Los Angeles – Much has happened in the ten days that have elapsed between the Los Angeles Sparks’ last meeting with the Seattle Storm. But each team enters tomorrow’s second-round single-elimination playoff game with just what they needed to prepare.
The third-seeded Sparks got significant practice time this week, while the Storm got a big win over Minnesota in playoff round one on Wednesday. Players and coaches from both squads say they are ready to compete now in what they called a new season.
“It’s a clean slate for everybody,” Los Angeles guard Sydney Wiese said. “There’s a different level of intensity, especially in a one-and-done situation. You have to pull out all the stops.”
The Sparks played a game every 2-3 days since the All-Star break, with only one four-day interval, on a schedule that included two road trips. They won their last three games and secured the No. 3 spot with their 102-68 rout of Seattle earlier this month, which gave them a first-round playoffs bye and a full week off between games. Wiese said she and her teammates used that opportunity to run through some tough practices.
“We competed against each other,” she said. “We went hard up and down and made sure we went through live game reps. It doesn’t feel like we’ve had a week off between games; we’ve been getting up and down (the floor) and we’ve been physical and competitive. We want to make sure at tipoff tomorrow that we know what that feels like.”
The sixth-seeded Storm have had two starters out all season, have seen just about every player on the roster injured, and they struggled with inconsistency in their final stretch of regular-season games. A convincing win over former powerhouses Minnesota gave them a boost.
“For us it was important to be able to get into a flow for the playoffs…which we were able to continue in the game against Minnesota,” veteran forward Alysha Clark said. “Hopefully that’ll be good for us here, because I don’t think we’ve played well the last two times we’ve been here. So we’re in a good place now, feeling good about how we’re playing.”
Seattle coach Dan Hughes said their win leveled the playing field with Los Angeles.
“I see it a little bit as an equalizer,” Hughes said. “Whenever you’re in the playoffs – especially in single-elimination – your confidence moves with you. I’d just say it equalized it a bit because the team is coming off a win.”
“We got up and were watching film the next morning, just moving it along a little bit. You get a little adrenaline going. You get a win and advance, I mean, you play for this time.”
Sparks coach Derek Fisher said that though his roster is playoffs-experienced, they are focusing only on the next game.
“In some ways we do have to disconnect from the 34-game regular season and really just view this as one game vs the Seattle Storm,” Fisher said. “We can’t carry too much emphasis on what the score was the last time we played them, who played or who didn’t play. We just have to figure out how to win tomorrow.”
For Los Angeles, that means avoiding long game stretches where the team lacks energy – an issue that has arisen throughout the season. Wiese said players discussed that this week.
“There’s no time (for energy lapses) now,” she said. “Every single possession is important; there are no time for lapses, there’s no time for a comeback. You don’t even want to be in that position. So at tipoff our view is our backs are against the wall, and (the two teams are) zero-zero.”
Fisher said the key to a win is maintaining high-energy play.
“There isn’t any amount of practice you can put in to prepare to play against the best players in the world in a game situation,” he said. “The things I try and watch for when I feel like we may not have our game conditioning at its fullest level is to try and get a couple bodies out quickly and get a couple players in and (give the benched players) their second wind.”
Clark said the Storm isn’t necessarily thinking about their opponents.
“That’s our mindset is having confidence in ourselves,” she said. “We can’t control what they do or how they prepare; we can only focus on us. Today we’re focusing in on what we can do to be better and to play better.”
Hughes, who began cancer treatment in May after Seattle opened training camp and returned to the bench in June, said his team met his expectations – throughout all of the injuries.
“I thought we were capable as I got to know the team,” he said. “When I had to have cancer surgery, I asked (owners) if I could have a week with the team before I had surgery. I wanted to feel the pulse. And we’d lost (forward Breanna Stewart) then but we hadn’t lost (point guard Sue Bird) yet, but you could see they had a culture about them that I thought this was possible.”
‘You have to look at the individuals as a team, and they have to have a toughness and a resiliency. They’re the ones who have to go through the ups and downs of those events, and that’s what they’ve been – very resilient.”
The game tips off at noon tomorrow on ESPN2. The winner goes on to play No. 2 Connecticut Tuesday.
In a sense, Kayla Alexander has accomplished her goals.
She received a scholarship to play basketball in college. She graduated from that college – Syracuse University – as the program leader in six different categories, from points to blocks to games played. She was an honorable mention All-American her senior year, helping her becomethenumber eight pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft.
Yet for all her accolades, she never accomplished a goal she set in elementary school: to become a teacher.
“In grade one and two, I had this teacher, Madame Cossette, she was amazing,” the Canadian native said. “She was patient, she was super-artistic, she actually helped bring out the art in me. It was because of her I said I was going to be a teacher one day.”
With the Aug. 29 release of her children’s book “The Magic of Basketball,” Alexander, currently playing for the Chicago Sky, is now one step closer to finally teaching young kids.
The book, which uses rhyme to chronicle Alexander’s basketball career and the lessons it taught her, has been in the works for years.
