When the WNBA resumes play tomorrow, the dogfight for playoff spots will resume in earnest after a month-long pause.
The hottest two races are in the Western Conference, between the 1 (San Antonio, 18-9) and 2 (Seattle, 17-9) spots; and number 3 Sacramento and 4-spot Los Angeles, both with a 15-12 record. No time will be wasted determining placements, as the Monarchs and Sparks face off at 7:30 p.m. PDT Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Unlike the Monarchs, the Sparks began the season with high expectations, due largely to the pairing of number-one draft pick Candace Parker and returning Center Lisa Leslie. For a while, Los Angeles was ranked first in the West, but a couple of long losing streaks caused them to tumble. If they had lost their last game before the Olympic break, they would have been fifth place in the Western Conference, and not in playoff contention.
Before the season began, Sparks radio commentator Larry Burnett remarked that this was the most talented Sparks roster he had seen in his 11 years with the team. Interviewed recently, Burnett said talent is not the problem right now.
“I don’t think this team has the chemistry of past championship teams,” he said. “I’m not sure they’ve figured out how to play with each other yet, and that surprises me. I thought they would have a great inside-to-outside game, but it’s not there yet.”
This year’s Sparks are an especially close bunch – something that Burnett has noticed as well as fans. He said that in the early days of the Sparks, team members used to interact on the bus during road trips, but then players began retreating into what he called “iPod mode.”
“Past teams used to sing, talk and play games, and that’s back this year,” he said. “I sit in the front of the bus and laugh at what goes on behind me.”
But Burnett said team closeness isn’t always a formula for success. He sited a few Major League Baseball teams where team members would fight bitterly before games, but then go out on the field to thrash opponents.
“I know (Head Coach Michael) Cooper stays up all night trying to figure it out,” Burnett said. “You can have the best game plan in the world, but if the team doesn’t execute it, it’s not going to work.”
Burnett said the thing that concerns him most about this year’s Sparks is their seeming lack of fundamentals – especially defense, getting rebounds and shooting free throws. Nevertheless, he sees Los Angeles making the playoffs this year.
“Their first three games back will be huge in showing how they’ll go into the playoffs,” Burnett said. “If they struggle, they will continue to see challenges.”
Another unpredictable was thrown into the Sparks’ mix yesterday, as 7’2″ WNBA veteran Margo Dydek was signed. Who could have predicted that?
The Seattle Storm may be in trouble in the last half of the season, as all-star Lauren Jackson announced last week that she would have surgery on her knee after the Olympics. She may miss the rest of the season. Forward Swin Cash is also iffy as she contemplates surgery for a herniated disc in her back.
In the Eastern Conference, Connecticut (16-10) is in first place and New York (15-10) and Detroit (16-11) are tied for second. Over the Olympic break, the Shock traded with the Washington Mystics to acquire veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Detroit hopes she will fill the void left by Cheryl Ford, who tore her ACL in the July 22 game against Los Angeles.
I predict a lot of predictions over the next few days as to who will end up in what place by season’s end. But with this close of a race, and so many intangibles, I dare not even try. I only say this: let the games begin. It’s been a long, long break. Too long.
When the WNBA resumes play tomorrow, the dogfight for playoff spots will resume in earnest after a month-long pause.
Depending upon whom you ask, the “mental” aspect of competition determines anywhere from 50-95 percent of the outcome.
All theories and athletes aside, mental preparedness and toughness is an important part of competition, and is increasingly being recognized as such. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the athletic departments of three of the nation’s top colleges, where there are staff members specifically assembled to address mental training with athletes.
One of the oldest and most prestigious programs is at West Point Military Academy. The Center for Enhanced Performance began as a small pilot program for the football team in 1989, and four years later, services were made available to all cadets.
Dr. Nate Zinsser heads a staff that includes four civilian psychologists, and has an audio/video production studio that helps aid their instruction. Zinsser said a full spectrum of services are available to athletes who want them.
“We provide training, educating, mentoring and skill development in every area that effects sports performance,” Zinsser said.
This can mean confidence-building, comprehensive goal-setting, attention control, stress/energy management, imaging and visualization, or a combination of many or all of these strategies, according to Zinsser.
“Developing all of those skills comes out of an understanding of the psychology of performance – about understanding how you think, act and feel when you’re at your best,” Zinsser said.
The Center uses its video equipment to film athletes for hand-eye coordination work, and uses biofeedback to teach self-regulation skills. The department does not counsel students in personal matters, however.
