This week saw the sudden and attention-grabbing collapse of one of the WNBA’s founding franchises, the Los Angeles Sparks.
An ESPN story Thursday quoted players describing a semifinal playoffs post-Game 2 speech by General Manager Penny Toler, in which she used racial epithets and cursed at them. Yesterday the organization fired Toler, who had held the position for 20 years. Shocking, indeed.
Yet, anyone who has watched the league and the team over the years knows that this week’s implosion had been brewing for many seasons, as the Sparks have lacked stability, vision, structure and identity. And in order for them to rise again, the organization will first have to find its soul, and then grow outward.
In the WNBA’s early days, Los Angeles was indomitable, winning Championships in 2001 and 2002. But during the transition period that included cornerstone player Lisa Leslie’s retirement in 2009, the franchise lost their way.
While every roster sees changes from season to season, the number of athletes who have been on the Sparks’ payroll for the last 10-11 years is staggering. Those include Marie Ferdinand-Harris, Shannon Bobbitt, Coco Miller, Noelle Quinn, Ebony Hoffman, Natasha Lacy, LaToya Pringle, Marissa Coleman, Lindsey Harding, Armintie Price, Candice Wiggins, Temeka Johnson, Erin Phillips, Ana Dabovic, Essence Carson, Sandrine Gruda and Ann Wauters, to name a few.
There have also been several “greats” that have passed through, trying to find one more shot of glory before retiring, but instead coming up short: Betty Lennox, Delisha Milton-Jones, Tina Thompson and Ticha Penicheiro.
The impression left by all of these seemingly random Toler grabs is that Los Angeles was just reaching for another Championship, and didn’t care who got them there or how it was done. In true Los Angeles fashion, the more stars, the better, it seemed. And as a result, the team became soulless over time. Not to mention overcrowded.
Every successful team consists of a mixture of role players. Some are in lead positions – the “stars,” – and others are key reserves. Both are critical because, as the late great Prince one sang, “We all got a space to fill, everybody can’t be on top.” Think of the 2018 Championship Seattle Storm: While Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart were crucial, so were reserve three-point dagger shooters Sami Whitcomb and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Coaches for the Sparks, with such packed rosters over the years, have had trouble finding minutes for all of the stars because the teams have just been thrown together, without any thought of how players would mesh as a unit. First-year coach Derek Fisher was quoted a few times this season regarding “managing minutes.” But, even with such attempts, someone will be unhappy, as there simply isn’t enough playing time to go around.
Another issue with Toler’s roster constructions over the years was that her draft picks never appeared to make sense. Whether opting for an athlete that didn’t seem to fit the needs of the team, or inexplicably choosing unknown international players over solid domestic products, nothing seemed to add up. And no one drafted has stuck with the team of late except Sydney Wiese, who has held on for a remarkable four years.
The apparent chaos and discontinuity hasn’t been limited to player rosters. Los Angeles has had 15 head coaches over its 23-year history, and 12-year veteran Candace Parker has seen seven of those. It’s hard to build an identity or a brand when leadership continually changes.
The Sparks have also had countless staff come and go, from owners to front office staff to arena emcees to media relations directors. Myself and producer Nick Hamilton have covered the team since 2010 – longer than anyone else locally – and in August we talked about how many media directors we have worked with during that time. For a while there was a different person each year.
If it’s been challenging for Hamilton and I to deal with, it’s hard to imagine what it must be like for core players Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard and Chelsea Gray. Do they dare form attachments to other teammates, or do they hold off, not knowing if they’ll be there the following year?
If the franchise truly wants to be a relevant part of the Los Angeles sports landscape, they need to first find a vision and a mission for the organization. What is their purpose, and what are their goals? Next, they must commit to doing things the right way and building a cohesive team – not just a collection of high-profile individuals. Then, they need to treat staff, players, media and fans with respect.
When the Sparks take those steps, they will find an identity, which they sorely need in order to evolve as an entity. They also desperately need stability and continuity.
Whomever the franchise chooses as their new General Manager will have a pivotal role in the survival and future of the organization. Hopefully good staffing choices will be made, because fans and athletes deserve nothing less.