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Renewed Sparks building on deep connections and mutual respect

The Sparks and first-year coach Curt Miller break after the first day of camp. LA Sparks photo.
The Sparks and first-year coach Curt Miller break after the first day of camp. LA Sparks photo.

At 6 a.m. Sunday, Los Angeles Sparks coach Curt Miller could hardly contain himself.

“First day of training camp,” he tweeted. “I am like a kid on Xmas waiting for parents to wake up. Let’s go – let’s get day 1 started. Go Sparks.”

Seven hours later, after an energetic session that showcased a lot of on-court talking and ended with sweat-drenched jerseys, longtime team captain Nneka Ogwumike echoed that enthusiasm.

“I can’t tell you how much I learned just today,” the 12-year veteran said. “We are understanding how to play basketball while still playing to our strengths. I love what Curt has done today to get us straight into what our structure will be on the court.”

Miller is part of a Los Angeles reboot this year that culminated in January with the hiring of longtime executive Karen Bryant as the organization’s chief executive officer and general manager. Training camp this year, as a result, has a completely different tone.

After almost two decades heading up the American Basketball League’s Seattle Reign, and then the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, the Sparks hired Bryant in 2021 as an advisor and interim president of business operations.

She was instrumental in landing Miller, who had spent the last seven years as coach and general manager of the Connecticut Sun, in Los Angeles last fall. The front office rebuild marks a turning point for a franchise that has struggled in recent years, both on and off the court.

The Sparks hired former LA Laker and New York Knicks head coach Derek Fisher as head coach in 2019. The move was criticized when then-general manager Penny Toler acknowledged that she had only interviewed one candidate for the job. Los Angeles ended with a 22-12 record that season, but made an early exit in the WNBA playoffs – again amidst controversy – when Fisher held two-time MVP Candace Parker out of the last game’s final minutes, for no apparent reason.

A few weeks later Toler was fired after a locker room incident in which she used racial epithets toward players came to light. Fisher was made general manager the following season, after which Parker departed for the Chicago Sky after playing for the franchise for 13 years. In trying to rebuild around their marquee player in 2021, the Sparks missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

Last season got off to a tough 5-7 start, and Fisher was let go in June. Los Angeles ended up missing the playoffs once again – ironically, after a blowout loss to Miller’s Connecticut squad.

The team assembled for this year’s training camp seems excited to be together, undoubtedly because of the familiarity and deep connections many already have with one another.

Miller was an assistant coach for the Sparks in 2015 and worked with Nneka Ogwumike before taking the Sun job, where he then coached Chiney Ogwumike until she requested a trade to Los Angeles in 2019. The sisters are happy to be reunited with him.

“Curt’s bringing so much knowledge, and he’s challenging us to understand and integrate what he’s saying. He doesn’t want to dictate everything – he wants us to make decisions,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “He’s really established himself as a coach who knows how to win the right way.”

Former MVP, ROY and WNBA champion Nneka Ogwumike heads into her 12th season. LA Sparks photo.

The feeling is mutual for Miller.

“It was such a draw to be back here with Nneka,” he said. “I started my pro career in 2015 with her. She’s our leader behind the scenes, and we lean on her a lot.”

The other set of sisters on the team are Karlie and Katie Lou Samuelson. Karlie has played on and off for Los Angeles since 2017, between injuries, while Katie Lou came to the team last season, but will sit out this year as she prepares to give birth in August. Both are from Southern California, which is another Sparks commonality theme.

Los Angeles natives Reshanda Gray and Jordin Canada both return from the 2020 and 2022 Sparks teams, respectively. They played for the same club ball team in high school. San Bernardino’s own Layshia Clarendon, who played with Gray at Cal, is also in training camp. Other former college teammates are veteran forward signee Azura Stevens and Katie Lou Samuelson, who played together at Connecticut.

Veteran guard Jasmine Thomas followed Miller from Connecticut, where camp invitee Joyner Holmes also played last season. And even the rookies are familiar with each other, as second-round pick Monika Czinano’s Iowa Hawkeyes beat No. 10 pick Zia Cooke’s South Carolina Gamecocks in the Final Four semifinals in March.

Other returnees from last year’s Los Angeles squad include veteran guard Lexie Brown and forward Rae Burrell.

Miller said the player’s knowledge of one another and their mutual respect has put them a few steps ahead in training camp.

“We had a great practice with a lot of energy and a lot of excitement,” he said after the first day. “We have a lot of energy and a lot of culture coming into camp. I love this group, and they’re going to be a lot of fun to work with.”

Nneka Ogwumike, who has spent all 11 of her years with the Sparks since being drafted No. 1, has had three head coaches with the franchise – five if two interim  coaches are counted. The franchise has also transitioned through owners, team presidents and other executives. Ogwumike said this season feels different than any other that she’s experienced.

“I’ve been here for so long….but it feels  really new because there are a lot of good people who are strong at what they do, and that’s new to me,” she said. “(Now there is) an organization that is a fellowship and a partnership….(that has) beliefs of success.”

Ogwumike, who is also the president of the WNBA’s player’s union, said the changes within the franchise will allow her to focus solely on her play, and on building chemistry and rapport with the team.

“This is the first time I’ve really experienced what I believe to be a professional organization, and that leaves space for me to not have to step into a manager role, which doesn’t leave me a lot of time to do the things that I really want to do, which is play basketball and hang out with my teammates,” she said.

“I really feel like I’ve relinquished a lot of that, because we have some truly phenomenal people that have turned this organization into what it deserves to be.”

Miller is constructing a team in the image of the one he tailored in Connecticut, where they reached the WNBA finals twice.

“We want to establish a very physical and aggressive defensive team. We want to hang our hat on defense, as we play to our strengths offensively,” he said.

Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike flank rookie Monika Czinano. LA Sparks photo.

Even with Samuelson out, and new mother Dearica Hamby a question mark, the Sparks will still have to make 3-4 cuts before the deadline in two weeks. Miller is not looking forward to it.

“It’s going to be painful,” he said. “We have a lot of really talented players in camp. We have veterans that we haven’t made any promises to. Our decisions aren’t going to be easy, nor will they be around the league.”

Miller said he and his coaching staff are looking for players who are selfless, and strong contributors to the culture of the team.

“I believe we win in the locker room. I believe you win, and can achieve, if you have an outstanding locker room,” he said. “We are looking for players who have appreciation and gratitude, and who are also hard-nosed.”

Some aren’t expecting a lot from Los Angeles this season, but Miller believes the sky is the limit for the team.

“We’re not going to put any limits on what we can do,” he said. “We know we have people out for the season…and that we’re implementing a new system. But we’re not going to put any ceilings on what we can do this year. We’re in it for the long haul.”

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