The Center and its staff are introduced to all cadets when they enter the academy, but participation, as at all colleges, is voluntary. Zinsser said he and his colleagues see about 300 athletes per year, or about 25 percent of the student athlete population.
An athlete’s participation in mental training development, to an extent, depends upon the coach of the team he or she is on. Zinsser said some coaches put more stock in sports psychology than others, and there are a few instances at West Point where almost the entire team will work with the Center.
Zinsser said the number one issue he deals with in athletes is when they are afraid to “go all out in competition for the win.”
“The athlete will play tentatively and cautiously because they are afraid they’re going to mess up,” he said.
To address that problem, Zinsser begins by having athletes complete a structured assessment so he can find out what they think the problem is, and what they want to accomplish.
Zinsser makes a crucial distinction between the psychology of training and the psychology of playing, which he likens to the difference between opening a cookbook and preparing a meal.
“When training, you’re trying to acquire an ability and expertise,” he said. “When playing, you’re trying to release what you’ve acquired.
“The process of being analytical and critical of your own performance – you’ve got to let that go, because that interferes with what you want to do.”
The University of Tennessee’s Mental Training Department arose from the arrival of Dr. Craig Wrisberg – a professor who came to head an academic program in sports psychology about 30 years ago. One Tennessee coach took Wrisberg’s classes and begun teaching the techniques to his athletes. Athletes, in turn, began catching on, and soon Wrisberg was working with the Athletic Department. He was made part of the staff in the late 1980’s.
Today, Dr. Joe Whitney heads the Mental Training Department, which also includes a couple graduate assisstants. They see 25-30 percent of UT athletes every year, on a voluntary basis.
“We help athletes learn to use their minds to work for them rather than against them,” Whitney said. “They train their minds like they would train in the weight room.”
Whitney said athletes usually fall into one of two categories: those who are struggling with some aspect of their mental game and/or emotions, or outstanding performers who want to take their game to the next level.
“Everybody has a mental game,” Whitney said. “We help them find their strengths, and teach them how to build on that.”
This may include visualizing a particular arena and anticipating distractions, as Whitney explained that “image and visualization are rehearsal.” By re-training their thought processes, Whitney said athletes build more self-confidence.
“It has to be something that the athlete takes responsibility for,” he said.
One of the best things about what Whitney and his staff teaches is that it is transferable.
“The things we talk about and teach them are things they can use in the rest of their lives,” he said. “We often hear from athletes later on, telling us that.”
DaveYukelson is the lone sports psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, but he carries a large reputation. Unlike his West Point and Tennessee colleagues, Yukelson works with the counseling center at Penn State to help student athletes transition to college in their first year.
“First we help them transition to being everything in high school to being a smaller fish in a big pond,” he said. “Once we get them past that, then we work on their performance, aspects of playing their sport, imagery, emotion and energy.”
Yukelson also asks athletes to tell him what happens when they perform, and what they’d like to work on. He said how athletes talk to themselves is a crucial part of development, and he teaches them what they can do to control negative talk.
“Some of the more common things I help athletes work on are preparation skills, focus skills, mental toughness skills, how to sustain concentration, and how to let go when you make a mistake,” he said.
As an athlete who was a nervous wreck before competitions in high school, I’m really glad to see the rise of sports psychology as a legitimate practice and part of athletics programs. I just wish it had happened sooner.
The fact that yesterday’s game turned into a blowout isn’t really a surprise, I suppose. The US has an incredibly deep team – basically two WNBA starter-quality teams on one squad. Who can compete with that? The closest anyone came was Russia, whom we beat by 15 points. Everyone else got their butts kicked by much, much more.
Seeing Team USA so happy was heart-warming, and there were pictures released afterwards of them behind-the-scenes. The 6’8″ Anne Donovan even danced! I wish we’d have seen that. They hustled them off the floor immediately after the game, as opposed to 2004, when everyone lingered.
Sue Bird said this was the most fun team she’s ever been on, because everyone was silly and having fun together. This didn’t surprise me at all. I’m so glad they were able to have that experience.
What did surprise me was the way some people on various message boards immediately started griping and complaining about various aspects of the game and the team. For example, Candace Parker is a loser for having missed the dunk at the end of the game; Lisa Leslie is Satan for dancing on the podium during the anthem and wearing her four medals; Diana Taurasi is un-American for not singing the anthem with everyone else.
