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SPARKS

Leslie Signs as Camp Set to Start

May 01, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

The two-time defending WNBA champion Sparks -- most of them anyway -- open their 2003 training camp at Loyola Marymount today with the usual preseason questions and some new ones.

They have 21 days of camp and two preseason games to put together a roster that will look different from those of the past two title years.

And now they have to do it within the confines of the league's new salary cap of $622,000.

A couple of important questions were answered Wednesday. Spark General Manager Penny Toler said franchise center Lisa Leslie had signed a four-year contract at the league maximum of $85,000 a season and guard Tamecka Dixon had signed a three-year deal, terms of which were not released.

There are other core Sparks who, as of Wednesday, had not yet come to terms.

Forward DeLisha Milton and guard Mwadi Mabika are finishing winter seasons with Russian club teams and are not scheduled to return to the U.S. until May 8 or 9. Others unsigned include forward Latasha Byears and guard Nicky McCrimmon, and recently acquired guard Jackie Stiles.

"They all have [offers] on the table," Toler said. "Jackie's contract is not an issue; it's just not signed yet. We also expect Latasha, DeLisha, Mwadi and Nicky to sign. They've indicated they want to be here."

Other changes are pending. Reserve forward Vedrana Grgin-Fonseca tore a knee ligament while playing in Europe and could be sidelined for the season. Center Marlies Askamp, who came to the Sparks last year in a midseason trade, returned to her native Germany to complete law school.

"She hasn't officially retired," Toler said of Askamp, "but she was firm in not wanting to play this year."

Another roster casualty is veteran reserve guard Sophia Witherspoon. The acquisition of Stiles, taken by the Sparks in the league dispersal draft last week, made Witherspoon expendable.

As for the league, many teams improved themselves despite a weak college draft because Miami and Portland folded their franchises and made several veteran players available.

"This league has gotten much better," Spark Coach Michael Cooper said.

Toler doesn't plan on having the maximum 18 players in camp. "Having lost two weeks already [because of the contract negotiations between the WNBA and the players' union], I want players there who I think can make the team," she said.

But Cooper will want another reserve point guard in case McCrimmon does not re-sign. He also needs height to replace Grgin-Fonseca and Askamp. And he still has to see if draftees Schuye LaRue and Mary Jo Noon can play at the WNBA level.

*

A potential exhibition game between the Sparks and the Chinese national team will not happen because of concerns related to the SARS virus. The Sparks will stick to their two preseason games against San Antonio on May 10 and May 16 before opening the regular season May 24 against the Sun in Connecticut.

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