The Story Behind The Biggest Brawl In WNBA History

Illustration: Angelica Alzona (G/O Media)

Last month, Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury and Kristine Anigwe of the Dallas Wings got into a fight, which resulted in six ejections and five suspensions. It was the largest WNBA fight since 2008, when the Detroit Shock (now the Dallas Wings) and the Los Angeles Sparks were part of brawl that started between Candace Parker and Plenette Pierson and escalated to involve the majority of the players and coaches on both teams, including Lisa Leslie, Katie Smith, Deanna Nolan, Cheryl Ford, Delisha Milton-Jones, Bill Laimbeer, Cheryl Reeve, Michael Cooper, Rick Mahorn, and Marianne Stanley.

Ultimately, 10 players and one coach received suspensions, and Pierson was suspended for four games, which remains the largest fight-related suspension in WNBA history. The fight also lead to the signing of 50-year-old Nancy Lieberman, who is still (and probably always will be) the oldest player to ever suit up in a WNBA game.

Deadspin interviewed some of the key players, coaches, and commentators involved in the fight for a look back at—for better or worse—one of the most memorable nights in WNBA history.

The 2008 Detroit Shock, under Bill Laimbeer’s direction, had won the WNBA championship in 2003 and 2006. In 2007, they lost in the fifth game of a best-of-five finals series against the Phoenix Mercury. The Shock was led by Katie Smith, Cheryl Ford, Deanna “Tweety” Nolan, and had a young power forward, Plenette Pierson, who in 2007 won the WNBA’s first ever Sixth Woman of the Year Award.

Bill Laimbeer (Detroit Shock head coach 2002-2009; current Las Vegas Aces head coach): Going into 2008, there was no reason why we weren’t going to win again. We got shafted by the referees in the finals of the prior year. So you know we had the best team, that’s just a fact.

Katie Smith (Detroit Shock player 2006-2009; current New York Liberty head coach): It was just a fun crew that you knew every night that we were going to be locked in and find a way to get it done.

Cheryl Reeve (Detroit Shock assistant coach; current Minnesota Lynx head coach): I always say that we were functionally dysfunctional. You did not know what each day was going to bring. No lack of personality.

The Los Angeles Sparks, meanwhile, were coming off a well-timed 10-24 season, which ended up landing them the first overall pick in the 2008 WNBA draft, Candace Parker. Parker was having the best rookie season in WNBA history—she would go on to be named the MVP and Rookie of the Year. She was playing alongside WNBA legend Lisa Leslie, and two-time WNBA all-star, Delisha Milton-Jones.

Michael Cooper was the head coach of the Sparks, and, of course, he and Laimbeer had a rivalry dating back to their days as NBA stars on the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons, respectively. Laimbeer and assistant coach Rick Mahorn also were members of the infamous “Bad Boys” Pistons. 

The Sparks had missed the playoffs the previous year, and hadn’t won a WNBA championship since 2002. The Shock entered the game at 16-8 on the season. The Sparks were 13-10, having lost four of their last five games.

Laimbeer: You know they were old, and we were the ones that were in the way and they couldn’t get past us. It was a rivalry. You know both teams disliked each other.

Delisha Milton-Jones (Los Angeles Sparks player 1999-2004 and 2008-2012; current Syracuse women’s basketball assistant coach): The only old thing during that time was Bill’s sideline apparel.

The game itself was nationally televised on ESPN2. Pam Ward did play-by-play. Doris Burke was the analyst. In front of a crowd of 12,930 at the Palace of Auburn Hills—the site of the NBA’s Malice at the Palace brawl in 2004 between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers—the Shock came back from a 21-point deficit in the second quarter to pull within one point, 76-75, in the final 90 seconds. But Nolan lost control of the ball when she went for the go-ahead layup, and the Shock never got a look at the lead again.

Pam Ward (ESPN play-by-play commentator): There had been chippiness in pretty much the entire game and I think we were all sort of, not necessarily anticipating it, but let’s just say we weren’t surprised that it escalated to that. You know, it’s the Detroit Shock. It’s Bill and Michael Cooper.

Illustration for article titled The Story Behind The Biggest Brawl In WNBA History
Screenshot: YouTube

Reeve: I remember there were things that were happening in the game … and frustration about things that were going uncalled, some unnecessary, you know, “extra” as we say. In Detroit, one thing I really always appreciated, is Bill was a strong proponent for not accepting things.

We’re not going to get, you know, punked by another team. And there was behavior from our opponent that was not necessary.

Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks player, 2008-present): I just remember, coach Michael Cooper always preached: it doesn’t matter your age, people are going to try to mess with you because you’re coming in the league and you’re playing well and you’re doing big things. So with that being said, you know, you can’t let people mess with you.

Milton-Jones: The game became chippier once the game turned in our favor. It was intense from the start because the rivalry between Bill and Coop had everyone on edge. Both teams were comprised of highly competitive individuals. Elbows and trash talking were at an all-time high that game.

Plenette Pierson (Detroit Shock player 2006-2010; current Minnesota Lynx assistant coach): Honestly, I’m a physical player, the game didn’t feel any different to me than any other game.

With 10 seconds left, the Shock’s Cheryl Ford went to the line with a chance to make it a one-point game. But she missed the second free throw, and got into a fight with Candace Parker for the rebound. That ratcheted up the intensity.

With six seconds left on the clock, the Sparks’ Marie Ferdinand-Harris was on the free-throw line for the Sparks to ice the game. As she hit the second one, making it 82-78, Pierson and Parker were lined up next to one another, and Pierson was boxing out Parker. Hard.
Milton-Jones: While we were on the free throw line, I could see Plenette planning her attack as she rocked back and forth, trying to time her boxout perfectly to take Candace’s knees out. I told Candace—who always stood with her knees straight—“Whatever you do, you better bend your knees because [Plenette’s] coming for you.”  The free throw went up and the ball was taken out of bounds. All I saw was Candace and Plenette tangled up on the floor.

Ward: I think it was just sort of stuff that had happened earlier in the game boiled over with the, let’s just say, an aggressive box out by Pierson.

When the free-throw went in, Parker took Pierson’s arm and pulled her to the floor. She tripped herself up in the process, and fell to the ground near midcourt. Pierson got up and chased after her, and when she reached Parker at midcourt, Parker pulled Pierson down again. Parker swung at Pierson, and Nolan came over and tackled her.

Pierson: I was a younger player trying to establish myself, and we’re taught to play to the final buzzer. I didn’t do anything outside of the normal box out, then here she takes my arm and pulls me down and goes flying.

Parker: For me, it’s always been in my household, you never throw the first punch. But we’ve always been a big proponent of defending ourselves. I think that’s the only thing I can say to my daughter is, “You can defend yourself.”

Pierson: I take off after her, confused, like, “What the heck are you doing? There’s two seconds to the game.” As I got up to her, she pulled me down.

Smith: I just remember Candace and Plenette kind of battling, going back at each other in both ways, and I don’t know if someone tripped, I remember Cheryl trying to get the ball out to me, and I turn around and Plenette’s over here, Tweety, everyone’s headed towards half court.

And I’m like, “Hold up!”

Reeve: I remember things seeming to calm down and then seeing Deanna Nolan all of a sudden take off for another player on the other side of half court.

Both teams and coaching staffs instantly swarmed around center court and surrounded Pierson and Carter.

Reeve: My job was to make sure that people didn’t leave the bench. It escalated pretty quickly to, you know, players didn’t care that they were leaving the bench.

Pierson: There were no punches, nothing from the two of us, I guess our teammates were really on top of it and got there quickly, so it didn’t escalate how it could have.

Rick Mahorn, an assistant coach for the Shock, went out to the scrum, presumably to try and break it up. That’s when he put out his hand, Lisa Leslie went flying, and the drama took on another life. It was hard to make out exactly what happened in the video.

Ward: Rick went into separate people and his left arm went out. And Lisa did not just fall down, she went flying backwards. And so I said live on TV that he pushed her away, and I said I don’t think it was intentional, but he outweighs her by at least 100 pounds, it wouldn’t take much, especially if she’s a little off balance, for her to lose her footing. He definitely touched her. The left arm went out. She went flying, and then Delisha went in and hit him on the back and, oh my Lord.

