Thursday, June 22, 2017
Page 708

The wild, wild West

So…….

Sparks beat first-place San Antonio Saturday, and second-place Seattle lost Sunday. Sparks beat Minnesota last night, putting them solidly in third place in the Western Conference. Now, the Liberty just beat Houston in OT (fun game to watch, too), which puts them another game back and out of the playoff race for now.

In the meantime, New York and Detroit are neck and neck in the East. Only Connecticut has a playoff berth so far. The next week and a half will be a tangled fight for several teams. Yum! I love playoff time.

The Sparks looked real good last night. Spencer was lookin like the old Sid. I hope she and Bobbitt are getting their confidence back, as it appears to us fans. Sparks were puttin on a defensive show, and Leslie was havin a block party. Parker was the one who really dazzled, though. The girl is ridiculous.

Like Neo, she is The One.

Back from cloud 99

What a night last night. I was truly overstimulated by the time I walked out of Staples Center around 11 p.m. I couldn’t even look at the Internet, much less write about everything that transpired. That’s what happens when some of the things you love most in the world all converge at the same time. But today I can process it all.

The evening started at the sports bar, where I met people from both the Summitt board and the rebkell board. Many of the Tennessee folks, including Summitter Larry from Nashville, had got off the plane and come directly to Staples Center. Larry said about 80 percent of his plane was wearing orange. They began to show up shortly to the bar, and outside to claim their tickets. It was truly exciting to see the place fill up with Tennessee orange. Larry said it was beginning to look like Knoxville, and I liked that.

It was truly great meeting people I’ve known only from the message boards; it’s always great to be able to put the screen name with a real name and a face. We talked Vols, Pat Summitt and particular Tennessee games for a long time. It seems we all pretty much like and dislike the same players in the WNBA and in colleges, which isn’t surprising.

I went around to talk to some of the other orange-wearing people at the other tables, and that was fun. I got a few inquiries about my orange CP3-style Adidas – people wanted them too. So I told them where I got them.

We got our tickets and found that everyone was seated in three different sections in the arena. So we went our separate ways for a bit. I went back to my regular seat, which I love anyway, since it’s right by the tunnel where the Spark players come in from their locker room.

Larry and I watched warmups until all the Sparks had left the floor. Then I went up to the concourse. At least I tried to. I kept getting stopped and stopping myself to talk to some other Tennessee fans. Heck, even New York Liberty player Loree Moore’s mother was in the house (Loree is a Narbonne High School and Tennessee graduate).

Players from both teams came in for warm-ups, and with about eight minutes before game time, in strolls Her Greatness, Pat Summitt. I saw her the minute she walked in from the tunnel opposite me. She stood there for a bit, watching and talking to her assistant coach Holly Warlick, whom I didn’t know was coming too. I was so excited to see Pat; it literally gave me an adrenaline rush, and I went to talk to two of my new friends just because of that.

The game started out slowly, and the first quarter ended in a painful 16-11, San Antonio. Things brightened a bit in the second quarter, with the Sparks outscoring the Stars 14-7. But LA got cold in the third quarter, going five minutes without scoring. It felt like someone had let the energy out of the entire arena, as the Sparks kept taking stupid outside shots and couldn’t hit one of them to save their lives. I was getting a little sad, because I’d been so high before the game. I was thinking, how are we going to party after this?

But the fourth quarter – usually the Sparks’ worst – became their best last night. And who else was leading the charge but my girl Shannon Bobbitt. She scored on a reverse layup off a baseline drive, with 2:17 to go. Right after that, she shot a three, and cut the Stars’ lead to one. Lisa Leslie made two free throws and one shot, and Candace Parker and Bobbitt each made a free throw to give LA the victory, 58-53. It was an exciting finish, and the crowd came alive and got loud.

