MIAMI — It was the ugliest scene in NBA history. The 2004 brawl between Indiana and Detroit resulted in nine players being suspended a total of 146 games and the league getting a serious black eye.
But at least one positive story emerged from the brawl.
His name is James Jones.
After being a second-round pick by the Pacers in 2003, Jones played in a meager six games as a rookie. The 2004-05 season started pretty much the same way, with the 6-foot-8 swingman languishing on the bench.
Then came the “Malice at the Palace’” on Nov. 19, 2004, when Jones played five minutes in the ninth game of the season. After all hell broke loose that night at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Pacers had five players suspended, including small forward Metta World Peace (then known as Ron Artest) for the remainder of the season and shooting guard Stephen Jackson for 30 games. Those two wings played ahead of Jones.
With the Pacers seriously depleted, Jones got his chance. He went on to play well enough the rest of that season to get a three-year, $8 million contract from Phoenix in the summer of 2005.
Jones is still in the NBA as a 10-year veteran for the Miami Heat. The Heat are facing Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals, the farthest the Pacers have advanced since they made the East finals in Jones’ rookie year before being decimated the next following season.
“I was a benefit for me,’’ Jones said in an interview with FOX Sports Florida about getting his first real NBA opportunity due to the brawl. “I was stuck behind some very good talent in Indiana and with the suspensions I had an opportunity to play, and I played well, which I expected and it kind of propelled me the rest of my career.’’
The night after the brawl, the Pacers were down to six players due to injuries and the NBA having suspended World Peace, Jackson and forward Jermaine O’Neal indefinitely as it sorted though the situation. Jones, who had never at that point in his NBA career even played 20 minutes in a game, logged 43 in an 86-83 loss to Orlando while recording career highs of 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Three days after that, Jones was even better, getting 22 points and 10 rebounds in 44 minutes as the Pacers at least had eight players available in a 106-86 win over Boston. By the end of November, Jones had a 27-point game.
“It was fun,” the sharpshooting Jones said of finally getting an opportunity. “It took my teammates being suspended and our season turned upside down for me to get that chance. But that’s what this league is about. This league is about opportunities and making the most of your opportunities. It was bittersweet because we had a chance to compete for a championship (in 2004-05). But those were the cards we were dealt and I tried to do the best I could. It gave me a chance to play.”
Among other Indiana players suspended, O’Neal was sat down for 15 games, guard Anthony Johnson for five and guard Reggie Miller for one game. The Pacers, who were expected to contend for the title after going 61-21 in 2003-04 and losing 4-2 in the East finals to the eventual champion Pistons, slumped to 44-38.
Jones never will forget that Friday night at the Palace. It looked as it would be a very satisfying win over their Central Division rival for the Pacers, up 15 points in the final minute.
But Detroit center Ben Wallace was fouled hard on a drive to the basket by World Peace and retaliated by giving the Pacers forward a hard shove. Benches soon emptied. World Peace and Jackson then went into the stands and fought with fans and O’Neal tangled with one on the court.
“It was just chaos,” Jones remembers about the game that ended up being called with 45.9 seconds remaining and the Pacers given a 97-82 win. “It went from just the late stages of a game that was pretty much determined to something besides basketball, which isn’t what we do. We’re basketball players. We’re not fighters. We’re not wrestlers. That night, the emotions got the best of everyone.”
Jones was at the scorer’s table ready to check in for some mop-up time when the brawl erupted. He feared for his safety as fans began throwing objects.
“You had things coming at you from the upper deck,” said Jones, who said he was nearly hit. “Lots of stuff. Water bottles. Coins. Batteries. Just all those things. Guys were already scattered, but our team security did a great job of collaring us and NBA security ushered (Jones and some other players) into the locker room before it really got out of control.”
Jones would go on that season to average 4.9 points and 17.7 minutes. He showed enough that the Suns made an offer that nearly quadrupled his salary from $620,000 to $2.4 million in 2005-06. Jones, who went to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade, proved to be worth it when he averaged a career-high 9.3 points in his first Suns season on a team that made the Western Conference finals.
Meanwhile, the Pacers plummeted. While they were able to win a first-round series in 2005, they weren’t victorious in another until last year. They missed the playoffs four straight seasons before returning two years ago.
“The year before we had a great record and then in that game we beat Detroit by 15 and then, ‘boom,'” said Donnie Walsh, the Pacers president when the brawl happened before leaving the team in 2008 and returning as president last year. “That kind of fractured the whole team.
“I would say it took four to five years (to recover from the brawl) because we had to get rid of Artest and Jackson and we brought in new players. Then Jermaine started getting injured. We had to turn that team over.”
World Peace and Jackson would have other off-the-court problems before the former was traded in January 2006 and the latter in January 2007. Some other players also had issues and Pacers had to clean house.
“I don’t want to ever see anybody, any team, any person ever go through anything like that again,” Quinn Buckner, a former Pacers player and longtime broadcaster for the team, said of what the brawl ended up doing to Indiana.
As the team fell off, so did attendance. The Pacers were last in the 30-team league in 2007-08 and 2010-11.
Indiana worked its way back up to 25th this season. But the average attendance of 15,269 was still more than 1,000 per shy game shy of pre-brawl levels. Of course, the economy also has played a role in that.
“(It took time) for the team to recover,” said Austin Croshere, who played with the Pacers from 1997-2006 and is now a television and radio analyst for the team. ” think you really had to get rid of those three guys, O’Neal (traded in February 2009) and Jackson and Artest, and some of the trades that they made to get rid of those guys brought in less talent. So the team wasn’t necessarily as good… Maybe the end of last year, the middle of this year, was the first time that the fans have really come back like they did before (the brawl).”
With young stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert and veteran free-agent signee David West playing key roles, the Pacers last year won their first playoff series in seven years. They then gave the Heat a good battle in an East semifinal, losing 4-2.
Now, they’re back in East finals. And Jones serves as a bit of a reminder from the last time they were there.
Jones didn’t play in the 2004 East finals as a rookie. As a deep reserve for the Heat, he didn’t play in Miami’s 103-102 Game 1 overtime win Wednesday and likely is only a candidate in this series for mop-up minutes. Still, he does show that at least one positive came out of the “Malice at the Palace.’’
“It’s along the same lines as someone getting hurt, when someone gets suspended it creates opportunity,” Croshere said about the emergence of Jones, the 49th player drafted in 2003. “Stephen Jackson was a guy ahead of him at the time, and he played 35 minutes a game. It created minutes… When you’re a second-round pick, you need a chance and then when you get the chance, you got to make the most of it. And he did that and carved out a great career… It worked out well for him with all the negatives that happened that year. It’s good that a positive came out of it.”
When he was barely playing as a rookie and to start his second season, Jones remained confident he eventually would make it as an NBA player. But he admits he couldn’t be sure it would have happened had the brawl not occurred.
“You don’t know,” said Jones, who has a career scoring average of 5.7 points, a career 3-point percentage of 39.9 and who won the shooting contest during All-Star Weekend in 2011. “I might be out of the league. I might not have played (with the Pacers) and gone somewhere else and done even better. I try not to dwell on it and think what could have happened. It happened. Guys who were suspended gave me a chance to step forward and do my best.”
Of the nine players suspended from both teams that night, a total of $11 million in salary was lost. But Jones has ended up making about double that amount in career salary since the night that changed the path of his NBA career.