INGLEWOOD- The Los Angeles Sparks has lofty expectations this season. Winning a WNBA championship is about the only thing that matters to the team. Self-appointed individuals goals are fine as long they come within the realm of collecting a title.
The run for the WNBA championship figures to be a close race. Figure in the Los Angeles Sparks to be in the thick of things.
After dismantling the Seattle Storm by a 33-point margin in the team’s season opener at Staples Center, the Sparks sent a clear message to the rest of the Western Conference that their current roster will be one that is hard to contend with.
The rest of the league, despite the hype around Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner and other hotshot rookies coming into the WNBA this season, has been put on notice. However, don’t expect the Sparks to win every game by the lopsided margin they beat the Storm by.
The Western Conference and the rest of the WNBA are too good for that to happen. That’s because the WNBA keeps getting better each year with the kind of talent coming into the league.
This season is no different. Besides the one-of-a-kind Griner, the league has an influx of outstanding young players gracing the stage today more than ever before. You have Chicago Sky’s Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins of the Tulsa Shock.
The Sparks have their own young gun in rookie guard A’dia Mathies.
In some ways, many people view the league’s new talent as some sort of a dawning of a new era. That is not necessarily true. You can’t sleep on Sparks and WNBA icon Lisa Leslie.
Some people have forgotten that Sparks General Manager Penny Toler could play ball with the best of them. During the team’s media day, which was held at the St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood, California, Toler, while discussing the expectations of the Sparks this season, spoke on the evolution of the WNBA.
“It’s quicker, it’s faster,” Toler said. “Players are really, really good. It’s like anything else, regardless of the sport. I always say that there are two things in sports that you can’t outrun, and that is Father Time and evolution. What comes behind you will be better than what you were. It’s nice to see that.”
The WNBA wouldn’t be the league it is today without play of stars Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, Sue Bird and Cynthia Cooper bringing attention to it. Yes, Griner, DIggins, Donne, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi are the rave at this instant.
But the WNBA didn’t come along this far with a bunch of newcomers.
The WNBA has been built on legacy. And you can say that the Sparks, if one looks at the history of the league, have a big say in that debate. Leslie and the WNBA are synonymous with each another. The two are basically tied to the hip.
Leslie became the face of the WNBA after a stellar collegiate career at USC. Long before Griner came along, Leslie was the one to set the standard in women’s pro basketball.
While people get all hyped now about Griner and her dunking abilities, Leslie was the first woman to throw it down in the basket in an actual game. The former Inglewood Morningside High School and four-time Olympian paved the way for the Sparks’ winning tradition, leading the team to several WNBA titles.
After falling short of their title aspirations last season, the Sparks, with a balanced lineup of young players, savvy veterans and sprinkled with a couple of marquee players, could very well be in the mix of contending for another WNBA championship.
Forward Candace Parker is the team’s superstar. Shooting guard Kristi Toliver gives the Sparks a playmaker with the skill set to take over games with her shooting touch. This season could be a breakout one for Nneka Ogwumike, last season’s WNBA Rookie of the Year.
The team strengthened their roster by adding veteran point guard Lindsey Harding in the offseason. With 2012 WNBA Coach of the Year Carol Ross directing the team again, the Sparks are a primed bunch looking for a championship run.
Ross said the expectations she has for her players are pretty much what they were last season and any other year.
“Oh, they’re the same every season,” Ross said. “I expect my players to player harder than the team they’re playing against, to have fun. It is a business, but it is a fun business. Sometimes, we lose sight of that. Work is not a dirty four-letter word. It is a great four-letter word.
“We want to embrace our work. I try to let people know that we love what we do. We love wearing that purple and gold and being a Spark. Other than that, I can’t promise a lot of things. But we are going to work hard; we are going to have fun. Hopefully, that will lead to something special.”
This group of players is already special to Ross not only because of what they do on the court, but what they bring to the table off of it.
“Not only are they talented but they are also very good people,” said Ross. “They would be successful in any walk of life and that is what you want in the locker room. It is people who are driven to be successful, but they understand that it takes a group to move it forward. That’s what I really enjoy most about this group.
“We’re all championship hungry. But that is not exclusive to LA. Every locker room is with full of enthusiasm and optimism. But certainly we want to put ourselves in position that when championships are handed out we’re in the conversation.”
I write about sports, racial and social justice, culture, and everything else in between. Beat writer for the Rams, Chargers, Lakers, and Clippers. Part of the inaugural Associated Press Sports Editors Diversity Fellowship class. Howard University alum.