I’m wondering when everyone in America was suddenly appointed as a courtroom judge, because we sure see a lot of the judging and proclaiming of others going on these days. I have a theory, though: since the media pries into people’s lives and puts out every little detail about celebrities, Americans feel like they know celebrities as if they were personal friends. And if you know someone, you can make proclamations about them. But in truth, we can only guess why Taurasi didn’t sing. Maybe she was tired, for god sakes.
Another part of it is the crabs-in-the-bucket syndrome, which is when someone is successful, some people like to try to pull them down to make themselves feel better. The third element is that there are a heck of a lot of people that just like to find something to whine and complain about. Like, all the time.
I’m not letting any of that dampen my Olympic spirit – especially after last night when the USA women’s and men’s mile relay teams won the gold in track and field. The true Redeem Teams.
Though it will be kind of nice to get my life back again, I wish we didn’t have to wait four long years for the next Olympics. Thank you for the memories, Beijing. It’s been a great ride these last two weeks.
The WNBA starts back up in four days! Hallelujah. It’s been a very long break.
USA basketball takes on Australia tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. PDT, 10 a.m. EDT. Everyone pretty much expected this match-up, but even the Australians on the message boards are anticipating a USA win. I mean really – how could anyone else win with the depth that we have? Of course, taking an opponent for granted is a cardinal error. But unless our team has a complete nuclear meltdown, I see them once again on the medal stand with gold draped around their necks at about 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, as I sip my coffee.
I wish it could have been a bit different, with the team facing some challenges along the way. But as the Chinese have a lock on diving and other precision sports, so does the US dominate basketball. As fans of the sport, we are lucky to have that caliber of play available for our viewing consumption year-round.
Well, almost. It’s six days from today when the WNBA resumes play again. The last home game here in LA was July 14, which feels like for-freakin-ever ago. I will probably go a little nuts Thursday, shaking my tamborine more than usual.
If there is going to be a dunk at the Olympics, tomorrow is it. I hope CP and/or Fowles throws one down – not for show, but just because they can.
Behind every great team, there are key people who provide instruction, support and other necessary props to make it all possible. For the Los Angeles Sparks, two of those people are Head Coach Michael Cooper, and commentator Larry Burnett, who has been “the voice of the Sparks” for 11 of its 12 seasons.
Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Burnett about the Sparks and his own career, and over the weekend I attended a presentation by Cooper at the Sparks camp. Though both men have different perspectives, each made it clear that they appreciate the women they work with.
Burnett said his first career aspiration as a high school student was to be a professional baseball player. But he eventually came to terms with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen.
“I realized that I would have to have talent,” he said.
No matter; since Burnett had already been doing simulated sports broadcasts in his childhood backyard as a kid, he was ready to take that on.
Upon graduating from college in Oklahoma in 1976, he got a job at a small radio station in Texas. Over the years, Burnett has been a sports anchor – most notably for ESPN Sports Center – where he anchored two Olympics, “The NBA Today” show, and “College Football Scoreboard.” He has done TV and radio play-by-play for the Los Angeles Lakers and NCAA basketball, besides the Sparks. His career highlights were receiving two Emmys for best sports report, and the “Outstanding Achievement Award” from the Associated Press (see the link to Burnett’s website on this page).
During their first season in 1997, the Sparks’ games weren’t broadcast on the radio. By year two, however, they were ready to go, and that’s where Burnett came in. He has been with the Sparks ever since – an uncommon longevity in what can be a fickle business. For the longtime broadcaster, it’s a natural fit.
“Doing play-by-play and calling something as it actually happens is the best part of the business,” Burnett said.
The bulk of Burnett’s work comes before broadcasts, as he researches statistics about players and opponent teams. From there, he said the key is to stay relaxed and focused during games.
“You have to call it as it goes, and take it as it comes,” he said. “You have to take control of yourself and be prepared for what may happen.”
Burnett cited the game in 2001 where Center Lisa Leslie dunked – the first time a player had done so in a WNBA game.
“When Lisa had her first dunk, you can’t prepare for that,” he said. “You better hope you can make that call, because there is history there.”
This year, Burnett made another addition to his impressive resume: the title of author. He co-wrote Leslie’s autobiography with her, entitled “Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You.” It is obvious when hearing Burnett talk about Leslie that he has admiration for the only woman to have played her entire professional career with the Sparks.
“She has done so many things, and the obstacles she’s overcome have been phenomenal,” he said, referring to her upbringing in Compton, CA by a single parent.
Originally, Burnett had proposed the book to Leslie six years ago, after the Sparks’ second championship. The project was delayed, but Burnett said that ultimately it was better that way because now the book includes Leslie’s engagement and the birth of her daughter.
