In a 2017 New York Time Style Magazine interview, rapper Jay-Z reflected on growing up in the Brooklyn projects, where the turmoil of daily life created a contagion of psychic pain that nearly everyone was trying to hide. “A lot of fights started with ‘What you looking at? Why you looking at me?’ And then you realize: ‘Oh, you think I see you. You’re in this space where you’re hurting, and you think I see you, so you don’t want me to look at you.’”
As I watched Metta Sandiford-Artest (formerly Ron Artest, and until recently as Metta World Peace) shift uncomfortably as he answered questions in the new Netflix documentary Untold: Malice at the Palace, I was reminded of that Jay-Z interview. He talked about the shame he still felt for ruining the Pacers’ title hopes 17 years ago. Of his former teammates and coaches he said, “I don’t even want to be in their presence.” His eyes darted. “I feel like a coward in their presence.” Here was a man who was hurting. Here was a man who didn’t feel entirely comfortable being seen.
On its face, Untold is an entertaining, if occasionally overwrought, dissection of the 2004 NBA brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. It exists primarily to give the Pacers players who took the bulk of the blame for the brawl (Artest-Sandiford, Jermaine O’Neal, and Stephen Jackson) a chance to tell their side of the story. But it also gives the rest of us chance to consider our own reactions to that infamous night in the light of a more enlightened era.
The brawl—which exploded after Sandiford-Artest rushed into the stands to fight a Pistons fan who pelted him with a plastic cup—created a spectacle so shocking that nearly everyone remembers where they were when they saw it on TV. Yet the most repugnant footage in Untold is a montage of smartly dressed TV pundits from various sports and news networks decrying the debacle as an example of “thug” culture run amok. According to them, the brawl wasn’t a bizarre anomaly in which both fans and players shared blame. No, it was a symptom of a long-festering cultural disease endemic to Black NBA players. Even Bob Costas—normally a font of blandly liberal sports sophistry—opined that too many NBA players had embraced a “thug mentality.”
Metta Sandiford-Artest grew up in the projects of Queensbridge, New York. As Rohan Nadkarni detailed in Sports Illustrated, it was a place where problems “were often solved with violence, authority was mistrusted, and [Sandiford-Artest] was without a doubt far from the only child dealing with the mental fallout of growing up in such an environment.”
It’s well known that people who witness or experience violence as children often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as adults. When Sandiford-Artest describes his mental state in Untold, it sounds like a WebMD entry for PTSD. “Some people have control over their emotions; I don’t.” “I just didn’t like people.” When future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller tried to mentor him, it only made him want to “bust [Miller’s] ass” in practice.
In a normal line of work, Sandiford-Artest’s volatile temperament would have been a liability. In the NBA, it was often viewed as an asset. Here’s his former coach Isiah Thomas in The New York Times: “He plays from a place of pure, raw passion, and it’s an angry place.”
The place where that anger took root was Queensbridge. “I always had anger issues because that’s all I grew up around, anger,” Sandiford-Artest once told NBA.com. By the time he joined the Pacers, he was also dealing with anxiety and depression. Gripped by an especially difficult bout of depression shortly before the brawl, he asked for his retirement papers. The Pacers reminded him that he was under contract, and instructed him to get back to work.
Sandiford-Artest is not the first Black man whose combination of physical gifts and deep-seated emotional trauma translated into marketable skills in the arena of professional sports. Mike Tyson—another product of the New York City projects—channeled his mental anguish into boxing prowess, becoming the most dominant heavyweight fighter in the world. While managers and promoters got rich, Tyson’s mental health absorbed a flurry of bare-knuckled blows. His fall from grace, which landed him in the Plainfield Correctional Facility, is well documented.
Tyson and Sandiford-Artest are deeply flawed men. Tyson was convicted of rape. Sandiford-Artest was charged with domestic violence in 2007. But, in both cases, the influence of childhood trauma is undeniable. Nevertheless, most sports fans aren’t all that interested in the complex social forces that shape the players they scream expletives at from the stands. If they were, maybe Pistons fan John Green wouldn’t have thrown the cup that started the Malice in the Palace to begin with.
But if the recent past is any indication, the state of NBA fan behavior hasn’t evolved much since 2004. Earlier this year, a spate of ugly incidents prompted The Atlantic to deplore how “communal passion” too often tips into “venom and vitriol” at NBA games. It’s a cycle that Sandiford-Artest knows all too well. It took years of therapy to help him escape it. Many NBA fans would be wise to follow his example, and address the pain that fuels their own misguided anger.