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A Bad Boy for life: Isaiah Stewart plays hard, not dirty, and he’s not going to stop

The raw passion of the second-year big man was on full display against the Lakers. Now it’s up to Stewart and the Pistons organization to harness it

Los Angeles Lakers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

That was ugly. Let’s start with that. No one wants to see what we saw at Little Ceasars Arena when the Detroit Pistons faced the Los Angeles Lakers game on Saturday evening. Quick recap: on a free-throw box out LeBron James’s hand came into violent contact with Isaiah Stewart’s face.

Was it intentional from LeBron? The contact was certainly intentional — the degree of contact he was hoping to inflict? Only James knows that. But it was clear he at least wanted to make a point. Throwing his hand back into Isaiah Stewart’s face was not within the flow of the game. LeBron’s situational awareness is unparalleled, so I’d say he could have avoided contact with Stewart’s face if he wanted to even if he wasn’t looking directly at Stewart as he swiped his forearm across his face. Of course, he was looking right at him, so. that point is moot. He meant it. Watch the tape. He went for Stewart. James’ face as he’s throwing his arm and hand back betrays exactly how pissed LeBron was in this moment, and that he was sending a message.

Now, was Isaiah’s response warranted? Based on the available evidence, of course not. Though we have no clue what if any activities beforehand lead him to believe, as quickly as he responded, that LeBron meant to make contact. We also don’t know what LeBron, Russell Westbrook or any other Laker said after the incident and if that turned Stewart from enraged player into a volcano of fury.

We do know that this is far from the first instance of Stewart getting into it with another player. Anyone who watched either of the two games vs the Brooklyn Nets saw he and Blake Griffin get into it. And we also know Stewart never shies away from physicality, which for veteran players with miles and injury histories like Griffin and James must be annoying to put it mildly.

Stewart is a born frustrater as an athlete and a competitor. He’s big, he’s physical, he is at 110% all day, every day. For veterans interested in load management, focused more on the destination and not the journey, that lack of understanding coming from a young guy like Stewart can be interpreted as a lack of respect.

But Stewart’s not going to change. Not anytime soon. He does not care who you are. He is going to body you, annoy you, outwork you as often as he can. I’d imagine on some level the LeBrons of the NBA are thinking “who the f does this kid think he is?” when they share a floor with Stewart.

Who is he? He’s a Detroit Piston, as if there was any doubt.

He is is a player many Pistons fans see as embodying the spirit of Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman before him, and as the epitome of Detroit Basketball among current players. Stewart is not dirty. But you’re not going to punk him. And you’ll never outwork him. If you have a problem with how he’s playing then the only choice is to work even harder than him. If you can. Or you can do what James did and channel all your frustrations into a cheap shot. And Stewart will (over)react accordingly.

That drive is not something you can teach even as his losing his cool is something you must teach out of him. Stewart’s thirst to outwork everyone will be the thing that makes him great if that were to ever happen. But Stewart will never be great if he doesn’t learn how to channel that spirit, thirst and brute strength. He can’t fight other players. He can’t get thrown out of games. He can’t be that guy in the NBA. His reputation cannot precede him in certain ways.

As much as there is a great legacy of hard workers imposing players in Detroit, there was a certain pall over the wild proceedings at LCA. There have been scuffles before. Blood has been shed on the floor. Players have had to hold their teammates back to prevent escalating the situation.

But it was no coincidence that PA announcer John Mason immediately went into mitigation mode. He’s been here before. As he arena rang with Mason’s voice to “stay off of the court” and to refrain from throwing things, it was clear for many watching, we were being transported back to the Malice at the Palace. We will not litigate that black eye on the NBA yet again, but suffice to say, no team, but especially Detroit, can afford to be host to another such incident.

As much as it is regrettable Stewart would not relent as he sought out James or another player, it is his unrelenting nature that is so welcome and so worth harnessing. Luckily, he has time to learn. When Rodman was Stewart’s age, he was a janitor and hadn’t even entered college (Rodman was drafted at age 26). Ben Wallace was still playing college ball and wouldn’t be drafted until he was 22 and didn’t break out until he was into his middle to late 20s.

We have a good one here. You can disagree with his handling of the situation with LeBron, but you can’t deny the passion that got him there. It will be up to the Pistons organization to get across to him how to harness that passion so it doesn’t get the better of him but you can take comfort in the fact that Dwane Casey, whether you agree with his X’s and O’s or not, has got it in terms of handling young players.

Per James Edwards III of the Athletic:

Casey doesn’t think he should face any trouble. “He was upset.” Stewart got stitches after. Casey talked to Isaiah after, told him: “This doesn’t define who you are.”

From the Detroit Free Press:

“Just keep your head and don’t get a reputation afterward,” Casey said of his talk with Stewart. “I felt for the young man because he’s such a competitor, plays so hard. He’s a great kid but … he felt like it was a cheap shot across his brow. On the street, it would be a different story. It’s no reflection on Isaiah whatsoever.”

True, it’s not the Stewart who had lost control and had to be held back by his own teammates multiple times that defines who Stewart is. But I’d like to think part of what defines Stewart is the unrelenting hustle that made James frustrated enough to swing at Stewart in the first place. And it takes a lot to get James off his game. Sunday was only the second ejection of James’ 19-year NBA career.

It’s something that Dwane Casey understands. That is some Chuck Daly type mentorship right there. For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to be around for the Bad Boys, head coach Daly was a father figure to many of his players, first and foremost Dennis Rodman. In his piece “Chuck Daly: ‘Daddy Rich’ Tamed Rodman, Bagged Isiah His Rings And Got MJ Gold” Jack Porter of The Sportsman wrote this:

“You talk about coaches’ dreams, there aren’t many players like him,” said Daly in one press conference, “There couldn’t be a player I’m more proud of and proud to be associated with.”

Brendan Malone, the Pistons’ Assistant Coach between 1988 and 1995 stated that, “Chuck was the only person that understood [Rodman]. I remember one time I was working with Dennis and Chuck called me over and he said, ‘Just leave him alone - you don’t put a saddle on a Mustang.

Seeing Stewart running wild in pursuit of LeBron brought that same wild talent to mind.

Daly, “Daddy Rich” had a lot in common with Casey. A smooth, understated manner, a flare for attire, and an uncompromising care for his young players. Casey’s comments showed he, similarly to Daly with Rodman, understands Stewart is who is and that’s what makes him great. Make no mistake, it’s not a one-to-one comparison by the way. Rodman had unbelievable talents, but also demons he couldn’t shake.

Under Casey, Stewart is in good hands. As is rookie No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham who on a side note made sure Isaiah was in good hands as he was the one teammate in lock step with Isaiah during his pursuit of LeBron.

Isaiah is hopefully here for the long haul as was his alternately spelled predecessor. He’s going to go through some growing pains along the way as will be the case for all of these young guys. But one thing is for sure. Beef Stew has already cemented himself as a Bad Boy for life in our hearts and minds. (And that is pretty awesome).