NBA AM: James Jones Born from ‘Malice’

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James Jones is famous for having been on the same six consecutive NBA Finals teams as LeBron James, but perhaps the most remarkable moment of his basketball career came when he was a mere afterthought on an elite Indiana Pacers team just six games into his second season in the league.

On November 19, 2004, a game in which Jones shot 0-for-1 in only five minutes of action, Pacers teammate Ron Artest charged into the stands to throw blows with a fan in what still remains perhaps the most infamous event in league history.

The “Malice at the Palace” was an appalling event, which is why the league suspended nine different players for a total of 146 games as a result of the incident. Five players were slapped with assault charges, and Artest was suspended for the season’s remaining 73 regular season games and the playoffs. Indiana’s Stephen Jackson was suspended for 30 games, utterly crushing the team’s depth at small forward.

It was literally the worst thing that could have happened to the Pacers and the NBA, but it also was the best thing that could have happened to James Jones.

“I played 26 minutes my rookie year total, and I probably played about 18 minutes of those minutes in one game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Going into my second year, I had to make the team. I was on a partially guaranteed contract, so I knew that I had to work and that I had to get an opportunity that year to prove that I belonged in the league. Unfortunately, but fortunately for me, the Malice happened and I was thrust into position to play and perform well and kind of signal that I belonged in this league.”

With Artest and Jackson missing so many games, Jones was given his first crack at significant NBA minutes. In the first six games of the season before the brawl, Jones averaged only 12.8 minutes and three points per game; in the six games that followed, he saw his minutes jump to a staggering 41.2 minutes per game, while averaging 15.7 points and 6.8 rebounds.

Just like that, the kid who had been an afterthought the season prior found himself thrust into a real NBA role for the first time. His minutes were more sporadic for the rest of the 2004-05 season, but he played regularly – even starting 24 games. This put him on the map as a legitimate NBA player.

The Malice was the event that gave Jones his first real opportunity, and as a former second-round selection that meant a lot. However, he truly believes he would have ended up with the same long, successful career somehow, even without the opportunity afforded him from the Artest melee.

“I’ve always been a guy who prides himself on being prepared for opportunities because I know opportunities will come,” Jones said. “If opportunities don’t come, there’s no telling how soon or how fast I get that chance, but it definitely was that chance that I needed and that’s the NBA life. You’re talking about 450 of the world’s greatest basketball players. I’m still trying to hold down spots and protect those spots from the rest of the world.

“We all get chances, and luckily for me I was prepared when that chance came. That’s not the first instance in professional basketball where one player’s misfortune led to another opportunity for another guy. It happens all the time. It’s just whether or not your able to maximize it and, fortunately for me, I was able to.”

And it all birthed from a deeply atrocious event. Jones, however, saw changes not just in himself but across the league that season in the wake of the incident.

“It was a learning moment for me, but not just for me, I think for the entire league at that point,” Jones said. “I always say that was a transition point for the league. Player-fan interaction really came to the forefront because we all understand at the end of the day, this is a consumer business. Fans consume our product and we have to give them the right balance of access but also distance, so the league made some reforms. They changed the discipline rules, changed the fan-interaction rules.

“There was a shift happening and fans were flocking to our sport. We had to make sure we built respect on both sides. From that, we created a system where fans could express themselves and players could express themselves, but both sides could feel safe at all times.”

In the years that followed, social media websites like Twitter evolved and gave fans a connection to their favorite athletes. That, Jones admits, has been one of the biggest ways that fan interaction has changed in the last 12 years.

“Twitter is a part of our game now, but I do also understand the fan dynamics and your fans will support your regardless. You’re either for us or against us,” he said. “As a player, I also get that another team’s fan will view me that way. It’s all in the context of the sport. Really, any of the negative attacks or taunting, are they really personal?

“The same fan that says, ‘Hey, you suck! You’re the worst player ever,’ if they see you in person, there’s an interaction like, ‘Hey man, it’s pretty amazing that you’re an NBA player.’ The same person who boos me in a game would ask for my autograph out in the real world. That’s sports. Sports is the one place where it’s okay to be us versus them, and social media encourages that.”

In any event, the world has become a safer place for both players and fans in the years since The Malice. Sometimes roses grow from concrete, and both Jones’ opportunity and the improved fan and player safety policies have be viewed as the good that emerged from the nastiest brawl in league history.