford.

Shackleford says that after the incident he was besieged by media, and that he stopped leaving the house for some time because friends and family only wanted to talk to him about the brawl. He also had to go to court -- crossing onto a field of play is a violation of local law -- and was sentenced to probation and 150 hours community service.

Finally, he was banned from the Palace for life, something he says is "like losing your first-born child. … I wish I would have never have even gone to the game."


Anthony Johnson, Pacers guard

Finding trouble

Pacers guard Anthony Johnson got involved well after the first punches were thrown.
Johnson is a nine-year NBA veteran who has played for the Pacers since 2003. Out with an injury on the night of the brawl, he was sitting on the bench in a suit when Artest charged into the stands. Johnson says he couldn't see much of what was happening in the crowd, but once people began to spill onto the court, he feared for his safety. And when he saw Artest and Shackleford and Haddad get into a physical conflict in the middle of the arena floor, he rushed over to aid his teammate.

Johnson says that later, once the players were on the bus on the way to the airport, "Everybody and their mom called. Everybody on the team, their phones were ringing off the hook all night long and at that point in time you knew, this was a major deal." Johnson would eventually be charged with assault and battery, to which he pled no contest.

A judge ordered him to pay a fine and perform community service; he was also sentenced to a year of probation.


Jim Stoinski, police officer

Securing the gun

Auburn Hills police officer Jim Stoinski was concerned that someone would steal his gun.
Stoinski is an Auburn Hills police officer who was assigned to the Palace on Nov. 19. Stoinski had been spending the game's fourth quarter on the concourse, guiding fans as they left the building, but as he and two other officers monitored the game on a nearby television, they saw Artest run into the stands and the night spin out of control.

The three officers rushed down through the stands and onto the floor and decided the best way to diffuse the situation was to get the players off the court. As Stoinski tried to guide some of the Pacers toward an arena tunnel, an unidentified person picked up a metal folding chair and tossed it into the crowd of bodies. Stoinski would later say he "originally thought that I was punched in the face and upon looking at the video later that night I realized that I was hit in the face with a chair." Despite the blow, Stoinski finished escorting the Pacers to their locker room. He then returned to the floor to diffuse any remaining scuffles and begin taking witness statements.

He now says that every time he walks into the Palace, he thinks about how to handle a player-fan brawl if it happened again.


Rick Mahorn, Pistons broadcaster

Bad Boy peacemaker

Former Pistons Bad Boy Rick Mahorn ran into the stands and attempted to stop the fight.
Mahorn was broadcasting the game for Pistons radio. A former player who spent 18 seasons going back and forth between four NBA teams, Mahorn is best known as a member of Detroit's Bad Boys. He was one of the most physical players of his era and was involved in several multi-player melees himself. Still, he says his own experiences were nothing compared with what he saw on Nov. 19.

Mahorn says he knew something was about to "explode" as soon as Ron Artest was hit by a cup flying from the stands, and as Artest charged into the crowd, Mahorn says he saw several spectators flung against chairs, and others being trampled. He ripped off his headphones midbroadcast and leapt into the stands himself, hoping to break up the altercations and convince the players to return to the floor.

TV reporter Bernie Smilovitz says he saw Mahorn in the stands and that, "he had this suit on, and he's 6-10, and I'm sure that suit it took probably fields and fields of cotton or wool or whatever. Well, that thing was ripped to shreds by the time he walked off, I mean, people were pulling him in all directions."


Smilovitz, television reporter

A parent's concern

When the brawl broke out, WDIV-TV reporter Bernie Smilovitz lost track of his teenaged son.
On Nov. 19, 2004, Smilovitz brought his teenage son Jake to the game; the two were sitting behind the Pistons' bench when Artest lay down on the scorer's table. Smilovitz rushed toward the table to see what was going on, with the intention of reporting the story later. But as soon as Artest charged the stands, Smilovitz began looking for Jake, who had become lost in the crowd.

Smilovitz says, "When you look at the video, you'll see me going out of the frame, heading away from the brawl." He wildly searched for Jake and finally found him with an usher. The two reunited on the court and watched as Artest punched Shackleford.

Later, he'd say that the whole brawl "lasted maybe 5-10 minutes, but it felt like 5-10 years."

Rachel Nichols is a reporter for ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and "SportsCenter" shows.

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