“We’re more pleased with the product now,” he said.
Burnett said he truly enjoys working with all of the Sparks, which includes traveling with them to away games.
“The ladies are terrific to be around,” he said. “They are approachable, congenial – just great personalities.”
As part of the Sparks’ basketball camp this weekend, Cooper held question-and-answer sessions all day Sunday for players, coaches and parents. He laid out the foundation for his philosophy: determination, dedicated, desire, discipline and decision-making – all of which he said players should strive to make priorities. The most interesting part of the discussion for me, though, was how highly he spoke of girl’s and women’s basketball, as well as his players.
At prompts from parents, Cooper said that female basketball players are more aggressive than their male counterparts. This surprised a couple parents, but the group Cooper was talking to was middle school-aged. These parents haven’t seen high school ball yet. On a good high school team, girls will chase after every loose ball, dive, push, fight for rebounds using elbows, and hand check their opponents to death. This ain’t your grandma’s basketball. And it continues into college and the pros.
“On men’s teams, maybe three of them will be aggressive,” Cooper told the room. “Think about the Lakers. The strategy is to get the ball into Kobe’s hands, and then everyone stands around watching Kobe.
“With women you have a lot more teamwork and fundamentals. They make better passes than the men, have better offensive sets than the men, and they play defense.”
Cooper said people are beginning to recognize that about the women’s game, including some former NBA greats. He is right; Bill Russell used to come to Storm games all the time, and he commented once that “this is the way we used to play the game.”
The funniest part of the session was when Cooper said that men take longer to learn basketball concepts than women.
“You work with women and you go over it a few times, they run it and then it’s like ‘let’s move on.’ With men, it’ll be a week and they’re still standing there like, ‘what?'” Cooper said.
I had to smile. And oh yeah – Cooper remembered my name from the day before.
Most Tennessee fans already know that the WNBA set up a conference call interview Monday with Nikki Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt and Alexis Hornbuckle. The articles written about the call were great, but listening to the audio is a treat. It is available at utladyvols.com, and I recommend everyone check it out.
The Sparks camp was pretty well-attended this weekend. There were maybe 10 teams present for about 150 girls, ranging from 8 years old to high school age. I knew the girls from a couple of the high school teams, and one of the coaches, because they’re in the league of the school where I teach and I’ve coached against them before.
The Sparks staff and players arrived on both days for the afternoon session, after lunch. On Saturday, Coach Michael Cooper facilitated a half hour of instruction where he addressed the entire camp. He went over the three types of passes in basketball, using a different player to help him demonstrate each. He had all the girls perform a “Sparks clap,” which was hitting the floor twice and then clapping, for players as they ended their demonstration.
Campers were then divided into three groups. One stayed and played games on the three courts; the second group went to the weight room; and the third group went downstairs to the question and answer session with some of the Sparks players.
I decided to begin by watching a game that featured one of the high school teams that I knew. They had one official referee for this matchup, and the other ref was none other than Shannon Bobbitt. My team didn’t do too well, but watching Bobbitt ref cracked me up. I guess it was because she was so good at it. Here I am, having watched her play her ass off at Tennessee for two years, and suddenly she is motioning a player to the sidelines for a throw-in, holding up her arms in anticipation of a 3, and calling a foul making the “hacking” sign. Just a flawless transition for my favorite PG.
Kiesha Brown, on the court next door, was also doing a great job in the ref spot. Sidney Spencer was on the far court working with the little kids. I sneaked over there for a few to take a picture, and she was being really sweet and patient with them.
When my game ended, I started watching Brown’s game because it went into overtime. I ended up talking to a kid who plays football at a Valley high school, and was there to watch his sister play basketball. Great kid. I’m going to keep track of him during football season.
Next I went into the weight room, expecting to see players. It was just parents and coaches, though, so I went downstairs to catch the Q and A session. I literally only saw the last five minutes, just in time to hear some of them giving accounts of “bloopers” they’ve had. Forward Jessica Moore said that during a pre-game warm-up earlier this season, she had thrown the ball to Bobbitt and forgot she was short. The ball went sailing over Bobbitt’s head and hit a woman in the face sitting on the sidelines. Moore was so embarrassed she turned away and pretended she didn’t do it.
