WNBA officials have envisioned Los Angeles Sparks rookie Candace Parker as a draw to generate more interest in the league. After all, this year’s No. 1 pick is at the forefront of the WNBA’s promotional campaign this year.
This week the league has received increased national attention, but it has nothing to do with Parker’s talent. Instead the talk has centered around the brawl between the Sparks and the Detroit Shock.
“There’s no doubt that there’s been a tremendous amount of attention focused on the league,” WNBA president Donna Orender said. “It’s not the kind of attention that we seek, but certainly the passion of our athletes and the commitment they have to the game has been very much showcased here by virtue of this unfortunate incident.”
The rivalry between Detroit and Los Angeles escalated with 4.5 seconds remaining in Tuesday’s game. Parker and Shock forward Plenette Pierson got tangled up and stumbled to the court following a free throw by Sparks guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris. Pierson got up and stood over Parker, who pulled her back to the floor.
The incident continued as players and coaches left both benches. Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn, who said afterward he tried to break up the fight, pushed Los Angeles center Lisa Leslie to the ground, and Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones then swung at his back.
The rumble has remained a hot topic of conversation around the WNBA the past three days.
“It’s very unfortunate for our league,” Washington Mystics general manager Linda Hargrove said. “Our league has not really demonstrated that type of behavior before. There’s really no place for that in our league.”
Despite the attention the fracas has received, some Mystics players have downplayed the incident.
“Sometimes you act in the spur of the moment,” guard Alana Beard said. “Things happen; its not anything to make a big deal out of.”
League officials reviewed the tapes of the incident Wednesday and Thursday mornings before handing out punishments Thursday afternoon.
They viewed Pierson as the aggressor and handed her the harshest penalty, a four-game suspension — the longest since Elaine Powell received a five-game suspension for elbowing Mystics guard Coco Miller in 2005. Mahorn received a two-game suspension for escalating the altercation. WNBA vice president of player personnel Renee Brown said he started off as a peacemaker but “by pushing [Leslie] down he took it too far.”
Seven players earned one-game suspensions, including Leslie, Parker and Milton-Jones, who were each penalized for throwing a punch.
The incident took place at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the same site as the 2004 NBA brawl involving the Indiana Pacers, the Detroit Pistons and fans.
“None of us [in the league office] can ever recall an incident like this [in the WNBA],” Orender said. “The message is clear: If you act against the behavior we expect in the WNBA, you will sit on the bench.”
Any long-term ramifications to the WNBA’s public image are unknown, and Orender said she has received mixed feedback from the public. Mystics forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin said the players and the league will move past the fight.