A More Patient Pierson
The Shock forward celebrated her 27th birthday on Aug. 31, which also turned out to be the expiration date on probably the longest four-game suspension served in a single professional sports season. She will be back in uniform this Friday against Indiana.
“It seems like I haven’t played in a year but I served my time and did the things I had to do,” Pierson said at practice Tuesday. “I worked with the team and I think I’ve improved myself a little bit. I’m ready to get back out and join these guys.”
Pierson, deemed the instigator of the last-minute scuffle between the Shock and Sparks on July 22, received the longest of 11 suspensions handed down by the league. Because the WNBA’s month-long Olympics layoff began the following week, it took six weeks for Pierson to serve the penalty in its entirety.
While teams and players around the league approached post-break play as a fresh start, Pierson remained tied to past indiscretions. She was barred from the arena for both of Detroit's games last weekend. “It was hard trying to keep mentally focused [in August training sessions] knowing that I’m not going to play, I’m not even allowed to be in the gym, I’m not able to help my teammates,” Pierson said.
Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer said the team shared her frustration. In a sense, it has fortified their championship aspirations as a way to prove they can win no matter the setback. “Plenette’s a very fine teammate. All of her teammates love her a lot and they were upset by what happened to her but you can’t fight city hall,” Laimbeer said. “The players understand now is her time to shine.”
They need her to, perhaps more than at any other time in her four seasons with Detroit. Pierson was named the inaugural WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year in 2007 after helping the Shock win the East despite missing All-Star forward Cheryl Ford for 19 games. Without Pierson and Ford, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in that same July 22 contest, the reigning conference champions have looked vulnerable, winning once in their last four games. In the 82-81 overtime loss at Chicago Sunday, four post players amassed 19 fouls, draining the team’s frontcourt depth. That prompted Laimbeer to mention “Plenette Pierson would have been a big positive for us tonight,” in his postgame remarks.
“I’m still going to be the aggressor”
Pierson is averaging 11.4 points and 5.2 rebounds this season, a sliver below her award-winning production of a year ago. She’s also averaging a career-high 3.6 personal fouls per game, and that number is likely to escalate given her newfound notoriety. “One time you have an incident like that, you’re always looked at a little bit differently by the league and referees and we’ve talked with her about that,” said Laimbeer, who had his image shaped by similar incidents in his NBA career.
Pierson, whose physicality in the post irked All-Star forward Penny Taylor and spawned one of the running subplots of last year's WNBA Finals, isn't turning timid now. She proceeds with a cautious relentlessness. “Throughout the game I’m going to have adjust to how the officials are calling but I don’t think I’m going to change my game in any way,” Pierson said. “I’m still going to try to go out there and be the aggressor.”
The balancing act won’t be easy in the heat of battle. Surely there will be some frustrating nights ahead for Pierson, just as there were before July 22. The difference now is she might be better prepared to handle them. This six-week waiting game has honed Pierson’s poise in a way playing on the court never could.
“When you have something like this and you can play, but you can’t play, it just makes you mentally tougher, especially going through this season,” she said. “There may be some touchy calls that may be called on me. I just think it’s going to help me … learn to play through that.”
Pierson also has a new support system in Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a six-time All-Star forward acquired to replace Ford in the starting lineup and allow Pierson to continue coming off the bench. Laimbeer has lauded the 37-year-old for her skill set on the low block and calming leadership presence. With a newly configured frontcourt making its debut with just five regular-season games left, Pierson and the Shock must hit their stride immediately to erase Connecticut’s two-game lead in the East.
“Except for Cheryl [Ford] we have our full complement of players right now. It’s been a while since we’ve been in this position,” said Laimbeer, who has 11 healthy players. “And with Taj knowing the offense now and Plenette and [injured Elaine] Powell coming back, I think we’re ready to make a move.”