In only his second game back from an abdominal injury, LeBron James stunned fans and the sports internet after an elbow to the face of Detroit Pistons center Isaiah Stewart caused tempers to flare. Stewart, considerably bloodied, was restrained from going after James, and both players were ultimately ejected (LeBron for a flagrant foul 2, Stewart with two technical fouls).
The incident took place on November 21 at the Pistons home arena, just a few days shy of the November 19 anniversary of Malice at the Palace, the 2004 brawl between the Pistons, the Indiana Pacers, and a few overzealous fans that remains the most infamous fight in league history. The two players were wrestling for rebounding position on a free throw when James’ fist struck Stewart beneath the eye.
“…We’re back in Detroit, too. So, flashbacks,” James’ teammate Anthony Davis said after the game, referencing the ‘04 fight. “Everybody did a good job of trying to de-escalate the situation. And you never want to get to that point, like 17 years ago. But, when a guy — I guess he had it on his mind, he wanted to do something. And when he got it on his mind, I guess there wasn’t no stopping him.”
Pistons coach Dwane Casey stressed that Stewart’s reaction was not indicative of who he is as a player, and that he didn’t feel the big man should incur any further ramifications from the league.
“His eye got cracked all the way open,” Casey said. “He was upset for a reason. I don’t think that James is a dirty player but it got them going, instead of continuing the momentum that we had.”
Reaction among fans has been split, and many have focused on specific replay angles that make the fist look more deliberate. Longtime LeBron antagonist Skip Bayless tweeted that he had “never seen anything remotely that dirty from LeBron James,” and that he understood why Stewart reacted so strongly.
Former NBA All-Star and Instagram caption essayist Gilbert Arenas shared the video on his account, tagging Stewart and writing, “Hey brother, I’mma just be real with ya here pack all [your] shit, pack yo’ winter jackets and boots [because] yo’ ass is about to be traded to Budapest…I don’t know what type of bumbaclot blood got in yo’ eye but you can’t charge at the king like that on TV.”
LeBron’s only other career ejection came during the 2017-18 season for arguing with a ref. James did not speak with the press after the game, and neither he nor Stewart have commented on what transpired through social media. It’s possible that James will face a suspension, with some NBA writers suggesting two or three games based on historical precedent. Back in 2012, Metta World Peace was suspended for seven games for an elbow to James Harden’s face, though that happened after a made basket and not in the midst of a play.
At the time of the altercation, Detroit led Los Angeles 77-66, but the Lakers went on to win 121-116 behind the play of Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony.