"Bad Girls" mind-set, Pierson and Parker a volatile mix

What does it take to light up a tinderbox? Just a spark. Or in the case of the Detroit-Los Angeles scuffle Tuesday with 4.6 seconds left of a WNBA game, it was a Spark.

About the last word that comes to mind in regard to the Shock's being involved in an on-court altercation is "shock." More likely is "predictable."

In Los Angeles' 84-81 victory in Auburn Hills, Mich., Sparks rookie Candace Parker and Detroit's Plenette Pierson got tangled up on a rebound. Pierson then walked into Parker, who was on the floor, and the benches cleared.

Then there was the further absurdity of Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn's knocking over the Sparks' Lisa Leslie. Mahorn, Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer and even L.A. coach Michael Cooper said after the game that Mahorn was trying to restore order -- but it didn't turn out so well.

No, it didn't. Why wasn't Mahorn -- it probably goes without saying that he is a very intimidating figure physically -- focused on restraining one of his own players? He simply had no business whatsoever laying hands on an opposing player.

Now we'll wait for the fallout from this, and in an unfortunate twist, Detroit already is down a player. The Shock announced Wednesday that Cheryl Ford, who left the court in a wheelchair after getting injured trying to restrain out-of-control teammate Pierson, will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL she suffered going for a rebound late in the game. There will be suspensions and some hand-wringing from WNBA officials. Viewing the video will be quick-hit popular for a day or so, given the average sports fan's attention span. And, of course, it's a topic that will provide some glee to the irreverent folks who cherish any sort of controversy. Especially one of which they can say, "Dude! Check it out! Chicks fighting!"

But the why of what happened has more substance. Some will say this is an example that women's sports are going down the same dark path as men's. That this represents some kind of trend or larger issue. For the most part, to that I say, "Poppycock." I think this was about the personalities involved, and it's not the first time I've seen stuff like this.

The worst fight I ever saw involving women's basketball was 21 years ago in a college game between Missouri and Oklahoma. Back then, those schools had a heated rivalry in what was then the Big Eight, and the tension between the two had been building for a couple of seasons. The aftermath included one broken nose, some seriously bruised ribs and even a photograph -- of an Oklahoma player executing a WrestleMania-perfect headlock on a Mizzou player -- appearing in Sports Illustrated.

It so happens my alma mater, Mizzou, was involved in another postgame fight -- this one shorter, but with some definite fireworks -- in 2004. That time, it was with longtime rival Kansas.

What all three of these fights had in common was that the teams had some history of disliking each other, and that at least one player involved was someone known as a hothead.

Which brings us to the Shock. For them, "hothead" has seemed to be a badge of honor. Former NBA Bad Boy Laimbeer took over as coach in 2002 and, in many ways, saved the franchise. Detroit has won two titles since and been in the WNBA Finals an additional time.

I've praised Laimbeer's competitiveness and the contributions he has made to the WNBA. But under Laimbeer, there has been an underlying aura, if you will, with the Shock that has been disturbing at times. The situation has been a tinderbox. The team took on a "Bad Girls" persona of intimidation and confrontation and a get-away-with-whatever-you-can attitude.

And nobody fit in better with that than Pierson, who has tended to be an accelerant to trouble her entire career, going back to her days at Texas Tech. Pierson was suspended her junior year at Tech. The official reasons weren't given, but the word was she had tried to instigate team insurgency. She patched things up with then-coach Marsha Sharp and came back to the program, leading Texas Tech to the Elite Eight her senior season.

Having watched Pierson throughout college and the pros, I understood she was more complicated than just a hothead. Throughout the years, I've tried to write as fairly as possible about her. I wrote a column during the WNBA Finals two years ago in which I talked to Sharp, who praised how Pierson had responded while at Texas Tech.

"We wanted her to grow from that suspension, and she was outstanding," Sharp said in 2006. "She did everything she needed to do to earn her way back on the team. I am as proud of that individual commitment she made as anything I've had coaching in the last several years.

"We asked her to take responsibility for her behavior, and she did that. I'll always have a lot of admiration for Plenette and the way she handled that."

Contrast that with the way Pierson acted Tuesday. Certainly, this isn't all about Pierson. L.A. and Detroit do not like each other, and the sentiment goes all the way back to Cooper's and Laimbeer's rivalry when they were NBA players.

These are two very physical WNBA teams. There are players on both squads who have been throwing elbows practically since they were toddlers. That this game could have problems should have surprised no one.

But the bottom line is that when things crossed the line, Pierson was involved. And unfortunately, that's no surprise.

In Game 3 of last year's Finals between Detroit and Phoenix, Pierson's arm "made contact" with Penny Taylor's head. Phoenix's Diana Taurasi -- who had clashed with Pierson when both had been teammates for the Mercury -- felt sure that Pierson had thrown a punch at Taylor. Pierson said she didn't, but did acknowledge later that she could have avoided the contact.

Taylor, as much a class act as anyone you'll find in athletics, did her best to defuse the situation but was alarmed that it happened. For one thing, she could have been badly injured. But Taylor also takes being a good sport and good citizen as seriously as being a good competitor. To her, it was an unseemly display for athletes to have such confrontations.

And believe it or not, she also had some concern for Pierson. The next day during media interviews, I talked to Taylor about it, and she sincerely wanted some insight. Why, she asked, did Pierson seem to be so angry all the time?

It's something only Pierson and those closest to her can probably answer, but it's also something the Shock and the league have to deal with.

We know the Shock won't change their entire personality. But there needs to be some admission on Laimbeer's part that he has pushed it too far too many times.

You can be a very physical, aggressive player who keeps her cool. The Shock have that in Katie Smith, who plays tough, but not angry. That's the mind-set the Shock can follow but not lose what makes this team so good -- yet still eliminate what can make the team's conduct sometimes border on the unacceptable.

That said, there is the other side of the story. L.A. has a history of rough play, too. And Parker, the gilded rookie, has to look at her part in this.

I like Parker. She's extremely bright off the court, a basketball genius and -- if injuries don't slow her -- on her way to the Hall of Fame. She's that good. But …

At Tennessee, Parker was indulged even when she slipped into posing, petulance and even a kind of taunting attitude on the court. Coach Pat Summitt's legendary discipline seemed to take a vacation when it came to some aspects of Parker's demeanor that didn't become anyone, let alone a star of her stature, at such a visible program.

Tuesday, Parker and Ford tangled on a rebound before the Parker-Pierson confrontation. (And let's not act as if Ford isn't known for a little extracurricular mixing it up inside, either.) So the reality is that this stew was boiling for a while, then the heat got turned up a little more, then it exploded.

Pierson needs to take a seat for a while, frankly. She should think back to what she supposedly learned from her problems at Texas Tech. Parker needs to sit a bit and realize that part of her growth process should be her on-court demeanor. She is simply too great a player and too important a part of women's sports overall to let herself be involved in such confrontations. And if baited, she has to be strong enough not to respond in kind.

There's enough tension and excitement just watching talented teams like L.A. and Detroit battle in basketball. The rest of what happened should provide some pretty basic reminders of a lesson we all learn about life, not just sports: If you keep playing with fire, eventually you'll get burned.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.