It should have been a WNBA classic, an epic battle of former champions.
It could have been one of the greatest comebacks in Detroit Shock history.
It will be remembered as neither.
What will overshadow and stain the Sparks’ 84-81 victory at The Palace Tuesday night - and, the players, coaches and officials who were part of it, though exactly how remains to be seen - is a version of the following unfortunate sequence with 5.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter:
The arms of Candace Parker and Plenette Pierson entangled after a Sparks free throw. Both bodies crashing to the floor. The clock stopping at 4.6 seconds. Pierson walking toward a semi-prone Parker. Another collision between the two sinewy bodies, then a maddening convergence of Shock white and Sparks purple.
Amidst perhaps the largest on-court fracas in league history, Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn put his hands on Lisa Leslie, who fell to the floor. Leslie’s teammate, DeLisha Milton-Jones, took umbrage to Mahorn’s involvement, hitting Mahorn in the back.
When the momentary fury subsided, Cheryl Ford laid on the ground, untouched by a Sparks player. In her attempt to restrain Pierson, Ford’s right knee had buckled. Just two minutes earlier, Ford had secured a defensive rebound and fell to the ground, grabbing the same knee - which is not the left knee that she had surgically repaired in September.
Ford was carted off the floor in a wheelchair.
Pierson, Parker, Mahorn and Milton-Jones soon followed, all ejected.
When the game resumed following a lengthy delay, Katie Smith hit a three that made it an 82-81 game with 2.3 seconds remaining. But L.A. got to the foul line, made two free throws, and time ran out on a game that couldn’t end soon enough.
Smith had 20 points and five assists to lead the Shock, and Deanna Nolan added 14 points. Nolan also picked up one of the two technical fouls assessed following the fourth-quarter incident.
“That’s pretty rare, it only happens maybe once every blue moon,” Smith said of the altercation. “I haven’t seen something like that, per se, I don’t think in my whole career.”
Smith’s career is pretty lengthy, which is why she’s the all-time leading scorer in U.S. history. She will take part in her third Olympics in Beijing, where she’ll team up with Leslie, already a three-time Olympic gold medalist. The 6-foot-5 Sparks center is a three-time WNBA MVP and a future Hall of Famer. Leslie told ESPN after the game she couldn’t understand why a Detroit coach would touch her instead of Shock players..
Mahorn, responded that, in the heat of battle, he was trying to separate the players that were near him, regardless of their jersey. “I was trying to protect the whole game, the integrity of the game,” Mahorn told ESPN after the game. “The WNBA is very special to me because I have four daughters. I don’t even raise my hand to them, and I would never push a woman. This game, I love this game too much.”
Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer defended his longtime colleague, well aware that the “Bad Boys” moniker that has made them the WNBA’s most celebrated coaching tandem can only put them in an unfair light at a time like this.
“Rick Mahorn is known as a peacemaker, from even the brawl we had here with Indiana,” Laimbeer said, referring to the Pistons-Pacers brawl on Nov. 19, 2004. “He went out there to get people off the pile, and to get people to stop the confrontation. That’s who he is, that’s what he does.”
Laimbeer said he warned referee Denise Brooks Clauser that bad blood was brewing even before the fourth quarter.
“I think the game was getting out of hand physical-wise, and I warned Denise about that, and she gave me a warning, which was kind of different,” Laimbeer said. “But I warned them that, you know, ‘Watch it’ but it started to escalate and players can get emotional and it happens sometimes. It’s unfortunate but it happens.”
The chippy play was most evident between Ford and Parker, who took exception to Ford’s physicality on several instances in the second half. Tempers finally flared with 8.3 seconds left, when the two exchanged harsh words. The encounter seemed to rattle the rookie, Parker. With L.A. ahead 80-78, she missed both free throws, but the second rebound ricocheted to Sparks guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris. Her trip to the foul line set up the ugliness that would ensue.
“I don't even recall what happened - I'll have to look at the tape,” said Parker, who scored 10 of her team-high 21 points in the first quarter. “I don't really remember any of it.”
Regrettably, YouTube and ESPN will give her ample chances to refresh her memory.
What truly will be forgotten is that the Shock rallied from a 21-point deficit. As they had in the first home loss this past Sunday against the Sacramento, the Shock (16-9) fell apart in the late first and early second quarters. The Sparks scored 14 unanswered points, blowing open a 23-19 lead. Detroit missed 11 shots in a row, going scoreless for more than seven minutes. The Sparks hold opponents to a league-low 38.9 percent from the field. When the Shock couldn’t make L.A. work just as hard for their points - they shot 60.7 percent in the first half - the Sparks opened a 42-21 lead.
“You look back at the game, we dug ourselves in a hole in the first half, didn’t come out defensively ready to play,” Smith said. “I mean, yeah, they shot the ball well; we didn’t necessarily deter them. You look at it basketball-wise, two games straight now we’ve given up a lot of points in the first half and that’s something we’ve got to fix.”
The Shock went on a 10-1 run to close the gap, drawing within 48-34 at halftime. Then, as they did Sunday, Detroit went on a fourth-quarter tear. Ford made two free throws with 2:24 left to make it a one-point game, 76-75. Twenty-two seconds later, Ford crumpled to the floor in front of the Shock bench. She returned to the game, but was clearly hobbled.
Though the game ended in disturbing fashion, Laimbeer sounded most grave when asked about Ford’s right knee. “Cheryl’s hurt, and we’re concerned,” he said.
The league office will announce any further disciplinary action on Thursday before the teams tip off their respective games. The Shock are at Houston while the Sparks are at Connecticut.