Pat Summitt? She sat to the left of the Sparks’ owners, Carla Christofferson and Kathy Goodman. Warlick and former assistant and new UCLA basketball Coach Nikki Caldwell were on Summitt’s other side. Summitt spent most of the game leaning forward to watch, and she kept turning to her left to say something to Warlick and Caldwell. Some of the Summitteers and I were hanging out today, and we all wish we knew what she was saying.

But Summitt was gracious when introduced last night, of course. The announcer also recognized all the Tennessee fans in the audience, having them stand for applause. It was a very pretty sight to see all that orange in Staples.

The UCLA women’s basketball team was also introduced at center court during a timeout, and an ad on the big screen encouraged the audience to become Bruin season ticket holders. So are the Sparks supporting UCLA hoops now? I don’t know if that was special for last night, or something they’ll continue to do. I’ll have to ask Goodman and Christofferson.

Parker did the post-game interview, and delighted the crowd by singing “Rocky Top.” Immediately after that was over, all of us in orange rushed upstairs for the UT Night thang. It was quick to get started, which was a pleasant surprise.

At SEC Night last month, fans stood around for 45 minutes waiting for players. Last night I went to the restroom about as quickly as a person could, and when I came out, Summitt was standing by herself in front of the podium, with a small line formed to talk to her. I jumped in the line where my friends already were standing.

When I first met Summitt last December after Tennessee played UCLA, I was freaking out and starstruck for the first time in my life. Last night there was none of that; I was cooler than the North Pole. I had her sign my “Got Summitt?” shirt, and while she was doing so I asked, “how are you?” She looked up and smiled and said, “good, how are you?” I said I had met her in December and it was nice to see her again. She was nice about that too. I love Summitt. She’s got a great big heart.

Right after I went through, they called off the line (whew). Summitt did kind of an intro to the evening, and then Goodman and Christofferson each said a few words. They are nice women, and I love that they own the team. Goodman joked that her mother claimed she drafted Sidney Spencer and Bobbitt, but that she “gave them Candace.” Goodman also said that she had told Summitt during the game, “keep making them and we’ll keep taking them.” That was awesome on so many levels.

Summitt served as the questioner as she introduced all three of her former players. The questions were from fans, and all three “interviews” are on youtube, below. Thank god for that, too, because I could never remember it all. The UT President, Caldwell, Warlick, and former Vol and Caldwell’s assistant Tasha Butts were also introduced. It was a family reunion.

All players, former and present, were presented with special embroidered bags that are now being sold at UT, apparently. They were pretty, and every recipient loved them.

All three players then went to their separate corners for autographs. I talked to two of them, as well as Caldwell and Butts, who remembered meeting me in the restroom at a Sparks game earlier this summer. They were delighted that my Sparks seatmate and I have become Bruin season ticket holders, and Butts promised to slap my hand since we’ll be behind their bench. I’m not sure if she’ll actually do that, but that facxt that she even thought of it is so cute.

Bobbitt’s parents were also there, and I said hi to them. The ever-present Shelden Williams sat at a table next to CP, talking to friends while she signed autographs. It was just all about the love.

And I mean that in a grander sense, too. Vol fans really do seem like one big family. We are all over the country (note the guy in the section next to mine wearing a Tennessee Hawaiian shirt – “we live in Hawaii now”). We travel well. And when we do get together – well, I just wish the world could be that nice all the time.

I’ll say the same of the coaches and UT staff. It’s like when you get good customer service for a change, and you’re surprised. I am always floored by the friendliness and grace of those from the University of Tennessee.

And once again, I’m grateful that in my favorite sport, I am able to enjoy them as up close and personal as I do. It is one of the best things about being a women’s basketball fan.

Video of Shannon:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu6kxIQ7rRM

www.youtube.com/watch?v=yl0uSsIMsy4

Candace:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mr933GrjPw

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMyGio6jtmA

Sidney:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qem7r8rUlZI

I think they’re back

Even though they off to a bit of a slow start last night, it was obvious from the get-go to many of us there that the Sparks are a different team than they were before the break. I asked quite a few other people what they noticed, and all said defense. Some also said offense. I noticed both.