Milton-Jones: I caught the tail end of his arms being outstretched and Lisa falling backwards. That was all I needed to see at that point. I immediately ran up and pushed Rick then punched him in the back.

In the mayhem, Ford tried to hold back Pierson, and she crumbled to the ground grabbing her knee. On television, Laimbeer can be heard screaming, “We need a wheelchair!” Ford had to be wheeled off of the court.

Ward: The Cheryl Ford thing was terrible because she tore her ACL, and she was trying to be a peacemaker, she’s trying to pull Plenette out of there. Detroit after the game said that she tore it earlier in the game, not during that melee, and continued to play on it. But you know, that was a little bizarre. It was just—I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it.

The referees, after a long wait, ejected Parker, Pierson, Milton-Jones, and Mahorn. The final 4.6 were slightly dramatic—Katie Smith nailed a three-point shot to bring the Shock within one point, but the Sparks hit their next two free throws and escaped with an 84-81 win.

After the game, a tearful Lisa Leslie was interviewed on ESPN2, and accused Mahorn of pushing her.

“As a role model, this is not the way we want to represent ourselves, and then to have a coach push me down, why was he pushing me down?” Leslie said. “I wouldn’t have fought anyone. It’s a really sad thing, it’s a really unfortunate thing, this is not the way we want to represent ourselves with the WNBA.”

Mahorn defended himself.

“I was trying to protect the whole game, the integrity of the game,” he said afterward. “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.”

Reeve: If you know Rick, you know what Lisa Leslie proclaimed him to have done was not accurate. Rick was more of a peacemaker. Rick actually got hit from behind by Delisha Milton-Jones.

Milton-Jones: Yes, I admit I punched him, but I’m sure he didn’t feel a thing.

Pierson: That was ridiculous. For anyone who really knew Rick, he was not trying to punch her. If you unbiasedly watch the video, you can see Lisa tried to sucker-punch him, and he put his hands out. That was blown out of proportion, and that could have ruined his career. That’s a man going up against a woman, and he’s clearly being a peacemaker. There were several other players coming up behind him and punching him. If he had wanted to, he could have taken out all of the players afterwards. I love Rick to death. He helped me through a lot of stuff in Detroit, so to see him talked about like that, it makes me sad, Because it was my fault.

The game was aired on ESPN2, which meant it immediately was on SportsCenter and, the next morning, it was featured in the opening segment of NBC’s Today Show. Sports Business Journal reported that “NBC’s Ann Curry said the game ‘turned into an all-out brawl.’” After watching footage of the fight, Curry said, “We all need to give peace a chance.” NBC’s Meredith Vieira: “They always say it’s men who do that. Now I see women—it’s women who can do it too.’” Online, headlines featuringGirl Fightabounded. Vanity Fair even got in on the action.

It wasn’t just that this was a fight on a basketball court. It was a fight between women—predominantly black women.

Ward: It drew attention to a sport that usually—especially back then—got no attention. So it’s kind of like a double-edged sword. I just remember it kind of did take on a life of its own and was everywhere. I think it’s when chicks fight, here we go.

Milton-Jones: Media coverage was what I expected it to be. A brawl in the WNBA unfortunately was more newsworthy than the amazing talent displayed nightly by all of us. It’s sad that the fight garnered more attention than us being phenomenal role models and incredible athletes. I can’t recall any of us feeling like [race or gender] played a major role in coverage.

Reeve: We were in the news for the wrong reasons. For whatever reason, fans enjoy those sorts of interactions in most sports.

Ultimately, 10 players plus Detroit assistant coach Mahorn received suspensions. Pierson was suspended for four games because she initiated the altercation; Mahorn was suspended for two games because he escalated it; Shannon Bobbitt and Muriel Page of the Sparks both got two games because they left the bench and threw a punch; Parker, Milton-Jones, and Leslie all got one game for throwing a punch; Sheri Sam, Elaine Powell, Tasha Humphrey, and Kara Braxton of the Shock all got one game for leaving the bench.