It was only five minutes before the next Q and A began, and they moved it into a smaller room, so I stood by the door. Besides Moore, Christi Thomas, Temeka Johnson, Murriel Page, Rafaella Masciardi and Marie Ferdinand-Harris were on the player panel. The girls on hand were ages 12-14, and they and two of the coaches present, plus myself, asked questions.
On the serious side, players addressed burnout, attitude on the team and strength and conditioning (that was my question, not surprisingly). But there were a lot of light-hearted and informal questions, too.
Players were asked how tall they are and what size shoe they wear. Everyone except Johnson wore size 11-13, and even Johnson’s size 8 is big for a short woman. You gotta love the ballers with their big paws and feet. The Sparks were also asked how much they make in the WNBA.
They reported that Lisa Leslie is the mom of the team, which I thought was an interesting question for the young ladies to ask of the Sparks. Johnson and Page are interested in coaching in the future, and it sounds like they want to coach high school. I’d love to see that.
One question was whether or not they are recognized in public. The players said that they aren’t noticed so much in Los Angeles, but in other cities where there is less of a “Hollywood” influence, they often get stopped by fans.
When someone asked a question about playing overseas, Page broke down the difference between the European school and athletics system and that of the US. She explained that in Europe, school and athletics don’t go hand in hand as they do here, and in Europe a person must make a choice between the two. Masciardi, who is Italian, has been playing professionally since she was 16.
One girl did ask about the Detroit game July 22 that ended in a brawl between that team and the Sparks. I thought for sure tension would engulf the room, but to her credit, Page took the question on directly. She said that as one of the players who was suspended in the incident, she was sorry the kids had to see that, but that sometimes tensions boil over, and people have to work to control those things. It was Thomas, who never left the bench during the episode, that spoke up then and said, “at least we stuck up for each other and protected each other.”
Which brings me to a point I’ve mentioned before on message boards: this is the closest WNBA team I’ve ever seen. They really are tight, and seem to support each other unilaterally. It’s the kind of thing where I walk away every time I go to a player event and think awww, wouldn’t it be great to have a second family like that?
Page acknowledged it during the session, saying this was the closet team she’d ever been on. The other players nodded. I hope this translates into a great second half of the WNBA season.
I asked how they decide how to hand slap each other during introductions, as I’ve noticed everyone has something different between them and each player. Page said that because of the title of Leslie’s book, “Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You,” that she pretends to open a compact for Leslie, who then pretends to put on lipstick, and that’s their personal ritual. Page said that it naturally evolves between each player and the others on the team.
Someone asked about tatoos, which lead to Johnson and Thomas showing off all of their body art. They all had at least one tatoo, except Masciardi. Moore declined to show hers; she didn’t want to pull up her shirt.
One of the last questions was, who is the silliest? They said Bobbitt, followed by Moore who is “accidentally silly.” Overall, a good and interesting session.
The Sparks are to be commended for resurrecting the basketball camp. As a coach, though, I would have wanted more instruction if I had brought my kids. A half hour each day wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough for me, either. I had gone because, as a teacher and coach, I’m always trying to learn new things. I loved the session and observing, but I wish I had learned more there.
The Los Angeles Sparks are having a youth basketball camp this weekend at Pasadena Community College. It’s an extended version of the one-day affair they used to have before the new owners came. The kids come in the morning and practice their drills (this time they arrived in teams rather than as individuals). After lunch, the Sparks show up to run things. And today, Coach Michael Cooper came with them.
Two years ago I took my basketball girls, and I watched most of the camp. Today I went back as an observer, because I’m always trying to learn things to be a better teacher and coach.
I didn’t learn much because there wasn’t much instruction before teams were pit against each other in games. I did get a lot of other interesting information, which I’ll go over later. However, one unexpected thing happened that deserves a discussion of its own: Cooper came up and started talking to me.
I had walked into the gym before all the kids were back from lunch, and Cooper was on the other side, seated and talking to someone. He looked over and saw me. In the meantime, I put on lotion and got some on my shorts, so I went downstairs to the locker room to clean it off. Then I decided to just sit there on one of the benches in the entry hallway and read my paper until things started back up again. I was at the end of the hallway, kind of tucked against the wall and not too obvious. Next thing I know, Cooper’s tall, thin self is walking up to me asking me where I sit at Staples. When I told him, he said he was looking for someone that sits in another section, but then he said: “so tell me what you think about our team. And be honest.”
