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Making Sparks Fly

Of course the minds behind Southern California's new women's basketball want to win. But for them, it's also about forging a place of their own. It's a goal, a dream some promised themselves as little hoopsters that they would chase.

June 19, 1997|ADRIENNE M. JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The offices of the Los Angeles Sparks staff are small, crowded and plain. Privacy and quiet are premiums only for the president and the general manager, and only in small doses. But no one is complaining. Not as Saturday nears, the launch date of the Women's National Basketball Assn.

It won't be the first American women's league. That distinction belongs to the U.S. Women's Basketball League, which formed in 1978, then folded three years later. And this year, the American Basketball League started, finishing its first season in March and reportedly breaking even financially.

But in these offices, across the street from the Great Western Forum, the WNBA feels like a surer thing. There are the money and the marketing of the prosperous NBA behind it; the eight teams in the league are all attached to the established franchises in cities like New York, Houston and Sacramento, so they'll get to play in the large NBA arenas. With a 28-game summer season, starting just as the men's championship ends, the hope is that they'll catch some lingering basketball fever. The risk, though, is competition from the distractions of summer, the beaches and the blockbuster movies.

Still, there is plenty of reason for optimism. The Sparks' first game against the New York Liberty is nearly sold out, and the team says season ticket sales have surpassed projections. The league will have nationally televised games on NBC, plus ESPN and Lifetime (the ABL has an all-cable package). The prime market is women and families, and ticket prices are reasonable, $7.50 and $20 for individual loge level seats ($100 on the floor). Better yet, they've got the marquee Olympian names: Lisa Leslie of the Sparks, Rebecca Lobo of the N.Y. Liberty and Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets.

And here at the Sparks office, there is something more: the women. On this staff of 17, a dozen of the positions are held by women. Yes, Johnny Buss, scion of Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, is president of the team, but the energy in the room is drawn from sisterhood. "I interviewed just about half male, half female," Buss says. "Anybody that had women's basketball knowledge and experience, they were that cut above. I wanted people to know who Lisa Leslie was. It just turned out that females that I interviewed knew more about women's basketball."

The women who work in this office know women's basketball--the history and the heroines. From equipment manager to general manager, they dreamed of this day, willed it into being. Listening to the stories of four of them, the women behind the women, you quickly sense that they are passionate about womanhood and passionate about the changes a league of women can forge. On the eve of its realization, they are determined to create an organization that thrives, and has value for things both on and off the court.

General Manager Rhonda Windham started playing as a child in the Bronx. She liked gymnastics too, but she gave it up easily after a challenge from her mother. "When I was in the fourth grade, my mother told me, 'Baby, I want you to go to college. I can't afford to send you. You have to get a scholarship. You're the oldest; you have to do it.' "

OK, Mom, she thought, no problem, even though she didn't know what a scholarship was.

By the seventh grade, when a park director told her he thought she could win a scholarship more easily through basketball than gymnastics, things were clear. "That was my last flip."

Basketball became her center. Although only 5 feet, 5 inches, Windham was an all-city, all-American star in high school. As a freshman point guard at USC, she was an integral part of the 1983 Trojan national championship team that included Cheryl Miller and Pam and Paula McGee.

Later that summer at the National Sports Festival, while rising to the basket to tip in a teammate's shot, she dislocated her knee and kneecap and tore the ligaments. The pain was complete, the comeback, slow and tough, but Windham did return to play for the Trojans.

After graduation, she made a career wish list that included the Lakers. They called after she'd accepted a job in women's basketball--in Italy, which has had women's pro league basketball longer than the U.S. But when she returned in 1989, Windham became an assistant public relations director at the Forum. Now, there is the Sparks.

Windham handles the position with a cool head. It's clear she doesn't lord over the staff; she deflects their ribs about her status easily. But even her jokes aren't frivolous. As general manager, she handles all of the basketball operations including evaluating players, agents and any player-related issues, hiring the coaching staff, scouting potential players, coordinating travel for the team and setting up practice sites and schedules. On the business end she works with the marketing and promotion people and the WNBA brass. She's doing a lot of learning on the job.

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