The Sparks were playing the defense I knew they were capable of playing. Stops were being made, and blocks were being thrown down. Shannon Bobbitt got a particularly good stop late in the game that earned her a round of applause, because it seemed to represent the vigorous effort the whole team was putting forth.

The LA Times reporter said in his story today that “several on the team were noticeably thinner” since before the break. I thought that was strange. I didn’t notice anything like that, but what I did notice was the hustle on both ends of the floor. Players weren’t standing around on offense; they were screening, setting picks, rotating. There were only two times where Bobbitt and Temeka Johnson had to take matters into their own hands and drive, but that was mostly because the Monarchs were playing their own stifling defense at that moment. Bobbitt yelled at her teammates a few times, doing her PG thang. But it was a great move to start Kiesha Brown at the 2 and Bobbitt at the 1. I hate to say I told you so, but I’ve been saying they should do that 1-2 combo all season.

In the same Times story today, the reporter commented that though the Sparks still let points slip by them in the fourth quarter, as they have been, that they still kept it under control. Cooper was quoted as saying that before the break, the game last night would have gone into overtime. I agree with that one. They obviously worked on all the right things over the break, because they are tighter as a unit, and some who have lacked energy in past games had it last night. I was also expecting jetlag from our Olympians, but it was nowhere in sight.

The Sparks are solidly in third place at this moment, which is so dope!! I am encouraged. I really need this team to go to the playoffs.

Tonight, Connecticut beat Atlanta and became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. We better beat San Antonio tomorrow night so they aren’t the second team to do it.

Another thing I was pleased about last night was a couple new musical selections that were played. I have long said that the Sparks need to hire me to do their music. I have so very very many songs in my collection, and all are on my iPod. I could handle it; I am portable. And some of that cracker jack music they play has got to go.

But last night, they played a very brief snippet of Jay-Z’s song “Encore,” when the Sparks were being slow to move the ball on a possession – the line that goes, “what are you waiting for?”

Brilliant!

And then later on, when Sacramento got called for traveling, they played one line from Missing Person’s 1982 hit, “Walking in LA” : “Nobody walks in LA.”

Oh, did I love that. The fact that someone up there has a sense of humor. They need to to it again and show that it wasn’t just a fluke. (And they still need to hire me as musical consultant. I could really get that place rolly-roll-rollin’!)

I met some of the Tennessee fans last night who are coming in from there and other parts of the country for this weekend’s games. Oh my lord, what nice people. Being a part of the nationwide “Vol family” is truly special. Time and time again, I’ve asked for help on “The Summitt” message board, and several people come forward and then go above and beyond to help me, just like they do with other Vol fans. Anytime I’ve seen an orange Tennessee shirt like mine at a Sparks game, we wave and smile, at the very least; usually we talk for a bit.

Last night I met kbhersh and navahovol from the message board, along with their respective possees. It’s always nice to put a face to a name. Tomorrow, the rest of the Tennessee faithful are comin in from good ol’ Rocky Top.

They are coming for UT Alumni Night tomorrow, which is a production of the University of Tennessee and the Sparks. Some fans are coming for the football game Monday, too (UCLA vs. Tennessee), so the organizations decided to work it.

Us basketball fans are meeting up tomorrow evening at the sports bar in Staples, before the pre-game meet and greet. Then after the game is the event. When I found out Pat Summitt would be there, I thought my head would explode. Hell, it probably will. I’m meeting all these great people, all of our Sparks/Tennessee players will be at the event, and so will Coach Summitt and Coaches Nikki Caldwell and Tasha Butts. Good lord!! I will be giddy.

I will also be head to toe orange. I can’t wait.