Talk about being put on the spot. But I’m a direct person, so I told him that I think the team is loaded with talent that isn’t showing right now. That I think they lack fundamentals at times, and though they are the closest WNBA team I’ve ever seen, this doesn’t seem to translate into chemistry on the court lately. I told him about how everyone on the message boards has theories on what is wrong, from the guards to the coaches to the posts, but that I didn’t feel qualified to address that question because I wasn’t on the team. Yet I think they have amazing potential.
I said this all in an animated and polite way, and Cooper understood. He gave a couple examples of other teams and said that sometimes it takes a team a while to figure out how to work together and how to gel, and that this was the problem the Sparks are having. That sometimes with teams, it’ll take a couple years for this process to happen, but that he sees this starting to happen now. He said he’s been watching Lisa Leslie play in China, and that he sees her finally starting to play like the old Lisa. Cooper said he thinks it’s helping Candace Parker to be surrounded by other great players and be able to appreciate them. He has also been seeing great things happen in practice the last week and a half with the non-Olympian Sparks. He’s confident that they’ll still be able to make a good playoff run and even take the championship when the season resumes Aug. 28.
On that last point, I gotta give it to him. It takes a lot of courage to believe, and believe in yourself – especially when the odds aren’t in your favor (Sparks finished fourth in the west, barely, before the Olympic break). I told Cooper that. He had also said that when the season started, everyone was afraid of the Sparks. Now they aren’t, but no one wants them to be in the playoffs. The way he told me this, though, made me think that this fuels his fire more than anything else. Cooper also said his plan was to shut up the naysayers and haters that are saying the Sparks aren’t going to do anything this year. Sounds good to me, as July was pretty painful to be a Sparks attendee.
Cooper probably asked my opinion because I’m at every game and have been to every single player event this season. Because when I mentioned that in passing, he said, “I know – I see you.”
The funniest part of this entire encounter came at the end. Cooper stood up to leave, and I told him that he’d been outstanding at the Trader Joe’s event back in July. (Go to youtube.com and punch in ‘LA Sparks at Trader Joe’s’ and watch the 10 videos that are on there. I am, unfortunately, partially in 4 of them).
Cooper said, “what?” And I told him that he was fantastic, the way he approached people and hustled them to the salad bar for samples. “You were amazing!” I said. He busted out a smile and asked me my name, shaking my hand, and then gave me a hug. I told him to hang in there and don’t listen to people. That got me a thumbs up as he walked away.
I sure do hope Cooper is right and they come back blazin’, because I’m worried about jet lag catching up to our Olympians as they play two days after they get back.
– Sue F
You don’t have to be a Los Angeles resident to be acquainted with sportscaster Larry Burnett. Since every WNBA game is now at least given an online audio feed, the longtime voice of the Sparks can be heard all over the country, providing his unique brand of straightforward commentary, laced with humor. And with the addition of a certain players to the Sparks’ roster this year, Burnett has found that fans comment back to him.
Burnett graciously agreed to an interview this week, which I appreciated on several levels. For one thing, he’s got a great perspective on the Sparks, their players and the game itself. Secondly, he’s an interesting person. I’ll get to that later, as I’m going to divide my discussion with him into a few different blogs, per subject area.
University of Tennessee fans have joked on message boards that LA has become “Tennessee West” – especially after UCLA hired former Lady Vols Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell as its head coach. This may not be far from the truth, considering the sharp spike Burnett has seen in his email inbox this summer.
“I’ve gotten a lot of emails from Tennessee fans,” Burnett has been known to say on the radio, or prior to player interviews. Out of every 5 emails he’s received this year, Burnett said 3 of them are from fans of the Lady Vols asking about Candace Parker, Shannon Bobbitt, Sidney Spencer, or all three.
“They’re just really, really avid fans,” Burnett said, with emphasis. “They are not at all shy about sharing their point of view, and in many cases, they make good points.”
Sometimes, though, such passion can miss the mark slightly.
“When (Sparks owners) Kathy (Goodman) and Carla (Christofferson) asked fans this year to stand until the team scored, some Vol fans were trying to tell me that Pat Summitt started that tradition,” Burnett said. “Actually, Coach Summitt borrowed that.”
At the beginning of the season, the most-often asked question from Lady Vol fans was why 3-point shooter Spencer wasn’t getting playing time. As the season progressed, point guard Bobbitt began showing up to the bench in street clothes more often than not. Not surprisingly, the bulk of questions from UT fans then became, “why isn’t Shannon playing?”, according to Burnett. On July 3, Bobbitt made her first WNBA start, and has started every game for the Sparks since then. Burnett said Vol fans have gone back to asking him why Spencer isn’t playing more. He can only guess at the answer to that question.
