Not Backing Down
That was how I intended to lead my story of the Sparks’ 84-81 win over Shock, as Cheryl Ford stepped to the foul line to whittle L.A.’s lead down from 80-77 with 10 seconds left… I think so, anyway. The actual phrasing was wiped away in the surreal moments that followed, when “epic battle” took on a twisted new meaning.
An ugly altercation led to the ejection of three All-Star caliber players, the WNBA’s most recognized assistant coach and the departure of a fourth All-Star via wheelchair. Considering the caliber of characters involved, “surreal” would seem to only scratch the surface. But at the heart of it was an extraordinary basketball game that had simply unraveled.
“This doesn't detract at all from our win. It is just a matter of having to play Detroit by setting your feet and not backing down,” Sparks head coach Michael Cooper said. “That's what you have to do against that team.”
Unfortunately, the fact no one would back down is precisely why one of the WNBA’s most competitive games in 2008 escalated into something a bit more sinister.
Shock forward Plenette Pierson, a veteran whose instant energy has made her the league’s top reserve, couldn’t turn off her emotions fast enough after tangling with Candace Parker.
Parker, only 22, would not be scared off by Pierson, five years her senior, just has she had not shied away from another veteran forward, Ford, on the preceding play. Ford paid the heaviest price during the incident when her right knee buckled while trying to restrain Pierson.
Parker is not a naïve rookie. She is a transcendent talent and a star. She also carries the aura of someone who believes she should be treated like one. I have not seen how other teams defend her, but as the game wore on, Detroit’s heralded physicality clearly rubbed her the wrong way, especially from Ford, who cherishes contact like almost no one else in the league.
Parker had more than one long, hard glare for Ford before the fracas, especially after a foul earlier in the fourth when Ford prevented her from an easy layup with a blow to the head. Maybe that’s why her memory was so hazy afterward. “I don't even recall what happened – I'll have to look at the tape,” she said. “I don't really remember any of it.”
Caught in the middle, figuratively and literally, was Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn, who tried to separate the players. But Mahorn, listed at 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds in his playing days, is no ordinary assistant coach. And when his hands found future Hall of Famer and three-time league MVP Lisa Leslie, his good intentions drew scrutiny. The 6-foot-5 Sparks center lost her balance during those chaotic moments, and as soon as she hit the floor, Mahorn’s found himself in an uncomfortable position. And not just because Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones was hitting him in the back.
“I think Rick Mahorn was trying to be a peacemaker, but he's just too big,” Cooper said. “I was trying to only grab my players, and I didn't see what happened, but what I heard was that he tried to gently push Lisa back or something. The league will have to look at all of this and decide what to do.”
Mahorn’s involvement notwithstanding, comparisons were inevitable to the Pistons-Pacers brawl of 2004 because they occurred in the same building. To make any such a comparison is a gross simplification. The Ron Artest-induced melee was an unprecedented, dark moment for U.S. professional basketball because fans were involved. Lesser melees occasionally happen in the NBA. When they do, the spectacle is showcased on ESPN, suspensions are doled out, and the league goes on about its business. The same should happen here. The WNBA values competitiveness above all else, and emulates its big brother in a myriad of ways. The less flattering side of that emulation reared its head Tuesday.
“That’s in this league. You go every night, people are battling,” said Shock forward Katie Smith of the game’s physical nature. “Nobody’s trying to go out there and lose a ballgame, everybody was just working hard. Obviously we wanted to win, they wanted to win and that’s just how it is.”
“What a basketball game. We've played some good basketball games all year, but this is a team where you have to be physical,” Cooper said. “I don't think it was a dirty game at all until the last four seconds.”
Each team has its own version of what happened between 5.2 and 4.6 seconds. But they seem to agree that for the preceding 39 minutes and 55 seconds, the game’s bruising nature and frenetic pace is what made it so much fun to watch. Detroit’s comeback from 21 points down was about the best script the WNBA could have hoped to share with its nationally televised audience on ESPN2.
The 12-year-old league hasn’t been around long enough to have many storied franchises, and yet by any measure the Shock and Sparks, both two-time champions, would qualify as such. Their 2003 Finals showdown was a turning point for the league. The Palace hosted one of the largest crowds, and perhaps its loudest, for the decisive Game 3, which witnessed the end of the Leslie-led Sparks’ two-year reign and Detroit’s first step into the league’s elite.
It is a rivalry signified by the four championships between them. And the marquee players, including the top two scorers in U.S. history, Smith and Leslie. And the famous men who lead them, Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer and Cooper, tangibly connecting their teams to Detroit-L.A. battles waged decades earlier.
Detroit-Los Angeles was a truly great rivalry before Tuesday night. It is certainly a more heated one after it.
And that’s why the WNBA needs the Detroit Shock and Los Angeles Sparks in the finals, should they withstand the fallout. It can’t let Tuesday night’s unpleasant ending at The Palace be this rivalry’s final act for a whole year.
It should end with a trophy for the victor and handshakes for all.
Because nobody won Tuesday night.