Game on

When the WNBA resumes play tomorrow, the dogfight for playoff spots will resume in earnest after a month-long pause.
The hottest two races are in the Western Conference, between the 1 (San Antonio, 18-9) and 2 (Seattle, 17-9) spots; and number 3 Sacramento and 4-spot Los Angeles, both with a 15-12 record. No time will be wasted determining placements, as the Monarchs and Sparks face off at 7:30 p.m. PDT Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Unlike the Monarchs, the Sparks began the season with high expectations, due largely to the pairing of number-one draft pick Candace Parker and returning Center Lisa Leslie. For a while, Los Angeles was ranked first in the West, but a couple of long losing streaks caused them to tumble. If they had lost their last game before the Olympic break, they would have been fifth place in the Western Conference, and not in playoff contention.
Before the season began, Sparks radio commentator Larry Burnett remarked that this was the most talented Sparks roster he had seen in his 11 years with the team. Interviewed recently, Burnett said talent is not the problem right now.
“I don’t think this team has the chemistry of past championship teams,” he said. “I’m not sure they’ve figured out how to play with each other yet, and that surprises me. I thought they would have a great inside-to-outside game, but it’s not there yet.”
This year’s Sparks are an especially close bunch – something that Burnett has noticed as well as fans. He said that in the early days of the Sparks, team members used to interact on the bus during road trips, but then players began retreating into what he called “iPod mode.”
“Past teams used to sing, talk and play games, and that’s back this year,” he said. “I sit in the front of the bus and laugh at what goes on behind me.”
But Burnett said team closeness isn’t always a formula for success. He sited a few Major League Baseball teams where team members would fight bitterly before games, but then go out on the field to thrash opponents.
“I know (Head Coach Michael) Cooper stays up all night trying to figure it out,” Burnett said. “You can have the best game plan in the world, but if the team doesn’t execute it, it’s not going to work.”
Burnett said the thing that concerns him most about this year’s Sparks is their seeming lack of fundamentals – especially defense, getting rebounds and shooting free throws. Nevertheless, he sees Los Angeles making the playoffs this year.
“Their first three games back will be huge in showing how they’ll go into the playoffs,” Burnett said. “If they struggle, they will continue to see challenges.”
Another unpredictable was thrown into the Sparks’ mix yesterday, as 7’2″ WNBA veteran Margo Dydek was signed. Who could have predicted that?
The Seattle Storm may be in trouble in the last half of the season, as all-star Lauren Jackson announced last week that she would have surgery on her knee after the Olympics. She may miss the rest of the season. Forward Swin Cash is also iffy as she contemplates surgery for a herniated disc in her back.
In the Eastern Conference, Connecticut (16-10) is in first place and New York (15-10) and Detroit (16-11) are tied for second. Over the Olympic break, the Shock traded with the Washington Mystics to acquire veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Detroit hopes she will fill the void left by Cheryl Ford, who tore her ACL in the July 22 game against Los Angeles.
I predict a lot of predictions over the next few days as to who will end up in what place by season’s end. But with this close of a race, and so many intangibles, I dare not even try. I only say this: let the games begin. It’s been a long, long break. Too long.

