The official announcement came just after 5 p.m. today: the Los Angeles Sparks relieved coach Carol Ross of duties. General Manager Penny Toler will be the coach for the rest of the season.
ESPN cites a source that says assistant Gary Kloppenberg will remain, while Gail Goestenkors chose to leave. Taking her place will be former Sparks assistant coach Steve Smith.
Am I surprised? Not in the least. I could see this day coming for a while now.
To begin with, the Sparks have fallen short of expectations for the last two seasons. In 2012 – Ross’ first year – she received the Coach of the Year award. Days later, the Sparks lost by one point to Minnesota in the Western Conference finals. Last season the Sparks lost in the first round to Phoenix by one point.
This year Toler assembled an all-star cast, and the future looked bright after the team’s first two preseason games. They had energy, worked together, executed plays and dominated on defense. Then suddenly, they began losing. And losing, and losing. Right now they are 10-12 for fourth in the West, after spending most of the first half of the season at fifth or sixth place.
The Sparks look listless and discombobulated on the court. They don’t play together, and they don’t play defense. It’s especially baffling considering the talent level of team members.
I knew the end was near last month, when Candace Parker was taken out of a game against the Lynx, and a verbal altercation between her and Goestenkors ensued. I posted pictures, along with a call for change.
Things had looked better recently, with the Sparks winning three out of four games on the road. But last Thursday’s four-point loss to the Mystics proved to be the death knell for Ross.
To be clear, Ross is a great coach. I don’t, however, think her style was the right fit for the Sparks. And fit is everything in the pros.
Toler as coach is an interesting situation. She retired in 1999 and began working in the Sparks front office the following year. She hasn’t coached. Her appointment now will give her a chance to coach one of the many dynamic teams she has assembled over the years. She’s got to earn their respect, get them back on track and motivate them.
It sounds like a lot of pressure.
Another thing the Sparks must do if they want to survive is get their fans back. There are no more fan giveaways and there are precious few autograph sessions, and thus less connection with fans and season ticket holders. I’ve noticed the disconnect – and the empty seats at Staples Center. Attendance is really down, and it’s not just due to the team’s performance. If fans felt like the Sparks cared that they are there, more would show up.
The Sparks are having a press conference tomorrow, which I will be reporting on. They have back-to-back home games this Wednesday and Thursday, against the Liberty and the Mercury.
It’s safe to say that for now, all eyes will be on the Los Angeles Sparks.