Seventeen years and two days after one of the most historic events in NBA history took place in Auburn Hills, Mich., an updated version almost occurred involving the same fanbase and team — wearing the same uniforms — on Sunday night, as we were this close from having “Malice at the Palace 2.0" on our hands.
By now, you’ve been made aware of what happened inside Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit during the third quarter of the Lakers and Pistons game. LeBron James accidentally hit Isaiah Stewart in the face, causing him to bleed. Stewart was livid and tried everything he could to get to James.
It got testy.
James and Stewart were both ejected and Russell Westbrook was issued a technical foul. James and Stewart also both passed on speaking to the media after a game in which the incident fueled the Lakers to a badly needed comeback win. Now, we wait to see what the damage will be as fines and suspensions are on the way.
However, this column isn’t about who was or wasn’t in the wrong. I could care less about “the fight,” the forthcoming punishments, or the game’s outcome.
This is about warning you about all the racist and inappropriate things that are going to be said and written this week. Closet racists love nothing more than to be able to use coded language to say what they really think about Black people — especially the big, tall, and strong Black ones that play sports. Don’t be surprised if you hear or see words like “animal behavior” or “barbaric.” Someone will definitely take a deep dive into Stewart’s past and try to see if he has any “character issues,” as they’ll be curious as to whether his father was in his life or not. Oh, and you can be sure that somebody is going to use the word thug — which is a code word for ni**er.
We’ve been here before.
“Too many players in this league whose actions and attitudes bespeak kind of a thug mentality,” said Bob Costas at the time about the Malice in the Palace in an old clip from a recent documentary about the event.
Midway through the film, there’s a montage of white media members opining on the situation, gleefully spewing their hate with reckless abandon. It’s like watching Klan members given a free pass to take their hoods off. One man says Black players “don’t know how to act in a civilized, normal society,” while Keith Olbermann labels them as “gangster wannabes.”
For those who think I’m assuming the worst in people, it’s probably because they don’t have a history of being on the receiving end of what the worst feels like. And while there were no punches thrown or brawls in the stands on Sunday night, everyone was keenly aware of how things could have turned out.
“We’re back in Detroit too. So, flashbacks,” Anthony Davis said after the game. “But, yeah, I mean, the NBA security, their security, our security, coaching staff, even some players did a good job of trying to de-escalate the situation.”
A season after Black players were dehumanized as fans dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook, spit on Trae Young, and threw things at Kyrie Irving and Immanuel Quickley during the playoffs, let’s not act like sense has finally become common. And while everyone inside Little Caesars Arena behaved themselves — to a point — let’s not act like everyone else will follow suit, as the internet is the devil’s playground. Over the next few days, Twitter and Facebook will most definitely be full of hot takes about the incident. Some will be blatantly hateful, while others will be more subtle with their approach. Those are the folks that usually consider themselves “allies.”
And in the media landscape, Clay Travis, Laura Ingraham, and the Barstool folks will more than likely have a field day with this. And don’t be surprised if Sage Steele, Jason Whitlock, and Emmanuel Acho get in on the act, too. In case you were unaware, coded language isn’t limited to white folks — Black people can weaponize it in an even more impactful way for their own self-interests.
On Sunday night, a triggering event took place that made us think about the past. For the most part, the players and fans proved that they learned their lesson. The coming days will teach us if everyone else has.