Mental training taking its place in athletics

Depending upon whom you ask, the “mental” aspect of competition determines anywhere from 50-95 percent of the outcome.
All theories and athletes aside, mental preparedness and toughness is an important part of competition, and is increasingly being recognized as such. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the athletic departments of three of the nation’s top colleges, where there are staff members specifically assembled to address mental training with athletes.
One of the oldest and most prestigious programs is at West Point Military Academy. The Center for Enhanced Performance began as a small pilot program for the football team in 1989, and four years later, services were made available to all cadets.
Dr. Nate Zinsser heads a staff that includes four civilian psychologists, and has an audio/video production studio that helps aid their instruction. Zinsser said a full spectrum of services are available to athletes who want them.
“We provide training, educating, mentoring and skill development in every area that effects sports performance,” Zinsser said.
This can mean confidence-building, comprehensive goal-setting, attention control, stress/energy management, imaging and visualization, or a combination of many or all of these strategies, according to Zinsser.
“Developing all of those skills comes out of an understanding of the psychology of performance – about understanding how you think, act and feel when you’re at your best,” Zinsser said.
The Center uses its video equipment to film athletes for hand-eye coordination work, and uses biofeedback to teach self-regulation skills. The department does not counsel students in personal matters, however.
The Center and its staff are introduced to all cadets when they enter the academy, but participation, as at all colleges, is voluntary. Zinsser said he and his colleagues see about 300 athletes per year, or about 25 percent of the student athlete population.
An athlete’s participation in mental training development, to an extent, depends upon the coach of the team he or she is on. Zinsser said some coaches put more stock in sports psychology than others, and there are a few instances at West Point where almost the entire team will work with the Center.
Zinsser said the number one issue he deals with in athletes is when they are afraid to “go all out in competition for the win.”
“The athlete will play tentatively and cautiously because they are afraid they’re going to mess up,” he said.
To address that problem, Zinsser begins by having athletes complete a structured assessment so he can find out what they think the problem is, and what they want to accomplish.
Zinsser makes a crucial distinction between the psychology of training and the psychology of playing, which he likens to the difference between opening a cookbook and preparing a meal.
“When training, you’re trying to acquire an ability and expertise,” he said. “When playing, you’re trying to release what you’ve acquired.
“The process of being analytical and critical of your own performance – you’ve got to let that go, because that interferes with what you want to do.”
The University of Tennessee’s Mental Training Department arose from the arrival of Dr. Craig Wrisberg – a professor who came to head an academic program in sports psychology about 30 years ago. One Tennessee coach took Wrisberg’s classes and begun teaching the techniques to his athletes. Athletes, in turn, began catching on, and soon Wrisberg was working with the Athletic Department. He was made part of the staff in the late 1980’s.
Today, Dr. Joe Whitney heads the Mental Training Department, which also includes a couple graduate assisstants. They see 25-30 percent of UT athletes every year, on a voluntary basis.
“We help athletes learn to use their minds to work for them rather than against them,” Whitney said. “They train their minds like they would train in the weight room.”
Whitney said athletes usually fall into one of two categories: those who are struggling with some aspect of their mental game and/or emotions, or outstanding performers who want to take their game to the next level.
“Everybody has a mental game,” Whitney said. “We help them find their strengths, and teach them how to build on that.”
This may include visualizing a particular arena and anticipating distractions, as Whitney explained that “image and visualization are rehearsal.” By re-training their thought processes, Whitney said athletes build more self-confidence.
“It has to be something that the athlete takes responsibility for,” he said.
One of the best things about what Whitney and his staff teaches is that it is transferable.
“The things we talk about and teach them are things they can use in the rest of their lives,” he said. “We often hear from athletes later on, telling us that.”
DaveYukelson is the lone sports psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, but he carries a large reputation. Unlike his West Point and Tennessee colleagues, Yukelson works with the counseling center at Penn State to help student athletes transition to college in their first year.
“First we help them transition to being everything in high school to being a smaller fish in a big pond,” he said. “Once we get them past that, then we work on their performance, aspects of playing their sport, imagery, emotion and energy.”
Yukelson also asks athletes to tell him what happens when they perform, and what they’d like to work on. He said how athletes talk to themselves is a crucial part of development, and he teaches them what they can do to control negative talk.
“Some of the more common things I help athletes work on are preparation skills, focus skills, mental toughness skills, how to sustain concentration, and how to let go when you make a mistake,” he said.
As an athlete who was a nervous wreck before competitions in high school, I’m really glad to see the rise of sports psychology as a legitimate practice and part of athletics programs. I just wish it had happened sooner.

Reigning gold, everywhere

The fact that yesterday’s game turned into a blowout isn’t really a surprise, I suppose. The US has an incredibly deep team – basically two WNBA starter-quality teams on one squad. Who can compete with that? The closest anyone came was Russia, whom we beat by 15 points. Everyone else got their butts kicked by much, much more.

Seeing Team USA so happy was heart-warming, and there were pictures released afterwards of them behind-the-scenes. The 6’8″ Anne Donovan even danced! I wish we’d have seen that. They hustled them off the floor immediately after the game, as opposed to 2004, when everyone lingered.

