On November 19, 2004, the Indiana Pacers were putting the finishing touches on the Detroit Pistons and I was putting on my jacket, choosing to head out and see Jamie Foxx star in Ray instead of watching the last 45.9 seconds of the blowout win. Then Ben Wallace shoved Ron Artest after a hard foul and professional basketball changed forever.
People who know the NBA now are used to LeBron James showing up to games with a big smile, shaking hands, making nice with everyone before the tip-off, and gracing the cover of fashion magazines. But the post Michael Jordan-era NBA was, justly or not, considered a thugs’ league by most critics. Players wanted to be tough. They seemed more interested in gritting their teeth, thumping their chests, and releasing albums than they were in actually practicing ("We talkin' about practice?!"), and it was beginning to show in games by way of poor play, low scores, and dwindling attendance records.
The league had an image problem and they knew it, and it didn’t exactly help that they were stuck in the middle of a talent vacuum no one had seen before or since. The 1984 draft class was ready for retirement, and Artest, one of the league’s rising stars despite the fact that he was a ticking time bomb, had actually asked for a month off to record his album. Instead, he was suspended two games. In hindsight the Pacers probably wished they had granted him leave as he lay on the scorers' table, trying to calm down after the shove, just as a cup of beer thrown by a fan hit him in the face and the bomb went off.
Next came Artest’s rage, his freak-athlete strength, haymakers thrown at fans, fans spilling onto the court to throw punches at players, chairs flying through the air, suspensions and bans, legal charges, and serious threats. Then came the new rules handed down by the NBA. First: no more fighting. Anyone nostalgic for the Bad Boy Pistons of the 80s or bruising playoff games between the Heat and Knicks of the 90s better change channels, because a thrown punch now earned you a one-game ban and landing one got you 15 games at home.
The dress code was next. No more hip-hop gear, no more do-rags, baggy jeans, or oversized t-shirts on company time. And even though a suit and tie wasn’t required at press conferences (as originally reported) it wasn’t really popular for an old white commissioner to be telling young black players how to dress. Allen Iverson, Stephen Jackson (suspended for defending Ron in the stands that night), and Paul Pierce spoke out against the dress code because they rightly felt equating their hip-hop culture with criminal activity was racist. Marcus Camby, making 8.5 million that year, infamously asked for a stipend to pay for his new wardrobe, and Iverson sloughed off the league’s efforts by wearing a blazer that went well past his knees.
But eventually the NBA won. Or, actually, everyone did. Hip-hop culture didn't disappear, but evolved to fit the NBA scene instead of vice-versa. When LeBron and Dwyane Wade became idols to the next generation, their style caught on. Press conferences are akin to fashion shows for the likes of Russell Westbrook, and players now adhere to the code because they want to be seen on the Red Carpet. They compete for Twitter followers as much as they do rebounds, and they don’t fight for fear of losing game checks and endorsement deals. It’s a new NBA.
I didn’t see Ray that night. I couldn’t take my eyes off the TV. The Malice in the Palace was the "where were you when" moment for old school NBA fans not because giant athletes were throwing punches (though admittedly jaw dropping) but because we knew that this was the last day of the NBA we grew up with. Physicality is out the window now. Any show of emotion earns a technical, any trash talk ends up on Deadspin, and aggressive play is vilified instead of respected. Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer would hardly have careers now. Of course, you can't say the NBA is better or worse today than 10 years ago, because it's actually completely different. And it all started with one shove on November 19, 2004.