“Sidney’s not the best on defense, and she doesn’t match up well there as much as we’d like,” Burnett said. “But there are a lot of great NBA shooters who aren’t great defensive players, and their coaches use them to the best of their abilities. I’m not sure why that’s not happening here.”
Fans also ask about Parker – mainly, if she’s as tired as she sometimes looks. Burnett doesn’t mince words when talking about the Sparks’ number-one pick.
“She’s the most talented female player I’ve seen come into the league,” he said. “Parker can play all five positions – she can dribble, she crosses over, she passes – and she plays them all exceptionally well.
“Lisa (Leslie) will tell you, ‘she’s better than me when I first started.’ She’s doing things no one else is doing.”
Burnett said Parker had no problem adjusting to professional basketball, and fans adopted her immediately, too.
“People got used to the dunk after she’d done it one time,” he said.
Burnett said Parker told him that a focus of hers is learning to dunk on the half-court, rather than the full-court. Burnett sees her biggest challenges as working on her free throws, and “deciding where she wants to play.”
“(Head Coach Michael) Cooper wants her at PG, but I’m not sure Candace wants to be there,” he said.
Burnett acknowledged that Parker’s presence has boosted ticket sales at every arena the Sparks have been to, and that the University of Tennesse contingent is particularly strong.
“We haven’t been in one arena where there hasn’t been an orange section,” he said.
Since Bobbitt got the nod to start, she has become a crowd favorite at Staples Center, eliciting frequent cheers and support from fans. Burnett has had her sit for the post-game player interview twice.
“There’s a bit of the underdog mentality there,” Burnett said of the Spark fan support for Bobbitt. “When you’re 5’2″, people like to see a player like that succeed.”
One of Bobbitt’s most glaring errors earlier in the season was not managing the clock well, as there were possessions in a few games where the rookie unknowingly let the shot clock run down. Burnett said Cooper has worked with Bobbitt on that.
“Leadership is the yardstick for the PG,” Burnett said. “The PG makes sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be, and the veterans (Kiesha Brown and Temeka Johnson, who started at PG earlier in the season) weren’t getting it done.
“Bobbitt makes things happen out there. She just need to keep working; she’s a rookie and will make mistakes.”
To be continued……
– Sue F
The USA women’s basketball team is off to a great start in these Olympic games. After a “what the heck?” moment to start on Saturday morning, they proceeded to demolish the Czech Rebublic, 97-57. This morning the team took on China, decisively beating them 108-63. The men’s team did the same thing to China yesterday, annihlating them. It’s what we’ve grown used to, being a part of a country where basketball is so prevalent and so rewarded: dominance.
But I hate lopsided blow-out games. I’m hoping that our women’s team will get more challenges than they’ve faced so far.
I haven’t had a chance to see all the teams, as broadcasting begins at 6 p.m. Pacific and wraps up some 13-14 hours later. But looking at the scores and reading what has been written, Australia might be the only serious challenge to the US. They looked solid when I saw them Friday night, and they’re the only other team besides ours that has beat opponents by decisive margins in both games so far. Since Australia is on the other side of the bracket, it is anticipated that the US and the Aussies will face one another for the gold. Thus, it’s possible that the only challenging game for our women will be the last one.
As a longtime student of the game, I know better than to count any team out. It’s possible that Mali, Spain or New Zealand – the latter two of which aren’t bad teams at all – could each have a great game in the next few days and take the US down to the wire. I actually hope this happens. Because while I don’t want the women to suffer the same fate as the men’s team did in Athens four years ago, neither do I want them to simply waltz to the gold.
Last month I began re-reading Sara Corbett’s book “Venus to the Hoop,” which chronicles the story of the 1996 women’s basketball team’s journey to the gold medal at the Atlanta games. This was when female basketball players first started becoming well-known and developing a significant fan base. This was also a time when the gold was not guaranteed for the US. As the team toured parts of the world in preparation for the games (something that doesn’t happen anymore), they were fearful of certain opponents, and sized them up in preparation for the Olympics.
Fast-forward 12 years and there is a WNBA so deep now that sometimes even great players get cut. A league which players from all over the world come to play in. As for US college basketball teams? Their level of play is becoming so skilled and physical that 2008 was the deepest graduating class ever. Our Olympic team has two of those players on it right now. And the US women have taken the gold ever since that first one in 1996.
That’s some dominance. I just pray that it doesn’t lead to complacency.
