Editor's Note: This article appears in the December 6 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Someone needs to build a Hall of Fame for Jaw-Dropping TV Nights. My original induction class would include O.J.'s Bronco Chase -- the Babe Ruth of this idea -- the second Tyson-Holyfield fight, Lady Di's accident and the night Gordon Jump tried to molest Dudley and Arnold on Diff'rent Strokes. Those were always the Big Four, at least for me.
Now I have a Big Five.
The Pistons-Pacers melee nailed every category on the Hall of Fame checklist. Will you always remember where you watched it? (Check.) Did you know history was being made? (Check.) Would you have fought anyone who tried to change the channel? (Check.) Did your head start to ache after a while? (Check.) Did your stomach feel funny? (Check.) Did you end up watching about four hours too long? (Check.) Were there a few can-you-believe-this-type phone calls along the way? (Check.) Did you say, "I can't believe this," at least 50 times? (Check.)
My buddy House called as things were winding down, sounding twice as excited as he did the night he called to inform me that he'd just seen Heather Graham in a late-night Skinemax movie. I flicked on ESPN in time to see about 400 Pistons fans bathing Jermaine O'Neal in beer and soda. Whaaaaaaaaaat? The Sports Gal and I delayed dinner plans so I could analyze the replays like a police chief. Eventually she realized we weren't leaving the house, so she made herself a sandwich and headed upstairs to Google divorce lawyers. Meanwhile, I was frantically toggling ESPN channels, recording clips and reveling in ludicrous sound bites -- like Pistons CEO Tom Wilson using the he-was-asking-for-it gambit against Ron Artest.
It was quite a night. I mean, Rasheed Wallace was the voice of reason. The initial altercation was good enough by itself. Ben Wallace unleashing the greatest two-handed shove to the face in sports history. Stephen Jackson challenging everyone on the Pistons, defiantly pulling his jersey from his shorts and waving his hands like Ricardo Mayorga. Artest inflaming the situation by lounging on the scorer's table like a kid protesting a trip to the dentist until the cup of beer nailed him -- this is my favorite part -- and he raced into the stands to fight the wrong fans. The real culprit was three rows farther back -- and yes, I figured this out after a six-hour TiVo session. I'm telling you, this tape is a poor man's Zapruder film. If only Jamaal Tinsley had crawled along the scorer's table in a pink dress.
The chaos quickly spiraled even further out of control in the stands, leading to 16 straight hours of I-thought-the-Vibe-Awards-broke-out jokes. Jackson landed a haymaker on an unlucky bystander (and future millionaire). Poor Fred Jones got attacked by Fat Albert. Two dumpy losers charged Artest on the court, leading to O'Neal's perfect right cross, a scene vaguely reminiscent of Swan protecting his gang against the Baseball Furies in The Warriors. Pistons fans lobbed beer like grenades (except the one who pulled a Frankie Francisco), determined to wrestle the unruliest-fans-in-sports title from Philly. After it was over, when Rick Carlisle told a quivering Jim Gray, "I felt like I was fighting for my life," you knew he meant it.
Five hours later, I was still watching. Even stayed up for the overnight replay on ESPN2. And sure, the Sports Gal was bringing out a coil of rope and measuring the distance between the ceiling and the floor, but I didn't care. This was the most memorable regular-season game ever. Why should we pretend it wasn't great theater? It would be like acting surprised that Artest and Jackson -- the looniest pair of teammates in the league -- were involved in the worst NBA incident in 27 years.
Look, I'm not comfortable with what happened, but I'm a realist. The NBA has been straddling this line for years: crazy players, boozed-up crowds, everyone on top of one another. Throw in a sense of entitlement for some fans -- they take escalating ticket prices and mind-boggling salaries as a free pass to belittle players -- and this was inevitable. If the league truly wants to prevent riots, why does it sell beer after halftime? Why let drunken troublemakers sneak down into premium seats? Why aren't policemen protecting the visitors bench? If they don't change the rules after this, forget $5 lottery tickets; you're better off buying $125 tickets to an NBA game, getting bombed and baiting opposing players into a lawsuit.
But that's for another time. Let's focus on what's important -- like waving the five-year waiting period and inducting the melee into the Jaw-Dropping TV Night Hall of Fame right now.
If Ron Artest has to give his acceptance speech from prison, so be it.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.