I’ve learned over the years as a sports writer that altercations/controversies in games are virtually always going to be seen differently by the fans of the parties involved. And no matter what I write about it, somebody is going to be ticked off and think I am dead wrong.
People do see things through whatever prism they view the world. And we all have quite varied prisms. So I always debate for a while with myself about what to write in reaction to incidents like the flagrant foul/ejection of New York’s Cappie Pondexter against her former team, Phoenix, on Saturday.
Pondexter got her championship ring from Phoenix president and GM Ann Meyers Drysdale before the game, and then it fell out of the box and onto the floor. Pondexter picked it up and kissed it. The Mercury fans applauded. But that was really the end of them cheering for her.
Pondexter went on to score 21 points in the first half, and New York trailed 50-42 at the break. Perhaps Pondexter was poised to have an even bigger second half and lead the Liberty to its fourth consecutive victory and send Phoenix to its seventh straight defeat. Instead, there was trouble less than a minute into the third quarter, Pondexter was ejected and New York lost.
As I said, people will see what they see. Either they see the same thing I do … or they don’t. I’ve watched it over and over and over. But someone else could do the same _ yet view it differently. And in the end, nothing I write is going to change anyone’s mind one iota. So I’ll say up front: Watch it (if you haven’t already) and judge for yourself. (Go to about the 1:07 mark.)
But if you want my two cents, here it is: I thought the WNBA would not have been wrong to give Pondexter a one-game suspension. However, I’m also not surprised that didn’t happen. I think the WNBA is generally rather reticent to really discipline its star players. There aren’t that many of them, and the league obviously tries to avoid negative publicity toward them at all costs.
In my view, Pondexter’s foul on Penny Taylor going to the basket was just too reckless and the kind of thing I don’t like. Some may suggest that Pondexter was only going for the ball and just “accidentally” hit Taylor in the neck/head. I can’t quite buy that. Now, do I think Pondexter intentionally set out to hurt Taylor? No, I don’t. But by the same token, she really didn’t seem to care whether she hurt her or not. And that was disappointing to see.
Then Pondexter’s reaction to Diana Taurasi, who was running in to check on Taylor and seemed focused only on her teammate, to me was another indication that Pondexter really did sense she’d stepped over a line. Pondexter put an elbow up to shove Taurasi away because she apparently was expecting Taurasi to go after her. But why would she be worried about that if she didn’t think DT had a good reason to confront her? Bit of a guilty conscience on Pondexter’s part? I thought Taurasi seemed pretty surprised that Pondexter had done any of this.
Oh, and I do also realize that Taurasi has a reputation for mixing it up right up to the line of what she can get away with. And that some may point to the flagrant foul she got against Seattle’s Svetlana Abrosimova earlier this year. To me, Taurasi was more legitimately trying to block the shot, but I understand the officials had a tough call on that one.
In general, no matter if it’s Pondexter, Taurasi or anyone, I think the league should send out a message that on a breakaway to the lane, defenders better weigh their options carefully. These are professional athletes, not Saturday-morning rec league clowns slamming into each other to show off machismo. A pro athlete knows her body and her strength and her timing. If she can’t legitimately make a play on the ball, then she needs to avoid making a “play” on someone’s head/neck. This isn’t about taming the game, it’s about common sense.
We all know it was an emotional night in Phoenix for Pondexter, and for the Mercury, too. After all, Pondexter getting her ring before the game had to remind everyone of how good this team was last year with her. And how the Mercury have struggled so far this season.
Pondexter won two championships in Phoenix but demanded to be traded, saying she saw her post-basketball future in New York. But it also seems pretty evident that there were other things that motivated her to want out of Phoenix.
What, exactly, were they? I can speculate like anybody else, but I don’t know for sure. When I talked to Taurasi and Taylor earlier this season, they both said they were really disappointed that Pondexter decided to leave Phoenix. And when I talked to Pondexter just last week, she said of Taurasi that she felt they would always be good friends. I didn’t ask her at that time about Taylor or any of her other former Mercury teammates, but I didn’t sense Pondexter really disliked any of them.
That said, egos are powerful things among talented people, and it’s always hard to balance them. Did Pondexter deep down feel she never got enough credit for Phoenix’s success? Did she think Taurasi or Taylor (or both) got too much? Even though she would say it never bothered her, that doesn’t mean it didn’t.
Because that’s another thing I’ve learned over the years as a sports writer: Athletes certainly don’t often tell us how they really feel about things. Sure, at times, they do. But other times, I’m not sure they actually always truly know. Or if they do, they don’t necessarily want everyone else to know. So what they say to the media is typically through a built-in filter they develop over the years. And by the time they are in the WNBA, they have been playing this question-and-answer game with us for a long time.
Plus, they now also have Twitter and Facebook to send “messages” to fans and try to frame themselves, their accomplishments and their actions in the way they want all that to be seen.
Then again, maybe Pondexter’s trade demand wasn’t about ego/wanting more credit, or at least not entirely. Maybe it was about personalities. Maybe there were hurt feelings about something. Players spend a lot of time together, both here in the WNBA and overseas. There are any number of ways they could disagree or get under each other’s skin or … hell, who knows what. I can’t even pretend to guess how often alliances are formed and broken and reformed as these women navigate their way through their lives and careers.
I do think Pondexter made a mistake with her foul on Taylor, and then compounded it with her combative reaction to Taurasi. A one-game suspension wouldn’t have seemed out of line to me to basically remind Pondexter to work a little harder to keep her cool.
But I also don’t believe Pondexter is any kind of “villain.” I think she’s just human. Emotions work inside all of us, and then they sometimes escape from us in ways that we often don’t expect or totally control. And when that happens, we sometimes act a bit badly.
So what was “working” inside Pondexter all game leading up to this sequence of events happening?
Perhaps on this night when she had her “homecoming” in Phoenix, something inside her needed to turn the Mercury into truly “them” and not “us” – at least on the court. Or … maybe she did feel for the first time that the Mercury had become “them” _ and it kind of bothered her.
Might there be some vague trace of regret for Pondexter that she left Phoenix? Something she didn’t realize until back on the floor facing the Mercury and their fans? Wouldn’t that be pretty normal?
Maybe it was a combination of everything: Some remnants of past frustrations, something that happened where there were hurt feelings, some need to fully sever ties on court. Even Pondexter herself may not know exactly why she did what she did. Or she may not think she actually did anything wrong at all.
Now, some will say that Taylor helped escalate matters by getting up and confronting Pondexter, or trying to. I think Taylor was stunned and hurt by what happened, and I don’t blame her for being upset. Taylor got a technical foul for her reaction to getting clobbered, and if she deserved “punishment,” she certainly didn’t deserve any more than that.
In the end, Taurasi’s response that this will all just blow over because these things happen when emotions are high … that’s perhaps the best way to look at it. They are all three outstanding players. As I journalist, I’ve enjoyed dealing with all three.
Still, especially when you think of the great things the trio did together in Phoenix, there was something sad and even a little creepy about what took place Saturday. I hope it does blow over quickly, but more than that I wish it hadn’t happened at all.