Earlier this year, NBA superstar LeBron James, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, engaged in some back-and-forth during a road game with an Atlanta Hawks fan. It’s not that uncommon for players and fans to engage in a little verbal trash-talking; it’s live sports, after all, and basketball is perhaps the sport that puts the fans closest to the stage of play. Though, the situation escalated with the fan’s wife, later dubbed “Courtside Karen” by James, engaged to a degree that required referee intervention. The situation thankfully didn’t produce much more than some social media joking, post-game comments from James and Lakers coach Frank Vogel and a subsequent apology from the fan in question who pushed the moment much further than it needed to go. In Netflix’s “Untold: Malice at the Palace,” from the creators of “Wild, Wild Country,” a much more violent brawl at an NBA game is examined, though it’s not just the players and fans involved that are taken to task.
The idea of a “Courtside Karen,” however humorous a meme it became, represents a more troubling trend in sports, that of brazen fan entitlement. A fan may love a team, but a player owes nothing to a fan. In a culture where people bet money on fantasy football performances and have direct access to athletes, even at the high school level, on social media, fans sometimes lose sight of the humanity in the person they cheer for and assume a deeply uncomfortable stakeholder’s sense of ownership in those who play for their team.
Netflix’s “Untold” sports docuseries seems to be aiming for ESPN’s long-standing “30 for 30” series, but what its first installment, “Malice at the Palace,” does so effectively is critique the very system ESPN is built on. The story of the infamous 2004 brawl at Detroit’s former stadium The Palace of Auburn Hills between NBA players from the Indiana Pacers against players and fans from the Detroit Pistons is well-known in league history, primarily because it’s one of the worst examples of player-fan interaction in sporting history. The stage is set when Metta Sandiford-Artest (then known as Ron Artest) fouls Pistons star Ben Davis, resulting in Davis pushing back on Sandiford-Artest for the foul. The moment engages with some frustration on both sidelines, but this is common for NBA “fights.” As a player notes in the documentary, these guys more often than not are friends off the court. A little tussling here and there for show just isn’t looked at as some sort of big deal. Where it gets difficult is when the fans observe this and attach themselves to the attitude on the court. It’s where the line blurs between observant spectator and active participant. A Pistons fan, John Green, responds to the on-court moment by throwing a water bottle onto the court, sparking Sandiford-Artest to charge into the crowd. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the moment, the blame went squarely on the players. Sandiford-Artest and Pacers stars Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson took on otherworldly suspensions from the NBA commissioner David Stern, suspensions that are still unheard of today. The fans barely got much media attention for their role in sparking the brawl and fanning the flames when they rushed the court and took swings at the players involved. Violence is rarely justifiable in any situation, but the impetus and the reaction to the moment was a full-stop example of how the fan/player dynamic still permeates to this day as one of sports’ most troubling problems.
“Malice and the Palace” is only about an hour’s length, so it can’t fully dive into the many themes and people interwoven into this pivotal NBA moment. What it lacks in expansiveness, though, it hits in damning commentary on the people outside of the court—the fans and those in the media who wrapped the incident in racially offensive stereotyping of Black culture, dog whistle logic, and even in the simple use of a word like “thug” to describe athletes who were later legally said to be, for the most part, acting out of self-defense against the actions of unruly spectators. No, it’s not fun to see sports luminaries like Bob Costas and Keith Olbermann use this type of terminology, something that seemed systemic at the time when evaluating a largely Black sport. As one subject notes, hockey, a predominantly white sport, has featured intense brawls for decades without much controversy. Why are NBA athletes treated differently?
The media reaction to the brawl shaped the public perception of what happened: that these renegade NBA players needed to shape up. Stern’s suspension gave full power to the fan and put his athletes on blast, athletes who have always faced undue pressure from the fans who feel empowered to behave however they see fit. Just look at what former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick went through for peacefully demonstrating during the National Anthem. As much as that had to do with politics, it also highlighted just how entitled a fan base can be to feel like they can react however they want to an athlete’s decisions. Sports and race have always intersected, and “Malice at the Palace” gives good focus and condemnation to a sporting culture that openly used racist ideology to paint an entirely imaginary controversy on a sport of predominantly Black athletes.
The documentary doesn’t break the mold in format, and again, it’s tough to really capture something in its totality within an hour’s format. We don’t deal too much with how the Pacers athletes dealt with one another in the fallout; you can tell there is some lingering resentment there for a team that might’ve won the league title that season if not for the suspensions. NBA legend Reggie Miller, a member of that Pacers team, might’ve lost out on his chance at a ring that season, further etching why this moment carries so much focus in league history. As a basketball documentary, it gets the job done in telling us what happened, what the problems were and why they are worth thinking about today. The focus on the issues surrounding the brawl gives “Malice at the Palace” its most power, but it’s a strong start for Netflix’s attempt to run down ESPN’s monopoly on the sports documentary format. It’s also a fierce reminder that the issues of yesterday still take focus today, and that, while sports teams can bear a fan’s frustration, athletes don’t owe them squat. [B+]
“Untold: Malice at the Palace” is available now on Netflix.