The men of the Sparks

Behind every great team, there are key people who provide instruction, support and other necessary props to make it all possible. For the Los Angeles Sparks, two of those people are Head Coach Michael Cooper, and commentator Larry Burnett, who has been “the voice of the Sparks” for 11 of its 12 seasons.

Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Burnett about the Sparks and his own career, and over the weekend I attended a presentation by Cooper at the Sparks camp. Though both men have different perspectives, each made it clear that they appreciate the women they work with.

Burnett said his first career aspiration as a high school student was to be a professional baseball player. But he eventually came to terms with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen.

“I realized that I would have to have talent,” he said.

No matter; since Burnett had already been doing simulated sports broadcasts in his childhood backyard as a kid, he was ready to take that on.

Upon graduating from college in Oklahoma in 1976, he got a job at a small radio station in Texas. Over the years, Burnett has been a sports anchor – most notably for ESPN Sports Center – where he anchored two Olympics, “The NBA Today” show, and “College Football Scoreboard.” He has done TV and radio play-by-play for the Los Angeles Lakers and NCAA basketball, besides the Sparks. His career highlights were receiving two Emmys for best sports report, and the “Outstanding Achievement Award” from the Associated Press (see the link to Burnett’s website on this page).

During their first season in 1997, the Sparks’ games weren’t broadcast on the radio. By year two, however, they were ready to go, and that’s where Burnett came in. He has been with the Sparks ever since – an uncommon longevity in what can be a fickle business. For the longtime broadcaster, it’s a natural fit.

“Doing play-by-play and calling something as it actually happens is the best part of the business,” Burnett said.

The bulk of Burnett’s work comes before broadcasts, as he researches statistics about players and opponent teams. From there, he said the key is to stay relaxed and focused during games.

“You have to call it as it goes, and take it as it comes,” he said. “You have to take control of yourself and be prepared for what may happen.”

Burnett cited the game in 2001 where Center Lisa Leslie dunked – the first time a player had done so in a WNBA game.

“When Lisa had her first dunk, you can’t prepare for that,” he said. “You better hope you can make that call, because there is history there.”

This year, Burnett made another addition to his impressive resume: the title of author. He co-wrote Leslie’s autobiography with her, entitled “Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You.” It is obvious when hearing Burnett talk about Leslie that he has admiration for the only woman to have played her entire professional career with the Sparks.

“She has done so many things, and the obstacles she’s overcome have been phenomenal,” he said, referring to her upbringing in Compton, CA by a single parent.

Originally, Burnett had proposed the book to Leslie six years ago, after the Sparks’ second championship. The project was delayed, but Burnett said that ultimately it was better that way because now the book includes Leslie’s engagement and the birth of her daughter.

“We’re more pleased with the product now,” he said.

Burnett said he truly enjoys working with all of the Sparks, which includes traveling with them to away games.

“The ladies are terrific to be around,” he said. “They are approachable, congenial – just great personalities.”

As part of the Sparks’ basketball camp this weekend, Cooper held question-and-answer sessions all day Sunday for players, coaches and parents. He laid out the foundation for his philosophy: determination, dedicated, desire, discipline and decision-making – all of which he said players should strive to make priorities. The most interesting part of the discussion for me, though, was how highly he spoke of girl’s and women’s basketball, as well as his players.

At prompts from parents, Cooper said that female basketball players are more aggressive than their male counterparts. This surprised a couple parents, but the group Cooper was talking to was middle school-aged. These parents haven’t seen high school ball yet. On a good high school team, girls will chase after every loose ball, dive, push, fight for rebounds using elbows, and hand check their opponents to death. This ain’t your grandma’s basketball. And it continues into college and the pros.

“On men’s teams, maybe three of them will be aggressive,” Cooper told the room. “Think about the Lakers. The strategy is to get the ball into Kobe’s hands, and then everyone stands around watching Kobe.

“With women you have a lot more teamwork and fundamentals. They make better passes than the men, have better offensive sets than the men, and they play defense.”

Cooper said people are beginning to recognize that about the women’s game, including some former NBA greats. He is right; Bill Russell used to come to Storm games all the time, and he commented once that “this is the way we used to play the game.”

The funniest part of the session was when Cooper said that men take longer to learn basketball concepts than women.

“You work with women and you go over it a few times, they run it and then it’s like ‘let’s move on.’ With men, it’ll be a week and they’re still standing there like, ‘what?'” Cooper said.

I had to smile. And oh yeah – Cooper remembered my name from the day before.

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Most Tennessee fans already know that the WNBA set up a conference call interview Monday with Nikki Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt and Alexis Hornbuckle. The articles written about the call were great, but listening to the audio is a treat. It is available at utladyvols.com, and I recommend everyone check it out.

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