Sue Bird said this was the most fun team she’s ever been on, because everyone was silly and having fun together. This didn’t surprise me at all. I’m so glad they were able to have that experience.

What did surprise me was the way some people on various message boards immediately started griping and complaining about various aspects of the game and the team. For example, Candace Parker is a loser for having missed the dunk at the end of the game; Lisa Leslie is Satan for dancing on the podium during the anthem and wearing her four medals; Diana Taurasi is un-American for not singing the anthem with everyone else.

I’m wondering when everyone in America was suddenly appointed as a courtroom judge, because we sure see a lot of the judging and proclaiming of others going on these days. I have a theory, though: since the media pries into people’s lives and puts out every little detail about celebrities, Americans feel like they know celebrities as if they were personal friends. And if you know someone, you can make proclamations about them. But in truth, we can only guess why Taurasi didn’t sing. Maybe she was tired, for god sakes.

Another part of it is the crabs-in-the-bucket syndrome, which is when someone is successful, some people like to try to pull them down to make themselves feel better. The third element is that there are a heck of a lot of people that just like to find something to whine and complain about. Like, all the time.

I’m not letting any of that dampen my Olympic spirit – especially after last night when the USA women’s and men’s mile relay teams won the gold in track and field. The true Redeem Teams.

Though it will be kind of nice to get my life back again, I wish we didn’t have to wait four long years for the next Olympics. Thank you for the memories, Beijing. It’s been a great ride these last two weeks.

The WNBA starts back up in four days! Hallelujah. It’s been a very long break.

Go USA!!

USA basketball takes on Australia tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. PDT, 10 a.m. EDT. Everyone pretty much expected this match-up, but even the Australians on the message boards are anticipating a USA win. I mean really – how could anyone else win with the depth that we have? Of course, taking an opponent for granted is a cardinal error. But unless our team has a complete nuclear meltdown, I see them once again on the medal stand with gold draped around their necks at about 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, as I sip my coffee.

I wish it could have been a bit different, with the team facing some challenges along the way. But as the Chinese have a lock on diving and other precision sports, so does the US dominate basketball. As fans of the sport, we are lucky to have that caliber of play available for our viewing consumption year-round.

Well, almost. It’s six days from today when the WNBA resumes play again. The last home game here in LA was July 14, which feels like for-freakin-ever ago. I will probably go a little nuts Thursday, shaking my tamborine more than usual.

If there is going to be a dunk at the Olympics, tomorrow is it. I hope CP and/or Fowles throws one down – not for show, but just because they can.

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.

____________________

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.

Sparks basketball camp

The Sparks camp was pretty well-attended this weekend. There were maybe 10 teams present for about 150 girls, ranging from 8 years old to high school age. I knew the girls from a couple of the high school teams, and one of the coaches, because they’re in the league of the school where I teach and I’ve coached against them before.

The Sparks staff and players arrived on both days for the afternoon session, after lunch. On Saturday, Coach Michael Cooper facilitated a half hour of instruction where he addressed the entire camp. He went over the three types of passes in basketball, using a different player to help him demonstrate each. He had all the girls perform a “Sparks clap,” which was hitting the floor twice and then clapping, for players as they ended their demonstration.

Campers were then divided into three groups. One stayed and played games on the three courts; the second group went to the weight room; and the third group went downstairs to the question and answer session with some of the Sparks players.

I decided to begin by watching a game that featured one of the high school teams that I knew. They had one official referee for this matchup, and the other ref was none other than Shannon Bobbitt. My team didn’t do too well, but watching Bobbitt ref cracked me up. I guess it was because she was so good at it. Here I am, having watched her play her ass off at Tennessee for two years, and suddenly she is motioning a player to the sidelines for a throw-in, holding up her arms in anticipation of a 3, and calling a foul making the “hacking” sign. Just a flawless transition for my favorite PG.

