WNBA Brawl Grabs Mystics' Attention

The ball is loose and New York's Shameka Christon and Washington's Taj McWilliams- Franklin are on the scene at Verizon Center, where the Liberty posted an 80-73 victory.
The ball is loose and New York's Shameka Christon and Washington's Taj McWilliams- Franklin are on the scene at Verizon Center, where the Liberty posted an 80-73 victory. (Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Washington Mystics interim coach Jessie Kenlaw prepared for yesterday's 11:30 a.m. game against conference rival New York the way she always does. The night before, she studies strategies and player combinations, sometimes with a basketball game on television in the background.

Tuesday night was no different. Absorbed in her work, Kenlaw barely noticed the week's nationally televised WNBA game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Detroit Shock -- until commotion from the broadcast grabbed her attention. Players on both sides were throwing punches as coaches and a few bench players joined in.

"I was really quite surprised," said Kenlaw, who is in her ninth year as an WNBA coach, most as an assistant. "I've never witnessed something like that before. I don't think there's an excuse for it, and I don't think we should tolerate it at all. That's not what the WNBA is all about and that's not something I'm going to promote."

As the Mystics (9-15) fell to the Liberty (13-10) yesterday morning, 80-73, for their third loss in four games, much discussion at Verizon Center revolved around two teams nowhere near Washington's downtown arena.

The previous night in Auburn Hills, Mich., a physical game between two of the league's preeminent teams erupted with less than five seconds remaining. Los Angeles rookie Candace Parker and Detroit's Plenette Pierson got tangled up going for a rebound and fell to the court. Pierson then stood over Parker as she tried to get up, and the rookie of the year contender pulled Pierson back to the floor.

Detroit's Deanna Nolan jumped on Parker, Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn appeared to knock Los Angeles's Lisa Leslie backward to the floor, and the Sparks' DeLisha Milton-Jones rained retaliatory punches on Mahorn's back. Mahorn said afterward that he was only trying to separate the players. Meanwhile, Shock forward Cheryl Ford's right knee was injured in the fracas and she will miss the rest of the season.

Nolan and Los Angeles's Shannon Bobbitt received technical fouls. Parker, Pierson, Mahorn and Milton-Jones were ejected from the game, which was played at the Palace of Auburn Hills, site of one of the most notorious brawls in sports history: the melee among the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and fans in 2004.

"The league is reviewing the incident in its entirety," WNBA communications director Ron Howard said yesterday. No fines or suspensions have been imposed yet, but a decision is expected this morning. Both teams play tonight: Los Angeles visits Connecticut and Detroit is at Houston.

According to WNBA rules, fines and suspensions may be imposed by President Donna Orender on any player involved in an altercation. A fine on any individual player also will result in a separate fine being assessed to her team, and players who leave the benches are automatically subject to a minimum one-game suspension and a fine.

How the league handles this skirmish undoubtedly will be scrutinized. By all accounts, the WNBA never has dealt with a fight of this magnitude, let alone one that includes a player such as Parker, whom the league has promoted as the new face of professional women's basketball. WNBA officials have spoken all season of their hopes that Parker will help widen the sport's fan base.

"It really has nothing to do with our identity or [the identity] of the game," Mystics forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a 10-year WNBA veteran, said of the fight. "It was the heat-of-the-moment situation. It happened. It's over. We play on."

As the Mystics played their annual "summer camp" game, most of the 16,121 fans in Verizon Center yesterday morning were under age 18 and oblivious to the brawl that dominated women's basketball the night before.

Older spectators, however, were more aware of what the league is facing. "They have to react strongly to this," said longtime Mystics season ticket holder Monica Brown, 43, of Arlington. "They can't just blow it under a rug or give Candace a slap on the wrist just because she's Candace -- and I'm a Candace Parker fan. This just isn't good for the league."

Mystics General Manager Linda Hargrove said she expects the league to make a firm statement with its punishments.

"I don't think it's good for our league," Hargrove said. "It's not how our league wants to be portrayed. It's not how our players want to be portrayed. I don't really see anything good coming out of this."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company