I don’t know about other WNBA watchers, but the 2016 season felt especially long.
Maybe it was the constant swirl of events that took place off the court, coupled with intense on-the-court action. Perhaps it was the fact that the entire thing took six months – a full month longer than most seasons. But it was a journey, and an amazing one at that.
I’ve covered the Los Angeles Sparks since 2010, and this past April 24 was their first day of training camp. As always, I headed down to catch a preliminary glimpse and conduct interviews. And this year my colleague from TGSportsTV1, LT Willis, joined me. In fact, we were the only two reporters to show up that day. This is sometimes how it is; it’s been me and at least one other person.
We talked to coach Brian Agler and Candace Parker, who was at the first day of camp for the first time since her rookie year in 2008. And there weren’t too many others there besides the foreign players and the rookies, as everyone else was still playing overseas.
Parker talked about how happy she was to be there from day one, and how all were looking forward to working with Agler in his second season at the helm. The next day the news that Parker hadn’t made the Olympic roster dropped, and I realized she’d known about it as she had talked to me that day, and gave no indication in her attitude or demeanor. I was extremely impressed.
That feeling grew even stronger at Sparks media day, when a reporter kept hammering her with questions about her Olympic exclusion. If she was annoyed, Parker showed no sign, and she answered query after query. A true professional.
Los Angeles’ strong start was a surprise to everyone. They kept winning and winning and winning. At about win nine I realized that it was not a fluke or a transitory thing: they had something special going. As Agler’s Seattle Storm had in early 2010, which ended in them hoisting the trophy, Sparks players all repeated the same philosophy separately when interviewed.
They were focusing on one game at a time. Left foot, right foot, breathe, as former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt used to say. And it worked for them.
The Minnesota Lynx handed the Sparks their first loss June 21, and Los Angeles returned the favor three days later. That night the family of Summitt, who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, began contacting former players that the legendary coach would probably pass away soon. Many made a pilgrimage to Knoxville that weekend to say goodbye, including Parker. Summitt died early the morning of June 28, the day the Sparks were scheduled to take on Dallas at home.
“If I had to play that night, I would have been no good,” Fever forward and former Tennessee Lady Vol Tamika Catchings told me a week later.
But play Parker did, and she scored 31 points to lead Los Angeles to the win. In the locker room afterwards, she patiently answered reporter’s questions with tears flowing down her face the entire time. My heart really went out to her.
On the other side of the locker room was always Nneka Ogwumike, who had a banner season from jump. She topped the league’s field goal percentage mark the entire year, hovering around 70 percent. She was also in the top three in points and rebounds.
This might have been a surprise to some, but not to me. I watched Ogwumike carry the Stanford Cardinal for four years in the Pac-12 Conference. I was familiar with her skill cache, her wizardry in action and her on-court leadership. This season she grow noticeably in confidence, no longer afraid to take over a game, or any part of a match up. She was finally living up to the potential long-time watchers had been glimpsing for a long time.
The Olympic break was amazing. I hadn’t had time off like that since the summer of 1999 – the year before the Storm came to Seattle, where I lived at the time. The Sparks played their last game at Staples Center July 10, and then went on a road trip. They began post-break play on the road, so didn’t return to their home court until Sept. 3. Media and Staples staff all felt like we were starting over again.
As I watched Los Angeles struggle in a post-break haze for several games, I wondered if they’d regroup and get back to the calm place they had when they tied a league record for best season start at 20-1. Or would this be the Sparks of the last decade or so, the portrait of efficiency one game and unrecognizable the next?
They got it together.
I am not easily impressed, but I give kudos to the Los Angeles Sparks players. Parker’s composure and self-reflection and Ogwumike’s new found confidence indicate significant growth. The team also grew alongside one another and learned to communicate authentically. And they figured out, at last, how to work together as a team.
When I became a personal trainer, I gave up fiction because nothing I could think of or make up could compare to what I was living. This became further sanctified when I became an educator, and began dealing with all the madness that comes with that profession.
Art tries to imitate life.
In 2004, a Minnesota Gophers team lead by Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville ended Alana Beard’s college career at Duke with an upset in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament. In 2016, Alana Beard’s defense helped deny Whalen and McCarville’s team a Championship on their own home court, in front of 19,423 fans.
After Summitt died, Parker vowed to play for her. Amidst the pandemonium after their Finals win, Parker told a national TV audience that the win was for Summitt.
Kind of crazy.
I also thought of all the players who came through and played for Los Angeles during their title drought, helping push them toward this moment: Ticha Penecheiro, Betty Lennox, Noelle Quinn, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, Jenna O’Hea, Ebony Hoffman……just to name a few. The Sparks owe them a debt.
As the 2016 WNBA season fades to black, I can honestly say I have a deeper appreciation for the league than before. The journey of the year, and the intensity of the Finals series, reminded me just how awesome all the women are who suit up for the best professional league in the world.