World-class athletes support WNBA at Sparks game

Former boxer Laila Ali, Olympic track and field gold medalists Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carmelita Jeter, and WNBA president Laurel Richie talked to the media prior to Sunday’s Stars-Sparks game at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Photo by Sue Favor.

This past Sunday, the Los Angeles Sparks hosted a full day of events honoring women on their game day against the San Antonio Stars. “We Are Women” day was highlighted by pre- and in-game performances by R&B artist Faith Evans, and a panel featuring celebrity athletes prior to tipoff.

Track and field gold medalists Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carmelita Jeter, former boxer Laila Ali and WNBA president Laurel Richie answered questions about the league, their own careers, and women in athletics. I asked the Joyner-Kersee, Jeter and Richie questions, as well as the third Ali question. Another reporter asked the first two Ali questions.

What does it mean to you to be here today supporting the Sparks on “We Are Women” day?

Laila Ali: The Sparks are a great team, and we definitely want to support them and all the great women in our community who are working hard in the community. Women are the backbone of the community, the backbone of the family. It’s really important for young girls – we want to have a strong world – to have strong role models.

What should women focus on at this point?

Laila Ali: Women need to focus on getting an education. They need to focus on their health, mentally and spiritually. We have so many problems we’re facing in our country and our world. But if you have a strong foundation, you can face anything and overcome anything.

What’s the difference between women in athletics in the past, and now?

Laila Ali: People are more accepting in general of women doing things. Women are in every Olympic sport. And kids are growing up seeing this. Girls have a greater sense of themselves. Once we get rid of those limits in our own minds, we’ll go even farther.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee: Back in my day, women before me who paved the way – Wilma Rudolph, Babe Didriksen – there’s still a change going on. One day I would like to see women in track and field make as much as men. If we put women in decision-making positions, that would make a difference.

Much is being said about women in sport this year, but the 2012 Olympic was a watershed for women. What were those Olympics like for you?

Carmelita Jeter: 2012 was amazing, and it really goes into what we’re doing today in empowering women. We had a great group in 2012, and our 4 X 100 team – we’re closer today than we were then. We push each other, and I love those women. You wouldn’t expect women who compete against each other to care about each other the way they do.
I was just injured in June at the World Championships, and Tianna Madison, who ran the first leg, and Allyson Felix, who ran my second leg, both reached out to me. Now mind you, these are my competitors. And they said we love you, we hope you get better and get back and be ready for 2016. That really touched me. I’m used to women knocking each other down to get on top. It felt good they reached out to me to tell me they love me.

Laurel, there’ s a lot of that type of cameraderie in the WNBA. Can you comment on that?

Laurel Richie: I do see a lot of camaraderie. Many of these players played together during their college years, and many go back to AAU teams they were on together. Many have been playing together for a very long time. They’re very good about saying, when I’m on the court I’m a competitor, and when the game is over we can be friends. I think that’s beautiful.

What’s the achievement you’re most proud of in your athletic career?

Jackie Joyner-Kersee: Each one has a story, has a connection. Each one has a commitment to hard work. I’m appreciative of the coaches that helped me reach my goal.