Many a piece has been written in the last week about how humble and sweet the men’s team is this Olympics; about how they’re working unselfishly, as a team. Women’s hoops fans like to think that arrogance and a “take-for-granted” attitude couldn’t happen to their favorite teams, but it could. We’re all human and we’re all competitive. And as we saw last month, women can fight during games, too.
I want the US women to have to be challenged – at least a little – in their remaining games because I think a bit of adversity is good for people. It builds character, not to mention appreciation.
On a personal note, I have to give props to Sylvia Fowles, who has had two great games in a row and seems to be showing how much she missed playing when she was injured. Welcome back, Big Syl.
And I will finally be watching Wednesday’s game live, as it starts at 7:15 a.m. and not 5 a.m.
Go USA! May your journey be at least a little difficult.
– Sue F
After the Los Angeles Sparks’ last home game before the Olympic break, the organization had an event they called “SEC Night.” Players who had gone to a college in the SEC conference (9 out of 12 Sparks) participated in a panel-type question-and-answer session, rife with good-natured jawing and trash talking. Afterwards, they signed autographs.
My seatmate at Sparks games – Daniel – was mildly unnerved by what he characterized as the hysteria of some fans during the Q and A. He said the screaming, the frenzied states some were in, and the way they kept pressing forward towards the players was just too much. He didn’t understand it.
As usual, I can see both side of the issue.
I’ve been around the WNBA long enough to have seen some nutty fan behavior, though that usually occurs during during and after games. A good example is when players try to go back into the locker room and people are yelling at them to sign something or take a photo. The craziness at a fan event like SEC Night was a little unusual. But that night, like every night at a Sparks game, the crowd was full of little kids, women, and a few men who might have felt like yelling but kept it in check (probably the same cats who say they don’t listen to R&B).
The kids you can pretty much excuse. When I first began taking my basketball girls to Sparks games in 2006, they were all 16 and would literally jump up and down and scream for Lisa Leslie. Female basketball players have got role models now, and I couldn’t be happier.
I can’t even be mad at the adults for screaming or wanting an autograph. I know I’m not the only one who has lived vicariously through players at times.
Then there’s the other side.
When I was a Seattle Storm season ticket holder, I would walk out to my car after games, past the driveway out of the Key Arena parking lot. Without fail, after every game, there were a contingent of fans who waited for the Storm players to drive out in their cars, one by one, so they could try to flag them down and talk to them. That’s going too far in my book. But my yardstick is small.
I’ve met and been in the vicinity of all of the Sparks players several times this season, because I’ve been to every fan event they’ve had. It’s not so much that I’m a geek, but that I don’t want to miss anything. I’ve always been this way – ask my parents.
During those events, there have been times when I’ve wanted to linger and talk with a player who I’m conversing with, because the convo is interesting. But then I pull myself back. Because even though it seems like an intimate experience for me, it’s one-sided. It’s easy for fans to lose sight of that fact.
Being a fan is a solo relationship. You know everything about your favorite player: where she went to school, when she began playing ball, how many siblings she has, where she’s from…….and she doesn’t know squat about you. For example, I’ve watched the Tennessee videos from the last two years and have read everything I can get my hands on with regards to UT. I can tell you plenty about those young women, including their mannerisms. If a fan comes around often enough, as I do, a favorite player might remember your face, but that’s about it. It’s best not to expect more than that.
As a teacher, I can relate. Teaching is a high-profile profession, and there are fewer of us than there are students. Kids may not be in my classes, but they know who I am. Many times I’ve been on campus and been greeted with a friendly, “Hey, Ms. F!!” from a kid I don’t know. I look twice to make sure I can’t come up with their name, and then I say “what’s up?!” because I’m a friendly person. Even so, it’s funny to me that those kids have that sense of fan familiarity with me. I imagine basketball players would feel the same way. What us high-profile profession people need to remember is that we’re being watched, and it’s nothing personal. Humans are just curious that way.
Sometimes I have “fans” that try to hang out and/or get something from me. If they’re not cutting a class or trying to get money, I usually indulge them for a little bit. But then I send them on their way. I mean, I don’t really know them.
I remembered that last month when I was struck with the thought that the UT players and Kiesha Brown would be really fun to party with. I’ve watched them at their funniest this season; I mean, I’ve seen them more than my own homies. It feels like we’re friends. But I’m glad I am able to remember that we’re not before I go off and say something dumb.
We are lucky that women’s basketball players are still generally at ease with the occasional crazed/screaming fan. They seem to really appreciate their fans.
– Sue F.