Both of the Los Angeles Sparks’ new signees are uniquely prepared and hungry to play this WNBA season, scheduled to tip off later in the month.
Forward Reshanda Gray – a native of the city who grew up going to Sparks games – was a surprise last-minute roster cut by the New York Liberty in late May. She is not only thrilled to be playing for her hometown team, but she experienced the coronavirus pandemic overseas this past winter, before it arrived in the United States.
“One of my favorite childhood memories, outside of screaming like crazy for a T-shirt, I would have to say waiting after the games to meet the players,” Gray said. “I remember waiting outside (Staples Center) and seeing some of the WNBA players.”
“And then to become a part of the game, and then to go elsewhere and learn the game and come back home, where it all began. So I think that’s wonderful and that’s amazing, and it’s just crazy how life works.”
After etching her name into the Cal Bears record books, Gray was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in 2015, and played for that franchise and the Atlanta Dream for two seasons. She was the last cut in both 2017 and 2018, and ended up not playing. But Gray continued to play overseas in Italy, South Korea and Hungary, and worked to improve her game.
Last year Gray made the Liberty roster and was a key spark off the bench, averaging 5.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, while starting 10 times. After the season was over she headed to South Korea, and was sitting in first place in the league with her team when COVID-19 hit that country. Suddenly, they were playing in empty arenas, as fans weren’t allowed.
“So when we came to three games left in the regular season, they decided to suspend the season for two weeks,” Gray said. “We waited two whole weeks and then on our last day…that’s when we find out they cancelled the league. This is before it even hit the United States.”
Gray had to wait a bit more, and then got on a plane to come home once cleared to do so. She arrived home in the U.S. just as the pandemic began to take hold.
“It was scary because I felt like I don’t know, I’m leaving one quarantine and going into another,” Gray said. “So I wasn’t really sure how to deal with things but I just leaned on my faith in the end.”
South Korea was well-prepared to fight the virus, Gray said, which has given her confidence in taking personal safety measures as players prepare to go to Florida and play and live in a quarantine atmosphere.
“You take precautions. You take care of yourself, you social distance, you wear a mask, you wash your hands and you stay out of people’s faces,” she said.
Vaunted guard Te’a Cooper’s unique college career culminated this past season as she was helping guide Baylor toward possibly defending their National Championship title of 2019. The Bears had lost only two games on the year and were a favorite to repeat. But on March 12, the NCAA shut the Tournament – and the season – down for good. It was a hard pill for Cooper to swallow.
“Oh man, we had just lost too, we ended (the regular season) on a loss, and that was the worst thing that could have happened,” she said. “We had a hard week of practice, we were on the plane, we were actually just getting on the plane everybody just got a seat, and they stopped the plane, and they said we weren’t going be able to go to the Big 12 Tournament.”
The Phoenix Mercury drafted Cooper, but cut her in finalizing the roster. Nevertheless, she continued to work out in hopes that she’d get a chance with another team.
“There was nothing I could do,” she said. “And I can only control myself, so I stayed in the gym, and I was blessed with the opportunity to play for the Sparks so I mean, I’m glad that I didn’t get down on myself and get in that hole so (I) really just stayed optimistic.”
Gray, a standout at Washington Prep High School, is excited to play for her birth city.
“When I put that Spark jersey on, I think I might cry,” she said. “It’s a dream come true that I get to rep the purple and gold, and that I get to play for my home team.”
“I don’t know how many people, maybe outside of Lisa Leslie, that I know who are from LA, went to school in California, and they finally come back home and play professionally. I think that’s amazing. So I’m definitely looking forward to it, and not only that, I get to play with some great vets.”
Cooper played at Tennessee and South Carolina before transferring to Baylor, and she said she learned a lot from all three head coaches for whom she played.
“Holly Warlick, Dawn Staley, Kim Mulkey and now (Sparks coach) Derek Fisher, and it’s just crazy how they’re all point guards,” she said. “And I’ve learned so much from all of them.”
“Being at Tennessee I played a big role, being a freshman, and just having to step up and adapt that quickly and be a leader. Then playing for Dawn Staley was amazing. She taught me a lot on and off the court, just about character and having relationships and just really being a good person. And I think, Kim Mulkey taught me, you know consistency with effort and energy when you step on the floor whether you want to be there or not, no matter what you’re going through. And just everyday, just be consistent.”
Cooper said she looks forward to working with Fisher.
“Now that I’m about to be playing for Derek Fisher, I think I’m just going to have a relationship with him,” she said. “The fact that he played in the NBA, and now he’s a coach, and just knowing that he has both aspects of the game is going to be cool to be around and be able to soak all that in.”