Not too many can say they’ve been with a professional sports team for 17 years, but longtime broadcaster Larry Burnett can.
He called games, did color commentary and conducted post-game interviews for the Los Angeles Sparks since their first season in 1997. He saw the Sparks raise two WNBA Championship banners, witness numerous heart-stopping game moments, and he watched dozens of players cycle through the roster over the years.
But prior to the beginning of this season’s training camp, Burnett was one of a few employees that weren’t retained by the Sparks after Magic Johnson bought the team in February. Burnett has since moved on, but he carries many memories of working with the Sparks. He recently sat down with me to reminisce.
“In the early days of the team especially, there was a lot of laughter. The team had so much fun together,” Burnett said. “The bus rides were some of the best times, as players told jokes, sang songs and played pranks on each other.”
Coach Michael Cooper, who now heads up the Atlanta Dream, and Karleen Thompson, who is his assistant there, were once coach and player for Los Angeles. Burnett said Thompson was one of the funniest people he’d ever met.
“Cooper and Thompson had a running joke, and it would carry throughout the duration of road trips,” he said. “They had us all laughing.”
Then there was Haixia Zheng – the 6-foot-8-inch, 254-pound center from China who played for the Sparks their first two seasons. At the time, she was the biggest player in the league, and intimidated opponents.
“She was huge,” Burnett recollected. “Trying to fit into airplane seats was an episode for her.”
Zheng, however, was a gentle giant, and she loved children.
“In airports she’d see a complete stranger with a baby and she’d walk over and pick it up,” Burnett said. “You should have seen the looks on some of those mom’s faces.”
Burnett recalls one of the Sparks’ Championship parade celebrations, which ended at City Hall. At one point during the festivities, then-Mayor James Hahn got up on a table and started dancing.
“I’d never seen a politician do that,” Burnett said.
For all the memories, Burnett can rank his top three:
1. Lisa Leslie’s dunk against the Miami Sol in 2002, which marked the first time a WNBA player dunked in a game. (The record stood until 2008, when Sparks rookie Candace Parker dunked).
“I was glad to be in the upper broadcast area that night, because I could see the play – and the possibility – evolving,” Burnett said. “The call might not have been as good had we been broadcasting courtside. I was pleased that I didn’t screw up the call for history sake.”
2. Nikki Teasley’s three-point shot, which was good enough to put LA over the Liberty for the 2002 Championship.
“I don’t think anyone has ever heard it, but I loved the call,” Burnett said. “Since it was the Finals, the television network took over and we weren’t allowed to do our Sparks’ broadcast, so I took a tape recorder to Staples Center and called the game.”
“I thought that if the Sparks won the title, they should have a copy of the game with their broadcaster calling it. That finish was exciting! I can still see Nikki T stepping up and knocking down that shot.”
3. Kristi Toliver’s game-winner versus Tulsa in 2012.
“That was pure passion and excitement from my perspective,” Burnett said. “The game had so many ebbs & flows, so many momentum shifts.”
“Kristi had a horrible game, but never gave up. Her persistence paid off in a huge way. Sometimes I surprise myself when I listen back to a tape and hear how excited I got. That may have been as excited as I ever got during my 16 seasons with the Sparks. That was a really fun call.”
Larry Burnett’s website is: www.larrybmedia.com, and his twitter is @larryburnett.