“I went to school for education, I love kids, working with kids, educating, teaching them, inspiring and motivating them,” she said. “I love art, I’ve been doing art since I was a little girl, and I love basketball. I was trying to find a way to combine all of these three things, the three passions of mine that I enjoy so much.
“And one day it hit me, ‘Kayla, write a children’s book.’”
Alexander planned to do all the illustrations in the book, leaning on past art projects she had undertaken. In 2016, she and her sister Kesia, the co-author of the book, began printing and selling Alexander’s illustrations on mugs, a project they called “Kups by Kayla.” They then created K. Alexander Creations to sell all of Alexander’s artwork.
While her passion for art helped push her to make a children’s book,creating the illustrations for the book wasn’t easy, as Alexander struggled to find the right style. At one point she even considered bringing in someone else to do the artwork, until Kesia stepped in.
“My sister and my friends were like, ‘Kayla, why are you doing that? Stop being lazy. As much as you want someone else to do the illustrations for you, that’s what you do, you love to draw. So suck it up, make a game plan, figure out what style you want to do and then get it done yourself,’” she said.
“Looking back now, just with anything you want, I find that anything that is valuable and that you enjoy, it is going to take some time and a lot of work. It was the exact same process for this book, but it was rewarding, and I am thankful that I stuck it out and sacrificed and persevered and did it myself and got it done.”
Alexander ended up doing all the artwork herself, yet felt she needed help with the words of the book. Enter Kesia, who according to Alexander, can make any sentence sound better.
“She is so gifted when it comes to words,” Alexander said. “I envy her for that, but I was like, ‘you need to help me.’ So I got her on board to help me, and I am so thankful to her, because she is so gifted in that area.”
Kesia helped Alexander shorten the book and make it rhyme – a taxing process that led to the duo deciding the plot of the story was more important than making every word rhyme.
“There are also times we had to scrap a sentence all together or come up with a new way to explain what we want to portray the message to say,” Alexander said. “We noticed sometimes we used the same words, and we were like, ‘nope, we can’t use that again.’ We need to rephrase it, or we need to put it in the trash and get a new idea. So at times it was frustrating, but it was fun at the same time too.”
In addition to encouraging readers to follow their dreams and work hard, the story is unique for its protagonist, a black girl. According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center based on 2018 publishing statistics, of the 3,134 children’s books they reviewed, only 10 percent had African or African American protagonists.
Alexander said that while representation wasn’t initially an aspect she considered, the statistics she found made her think back on her own childhood.
“Growing up…I was surrounded by diversity,” she said. “I didn’t really hit me until I moved (away) where I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t normal. Not everyone is exposed to the kind of diversity that I am exposed to on the regular. It was kind of an eye-opener.
“That was very important to me, to make sure all the characters are very diverse. I tried to represent everybody in the book, and just make it a book that everybody can enjoy.”
The Magic of Basketball is now available on Amazon in paperback and for download as an eBook on Kindle.
Arlington, Texas – The Dallas Wings finished wrapped in an injury-riddled season Sunday with a loss to the Seattle Storm – their fourth in a row.
Despite ending with a 10-24 record and missing the playoffs, players and coaches are optimistic about the future, which will feature new players and a healthier roster.
First-year coach Brian Agler, who spent the previous four seasons at the helm of the Los Angeles Sparks, won’t be in the playoffs for the first time in a while. But he laid a good foundation in Dallas this year. The veteran coach said it was refreshing to coach a youthful team, but also challenging.
“I thought we made a lot of strides, I thought we learned a lot. I would probably say the best thing about this year is the learning experience,” Agler said.
The Wings were a completely different team from when he first took the job, as they lost Liz Cambage in a trade and were without their star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith as continues to work her way back from giving birth to her first child. They were without guards Tayler Hill and Moriah Jefferson and forward Azura’ Stevens, who were all injured and missed most of the season.
When players return, and with super-rookies Arike Ogunbowale and Megan Gustafson readying for their sophomore years in 2020, the Wings are looking ahead.
Veteran forward Glory Johnson said she changed her style of play to accommodate personnel absences, and took advice in doing so from a famous fellow Tennessee alum.
“Tamika Catchings told me that once you start to extend your outside game, you extend your game and the play that you have left,” Johnson said. “It takes a toll on your body but when you develop an outside shot you can last a lot longer in any league.”
Dallas was the youngest team in the league for the 2019 season since there were many of the veterans that were sidelined this season. Diggins-Smith, who was on the sidelines at most games, said she was impressed by the team’s relentlessness.
“I was proud of the effort the girls gave,”Diggins-Smith said. “When you come into this league you don’t really have time to prepare as a rookie and get ready. Our young players have been able to make a splash and that’s a blessing in our foundation.”
The rookie that has probably had the most to learn on the fly was Ogunbowale. The former Notre Dame standout was shifted to the point guard position, which she hadn’t played in college, and she held her own. Ogumbowale finished the season as the third-highest scoring rookie in league history. But despite her personal success, she said she wishes the Wings had earned more wins.
“Next year we’re going to be really good once we get some of our best players back and draft a nice core player,” the Wisconsin native said. “Whatever happens in the off season we’re going to come back stronger, I’m excited for the future.”