Kiesha Brown, on the court next door, was also doing a great job in the ref spot. Sidney Spencer was on the far court working with the little kids. I sneaked over there for a few to take a picture, and she was being really sweet and patient with them.

When my game ended, I started watching Brown’s game because it went into overtime. I ended up talking to a kid who plays football at a Valley high school, and was there to watch his sister play basketball. Great kid. I’m going to keep track of him during football season.

Next I went into the weight room, expecting to see players. It was just parents and coaches, though, so I went downstairs to catch the Q and A session. I literally only saw the last five minutes, just in time to hear some of them giving accounts of “bloopers” they’ve had. Forward Jessica Moore said that during a pre-game warm-up earlier this season, she had thrown the ball to Bobbitt and forgot she was short. The ball went sailing over Bobbitt’s head and hit a woman in the face sitting on the sidelines. Moore was so embarrassed she turned away and pretended she didn’t do it.

It was only five minutes before the next Q and A began, and they moved it into a smaller room, so I stood by the door. Besides Moore, Christi Thomas, Temeka Johnson, Murriel Page, Rafaella Masciardi and Marie Ferdinand-Harris were on the player panel. The girls on hand were ages 12-14, and they and two of the coaches present, plus myself, asked questions.

On the serious side, players addressed burnout, attitude on the team and strength and conditioning (that was my question, not surprisingly). But there were a lot of light-hearted and informal questions, too.

Players were asked how tall they are and what size shoe they wear. Everyone except Johnson wore size 11-13, and even Johnson’s size 8 is big for a short woman. You gotta love the ballers with their big paws and feet. The Sparks were also asked how much they make in the WNBA.

They reported that Lisa Leslie is the mom of the team, which I thought was an interesting question for the young ladies to ask of the Sparks. Johnson and Page are interested in coaching in the future, and it sounds like they want to coach high school. I’d love to see that.

One question was whether or not they are recognized in public. The players said that they aren’t noticed so much in Los Angeles, but in other cities where there is less of a “Hollywood” influence, they often get stopped by fans.

When someone asked a question about playing overseas, Page broke down the difference between the European school and athletics system and that of the US. She explained that in Europe, school and athletics don’t go hand in hand as they do here, and in Europe a person must make a choice between the two. Masciardi, who is Italian, has been playing professionally since she was 16.

One girl did ask about the Detroit game July 22 that ended in a brawl between that team and the Sparks. I thought for sure tension would engulf the room, but to her credit, Page took the question on directly. She said that as one of the players who was suspended in the incident, she was sorry the kids had to see that, but that sometimes tensions boil over, and people have to work to control those things. It was Thomas, who never left the bench during the episode, that spoke up then and said, “at least we stuck up for each other and protected each other.”

Which brings me to a point I’ve mentioned before on message boards: this is the closest WNBA team I’ve ever seen. They really are tight, and seem to support each other unilaterally. It’s the kind of thing where I walk away every time I go to a player event and think awww, wouldn’t it be great to have a second family like that?

Page acknowledged it during the session, saying this was the closet team she’d ever been on. The other players nodded. I hope this translates into a great second half of the WNBA season.

I asked how they decide how to hand slap each other during introductions, as I’ve noticed everyone has something different between them and each player. Page said that because of the title of Leslie’s book, “Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You,” that she pretends to open a compact for Leslie, who then pretends to put on lipstick, and that’s their personal ritual. Page said that it naturally evolves between each player and the others on the team.

Someone asked about tatoos, which lead to Johnson and Thomas showing off all of their body art. They all had at least one tatoo, except Masciardi. Moore declined to show hers; she didn’t want to pull up her shirt.

One of the last questions was, who is the silliest? They said Bobbitt, followed by Moore who is “accidentally silly.” Overall, a good and interesting session.

The Sparks are to be commended for resurrecting the basketball camp. As a coach, though, I would have wanted more instruction if I had brought my kids. A half hour each day wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t enough for me, either. I had gone because, as a teacher and coach, I’m always trying to learn new things. I loved the session and observing, but I wish I had learned more there.