Illustration for article titled The Story Behind The Biggest Brawl In WNBA History
Screenshot: YouTube

The Shock, in particular, were not happy.

Reeve: The suspension as far as number of games? That somehow Candace Parker got fewer games than Plenette. Yes. We were highly upset at that. They didn’t consider the totality of the situation.

Laimbeer: Of course [suspending Mahorn for two games] was the wrong call (laughs). All he was trying to do was break the thing up and then she fell down.

Parker: I just remember us going to Connecticut and us trying to figure out our suspensions. I remember my rookie check was nothing that month because I got fined, and that’s what I remember.

Milton-Jones: I think it was fair because Candace didn’t initiate the fight. Plenette initiated the contact and everything went crazy from there.

Pierson: I can’t fight myself. Every action has a reaction, something happened, I didn’t just do that. It was unfair, very unfair.

With the suspensions and the injury to Ford, the Shock had to immediately sign a player to a seven-day contract because they were down to seven players for their next game, which was two days later in Texas against the Houston Comets. Laimbeer knew just what to do.

Reeve: Bill was highly upset with the league how they handled that situation and who got how many games. All that stuff. We were headed down to Houston to play the Comets. This is how [Laimbeer] would ask about what we thought about something: “We’re going to sign Nancy Lieberman.”

Yes, that Nancy Lieberman. Lieberman was 50 years old at the time, and had last played in the WNBA in 1997, when she was 39 years old. She was already a basketball hall-of-famer, and at the time was working for ESPN as a WNBA analyst.

Lieberman: The year before in Washington at the WNBA All-Star Game, I was working for ESPN and there was a skills challenge happening. I took my heels off, and I think I was still [in] a skirt, and I ran through the skills challenge. I didn’t know that Bill, who was coaching the East, was sitting in the corner of the arena. And when I finished he goes, “You still play?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “When do you turn 50?” And I said, “July 1.” He said, “Let’s make history.” I said, “Excuse me?”

Laimbeer: Nancy, before the season, she mentioned something that she was, like, turning 50 or something weird like that. And she said, If there’s any … opportunity to play her in a game, to keep her in mind. And the opportunity showed itself!

Lieberman had seen the fight break out between the Sparks and Shock when she was at a Hooters at Six Flags for her son T.J.’s 13th birthday.

Lieberman: The kids love the wings. And love the fact that they can go there and watch sports. I mean, I’m sure people think of Hooters for other stuff. We’re at a birthday party. Now, I know I’m going to play. I just don’t know when I’m going to play. We’re watching the game, the TVs are on everywhere, and the kids were like, “Oh my gosh Ma, look at the size of the fight!” And, I’m like, “Okay, yeah, that’s the team I’m about to join.”

Laimbeer: I called the league, and I said I was going to do this. And they said, “No, no, no. Don’t do that.” And I said, “Oh yeah, I’m going to do this.” And you know, they’re the ones that they were like, “Why don’t you go sign someone else?” But, you know, for what? One day? It makes no sense.

Ward: Oh my lord. Here’s the thing that made it even weirder for me. So we did that game in Detroit, and the next day I’m flying to Houston, because we’re working Detroit at Houston. And I’m on the same flight as the Detroit Shock, sitting right across the aisle from Bill. He said to me, “When is Nancy getting in?” Because Nancy was supposed to be my analyst. I said, “She’s getting in sometime tonight.” And he said, “Well, I hope she brings her sneakers.”

Then I heard him call her. This is while we’re waiting to take off. He left a message telling her to bring her sneakers.

Illustration for article titled The Story Behind The Biggest Brawl In WNBA History
Screenshot: YouTube

Lieberman: Bill calls me in the middle of the night and he goes, “I found that window of opportunity. Can you meet us in Houston?”

Ward: I’m sitting on the plane and I’m like, that SOB is messing with me right now.

