Mirotic-Portis and NBA Teammate Fights

The Chicago Bulls were projected to have a tough season on the court.  Right before the season, though, things got tougher.  During an intense practice, Niko Mirotic and Bobby Portis got into a heated altercation and Portis broke Mirotic’s jaw with a punch.  According to Peter Vecsey, Mirotic and Portis were talking trash in practice and Mirotic shoved Portis twice, maybe three times. When Portis retaliated with a hard shove, Mirotic charged him. Portis put him down.”   This account was confirmed by ESPN, which described the incident as follows: “Mirotic charged at Portis twice before Portis threw a punch and connected with Mirotic’s face.”

Portis was suspended eight games by the Bulls and Mirotic was not disciplined, though he will be out quite awhile healing.  Coach Fred Hoiberg did not really explain the incident yet but  Portis publicly apologized to Mirotic (who has not responded to Portis since the incident).  The incident raises several questions:

-Should the fact that Mirotic was the aggressor excuse Portis to any extent?

It does mitigate Portis’ behavior ever so slightly.  Portis definitely has a right to defend himself if Mirotic kept acting aggressively towards him but breaking someone’s jaw is probably not nearly a proportional or reasonable response to a shoving match.  It is possible that Portis didn’t intend to hurt Mirotic  as badly as he did but, as Kermit Washington can attest, intent is only part of the equation in determining punishment.  Had Portis whiffed on the punch, no one would’ve ever known about this incident.  When big men throw real punches, it can be a really dangerous situation and the outcome of those punches will be a factor in the punishment.

-How will this incident affect Portis going forward?

Skirmishes are a normal part of the process and typically do not really affect team morale.  Pat Riley famously let Xavier McDaniel and Anthony Mason engage in a fight during training camp in 1991, which Riley felt set the correct tone for that tough team.  But what about a teammate fight that ends in a violent assault?

In the NFL, this has actually happened quite a few times.  Here’s a sampling  of some of these incidents and the aftermaths:

-In 1976, young Dallas Cowboys quarterback Clint Longley famously sucker punched starter Roger Staubach who had knocked him out.    Longley had a bad temper and had lost a fight to Staubach.  A few days later, Longley punched Staubach while he was putting on his shoulder pads.  Longley was immediately suspended and traded to the Chargers.  It was clearly not tenable to keep them on the team.  Staubach went on to take Dallas to its usual playoff season and Longley was out of the NFL within a year.

-In 1997, Washington Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook sucker punched running back Stephen Davis in the face when Davis was not looking.  At the time, Westbrook was a high draft pick and possible star and Davis was just another young player.  Westbrook was fined $10,000 and suspended for a pre-season game.  Both players remained with Washington for several years and Davis actually ended up being a star runner, while Westbrook had only a decent career.

-In 1998, star Dallas receiver Michael Irvin allegedly stabbed starting offensive lineman Everett McIver with scissors over a dispute about a haircut.  Dallas was reported to have paid McIver six figures not to file a criminal complaint.  Both players remained with Dallas two more years before retiring.

-In 2003, Los Angeles Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski punched tight end Marcus Williams in the head and broke his eye socket during a skirmish in practice.  Williams’ career ended from the injury and he ultimately sued and obtained a $340,000 verdict against Romanowski.   Romanowski played only three games for the Raiders that season before retiring.

-In 2008, Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith sucker punched teammate Ken Lucas on the sidelines, breaking Lucas’ nose.  Previously, in 2002, Smith had punched another teammate (Anthony Bright, who sued and won a settlement).  Smith was fined for the Lucas punch and the matter was “handled internally.”  Lucas ended up forgiving Smith and they became friends.  Smith had a long Hall of Fame career, which just ended last season.

-In 2015, New York Jets reserve linebacker IK Enemkpali punched and broke the jaw of starting quarterback Geno Smith, after Smith refused to repay Enemkpali for some expenses (and taunted him about his refusal).   Smith missed some time with the injury and ended up losing his starting job when the replacement quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick played well.  Enemkpali was cut from the Jets team and immediately signed by the Buffalo Bills as a reserve.

In the NBA, teammate fights are also common but the violent outcomes are rarer.  Michael Jordan punched several teammates (he gave Steve Kerr a shiner and hit Will Perdue as well) but this had no repercussions because an idle punch with little damage was considered no big deal.  We were able to find a few more violent incidents in the NBA:

-In November 1993, Isiah Thomas punched Bill Laimbeer in the back of the head to protest receiving an elbow in practice.   Thomas ended up breaking his hand on Laimbeer’s head and Laimbeer tearfully retired shortly thereafter.  Laimbeer claimed he no longer had the desire to play and was emotionally spent from fighting with his longtime teammate.  Thomas did come back and but tore his Achilles later in the season, which forced his retirement too.