Tall people, talking to me

The Los Angeles Sparks are having a youth basketball camp this weekend at Pasadena Community College. It’s an extended version of the one-day affair they used to have before the new owners came. The kids come in the morning and practice their drills (this time they arrived in teams rather than as individuals). After lunch, the Sparks show up to run things. And today, Coach Michael Cooper came with them.

Two years ago I took my basketball girls, and I watched most of the camp. Today I went back as an observer, because I’m always trying to learn things to be a better teacher and coach.

I didn’t learn much because there wasn’t much instruction before teams were pit against each other in games. I did get a lot of other interesting information, which I’ll go over later. However, one unexpected thing happened that deserves a discussion of its own: Cooper came up and started talking to me.

I had walked into the gym before all the kids were back from lunch, and Cooper was on the other side, seated and talking to someone. He looked over and saw me. In the meantime, I put on lotion and got some on my shorts, so I went downstairs to the locker room to clean it off. Then I decided to just sit there on one of the benches in the entry hallway and read my paper until things started back up again. I was at the end of the hallway, kind of tucked against the wall and not too obvious. Next thing I know, Cooper’s tall, thin self is walking up to me asking me where I sit at Staples. When I told him, he said he was looking for someone that sits in another section, but then he said: “so tell me what you think about our team. And be honest.”

Talk about being put on the spot. But I’m a direct person, so I told him that I think the team is loaded with talent that isn’t showing right now. That I think they lack fundamentals at times, and though they are the closest WNBA team I’ve ever seen, this doesn’t seem to translate into chemistry on the court lately. I told him about how everyone on the message boards has theories on what is wrong, from the guards to the coaches to the posts, but that I didn’t feel qualified to address that question because I wasn’t on the team. Yet I think they have amazing potential.

I said this all in an animated and polite way, and Cooper understood. He gave a couple examples of other teams and said that sometimes it takes a team a while to figure out how to work together and how to gel, and that this was the problem the Sparks are having. That sometimes with teams, it’ll take a couple years for this process to happen, but that he sees this starting to happen now. He said he’s been watching Lisa Leslie play in China, and that he sees her finally starting to play like the old Lisa. Cooper said he thinks it’s helping Candace Parker to be surrounded by other great players and be able to appreciate them. He has also been seeing great things happen in practice the last week and a half with the non-Olympian Sparks. He’s confident that they’ll still be able to make a good playoff run and even take the championship when the season resumes Aug. 28.

On that last point, I gotta give it to him. It takes a lot of courage to believe, and believe in yourself – especially when the odds aren’t in your favor (Sparks finished fourth in the west, barely, before the Olympic break). I told Cooper that. He had also said that when the season started, everyone was afraid of the Sparks. Now they aren’t, but no one wants them to be in the playoffs. The way he told me this, though, made me think that this fuels his fire more than anything else. Cooper also said his plan was to shut up the naysayers and haters that are saying the Sparks aren’t going to do anything this year. Sounds good to me, as July was pretty painful to be a Sparks attendee.

Cooper probably asked my opinion because I’m at every game and have been to every single player event this season. Because when I mentioned that in passing, he said, “I know – I see you.”

The funniest part of this entire encounter came at the end. Cooper stood up to leave, and I told him that he’d been outstanding at the Trader Joe’s event back in July. (Go to youtube.com and punch in ‘LA Sparks at Trader Joe’s’ and watch the 10 videos that are on there. I am, unfortunately, partially in 4 of them).

Cooper said, “what?” And I told him that he was fantastic, the way he approached people and hustled them to the salad bar for samples. “You were amazing!” I said. He busted out a smile and asked me my name, shaking my hand, and then gave me a hug. I told him to hang in there and don’t listen to people. That got me a thumbs up as he walked away.

I sure do hope Cooper is right and they come back blazin’, because I’m worried about jet lag catching up to our Olympians as they play two days after they get back.

– Sue F

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