Reeve: I remember sitting at breakfast with Nancy to sign the contract. So you can’t sign just a one-day contract obviously. So we’re signing her to a seven-day contract. I remember saying to Nancy, “Now see, this is a seven-day contract. But it’s really a one-day contract. This is it, there’s no coming back to Detroit, you’re not playing any more games. This is just to get us through. And of course, she was like ‘Whatever you need whatever you want, I’ll do whatever.’”

Suddenly, ESPN and all of the media outlets stopped talking about the fight. Instead, the focus was on a 50-year-old legend playing in the WNBA.

Ward: I just remember it being kind of like a circus. But it’s part of the genius of Bill Lambeer. All this is going on two days after arguably the most publicized incident in the history of the league. He’s on national TV again and he brings in Nancy to kind of deflect away from everything that happened.

I’m convinced that that was a publicity stunt to sign Nancy and have her come in, and I don’t know how anybody else can think differently.

Laimbeer: Well, of course it’s probably a PR stunt.

Pierson: I loved it when Bill signed Nancy, it was like, if you’re going to stick it to us, we’re going to stick it to you.

Lieberman entered the game in the second half, and played for nine minutes and 14 seconds. She was 0-for-1 for 0 points, with two assists and two turnovers. Detroit lost the game, 79-61.

Lieberman: You know, I had already started training six months prior because I knew, I have so much respect for the women in the league. I knew in the back of my mind that I was going to play for him, and I didn’t know how long or how many games.

Laimbeer: She was in shape, there was no issues. Yeah, I don’t think she scored, She had some assists, and had one no-look assist. But she did not score.

Parker: That was hysterical. When she came out with that headband at Houston, I remember watching that game on television. It was legit like a Bill Laimbeer move.

Lieberman: You know those nine minutes changed a lot of people’s lives, because you know most people never saw the hundreds of thousands of emails and letters and people who came up to me, including Kobe Bryant and players in the NBA. He told me how he watched it with his family and his daughters.

There were no expectations. It was just, you know, it was just a joy to show people that you don’t get to define somebody’s athletic ability or you don’t get to define their love for the game. I mean I live it every day.

Reeve: I remember at the game’s conclusion in Houston, Nancy came up to me and said, “Are you sure I can’t come back to Detroit?”

The Sparks went on to lose to the San Antonio Stars in the conference finals that year. The Shock beat the Stars in the WNBA Finals, 3-0, winning their second WNBA title in three years.

Laimbeer: That was an easy one. (Laughs) It was, quite frankly, it was very easy. We won two in San Antonio, and then came back and won the sweep. All we did was trap Becky Hammon every time, and nobody else on their team could step up.

Watching the Griner-Anigwe fight, and seeing how Griner was given a platform to tell her side of the story, Pierson does wish that she had been given the same respect 11 years ago.

Pierson: For me, I wasn’t able to voice my side of the story, and Brittney Griner was. She was allowed that platform, When the story came out, I didn’t get the opportunity to voice how I felt about the situation, it was almost like I was portrayed as the bad guy by the WNBA, the media, the fans. I believe if I would have said my side, it would have been a totally different story. I think that’s why BG got less than I got. I was on an island by myself.

I would have owned up to my part of it, but also, I would have said, I’m not going after someone just to go after someone with [4.6] seconds on the clock. I just wanted everyone to see the rationale.

But looking back on it now, those who spoke to Deadspin about the Sparks/Shock brawl don’t have any regrets. It’s a part of WNBA history, for better or for worse.

Parker: I don’t think we planned on having a brawl, but at the end of the day, we defended ourselves and it’s something that now my nephew and my nieces and my daughter can always google. And be like, “[Aunt Candace], what happened? Mommy, what happened?” It’s funny.

Ward: The whole, like, three-day stretch was so surreal. It was like being in a show, like in a movie. It was just very surreal. And a lot of people, you know, for better or for worse, that was probably a lot of people’s first exposure to the league.

Pierson: I think it helped. It made people tune in, even if for that one day.

Laimbeer: The fight? Oh, it happens. That’s sports. It’s intense, emotional. It happens.

Lindsay Gibbs is a freelance sports reporter. She is the co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down and covers the Washington Mystics for The Athletic.