-In 1997, Washington Wizards’ Rod Strickland punched teammate Tracy Murray in a hotel.  In a precursor to the social media era of today, a woman had recorded Murray making fun of Strickland and played the tape back for Strickland.  Strickland, never the calmest guy, was enraged and socked Murray in the face.   Murray had to have seven stitches under his left eye but the Bullets didn’t take any public action against either player and the team had its usual average season.  Both Strickland and Murray remained with the Wizards for several more seasons without reported incident.

-In 1999, Detroit Piston Jerry Stackhouse punched out teammate Christian Laettner,on a team flight, reportedly over a dispute in a high stakes card game.  Neither player was publicly disciplined but the team banned card games.

-In 2000, Sonics teammates Gary Payton and Vernon Maxwell got into a dispute during practice and met in the weight room afterwards to resolve the dispute with a rumble.  They began throwing weights at each other and Horace Grant, who was trying to resolve the issue peacefully, was injured in the crossfire and had to miss a game.  Both players were fined by the Sonics.  All parties downplayed the incident at the time probably because Payton was Seattle’s undisputed star and it would only have hurt the team to really punish him.  Nevertheless, Payton and Maxwell were very much trying to hurt each other and were out of control.  The fight was used as evidence that coach Paul Westphal had trouble controlling the team.

-In 2011, Memphis’ Tony Allen punched out OJ Mayo on the team plane, because Mayo was taunting him about a $7,500 gambling debt (sort of mirroring the Stackhouse incident).  The players were previously friendly and both remained on the roster without further reported incident.

The most similar incident to the current Portis situation came in 2006 in the then-NBDL and also actually sort of involved the Bulls.   At that time, the Bulls had assigned young Lithuanian big man Martynas Andriuskevicius to the Dakota Wizards.   Andriuskevicius was 7’2 center and was only 20 years old.   He had been drafted in the second round in 2005 by the Magic.  Orlando promptly traded Andriuskevicius  to the Cavs, where he played sparingly (nine minutes in six games in 2005-06) and spent most of the year in the NBDL.  After the season, the Cavs traded Andriuskevicius  to the Bulls, who also sent him to the NBDL for the 2006-07 season.

On December 21, 2006, Andriuskevicius was unexpectedly punched in the face by Dakota teammate Awvee Storey.  Andriuskevicius fell backwards and hit his head, fracturing his skull and leaving him with a concussion.  Storey was indefinitely suspended and ultimately released.  Andriuskevicius later described the incident to the Chicago Tribune as follows:  “[i]t was a heated situation.  We were playing basketball. I didn’t say anything bad, but we were talking. I turned my head and I didn’t expect a punch. He hit me. That’s how it happened. But everything is better now. I’m just waiting to come back to basketball.”

Andriuskevicius never did return to the NBDL but went back to Europe, where he is still an active player (he’s still only 31).  Storey’s punch didn’t end his career either.   While he was cut from the NBDL for the year, in 2007-08, he made the Milwaukee Bucks roster and stayed on the roster the whole season.  Storey then went on to play in China, the Philippines, and New Zealand before retiring in 2010.

Taking all the incidents together, it appears likely that the Bulls can move forward.  Virtually every other violent teammate attack eventually blew over.  Mirotic may never actually forgive Portis but opportunity to play will ultimately take priority over emotional concerns.

-Can anything be done to prevent future teammate attacks?

There seem to be two distinct categories of attacks.  The first is attack relating to character and gambling disputes and the second relating to heat of the moment practice competition.  To the extent that teammates have fought over non-competition disputes (i.e. gambling and personality issues), it is fairly simple to fix:  ban gambling and have little tolerance for idiotic verbal fights.  This won’t totally eliminate the issue but it will definitely be lower frequency.

Heat of the moment attacks during intense practices are a more difficult fix.  Coaches want to encourage competition and players are really playing for their livelihoods.   Still, coaches must recognize the line between healthy competition and violent confrontation and settle down situations that are becoming out of control.

Even this isn’t perfect.  An attack can happen out of the blue and that cannot be prevented.  In addition, if the aggressor is a star like Jordan or Payton, an organization has little recourse to threaten him, unless it wants to really alienate a player they have a huge investment in.  Fortunately, with the notable exception of Payton, stars like MJ don’t usually attack with an intent to seriously injure.   In either case, long simmering disputes (as was apparently the case with Mirotic and Portis) should be stopped by the staff before something bad happens.   Like Westphal before him, Hoiberg may find that this fight may be used to question his already shaky tenure in Chicago.

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