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Sparks' Aim: Three-Peat the Feat

Two-time defending WNBA champs could face tougher road as challengers try to narrow gap; L.A. opens season Saturday at Connecticut.

May 23, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

The cheers cascading from the Staples Center rafters to the pile of delirious Spark players celebrating a second consecutive WNBA championship last season have faded.

Now the Sparks can turn their attention to the business of a three-peat. But winning a third consecutive title will be more difficult than it was for Houston, and probably tougher than the Sparks can imagine.

Although the off-season was dominated by labor negotiations, every team got better, stronger and deeper thanks to the league's dispersal draft of players from the folded Miami and Portland franchises.

How this translates into wins and losses, no one knows. But the Sparks can be assured that maintaining last season's league-best 25-7 record, and their average of 25 wins a season since 1999, will get a vigorous test. The Sparks play their season opener Saturday at Connecticut.

"We've seen how hard it was for the Lakers to three-peat," said Lisa Leslie, the WNBA's all-time leading scorer who averaged 16.9 points and 10.4 rebounds last season.

"We feel the same response this season. It won't be easy. We've averaged, what, four to five losses in the regular season the past three years? That's our goal, to stay right there. Realistically we want to come out first in the West, then [play the playoffs] two games at a time. But it's gonna be tough; the [dispersal] draft made teams better and we recognize that."

Latasha Byears, who averaged seven points and 5.4 rebounds as the Sparks' top reserve, backed Leslie's analysis.

"I feel since the league has gotten so much better, it presents a great challenge to us," Byears said. "[But] with the veteran group we have, and the great coaching staff, it's all about winning championships. You don't just want to make the playoffs."

Despite the off-season changes, which included unrestricted free agency for players for the first time, the Sparks did not lose any key players.

The core of their championship squad -- Leslie, Tamecka Dixon (10.6 points), DeLisha Milton (11.3), Mwadi Mabika (16.8), Nikki Teasley (6.4) and Byears -- is intact. Mabika had a breakout season and was an All-WNBA first-team pick alongside Leslie. Teasley capped a relatively quiet rookie season by making the dramatic three-point basket that beat New York in the championship game.

Both figure to keep improving, and Teasley said she will be more comfortable running the offense this season.

"When you come in as a rookie you're kind of quiet," Teasley said. "You want to make sure you fit in, and not step on anyone's toes. And now, even though I'm officially a veteran, I'm still new to this. And with the new additions we have I'm still going to get help and continue to grow."

There are other questions. It's too soon to tell if rookies Chandra Johnson and Shaquala Williams will have any impact. And Jackie Stiles, the 2001 rookie of the year whom the Sparks selected in the dispersal draft, faces more surgery on her right foot and could be sidelined for the season.

But power forward Rhonda Mapp, who sat out last season because of a contract dispute, is back to provide experience, muscle and defense. And General Manager Penny Toler's biggest deal was signing free agent Jennifer Gillom. She is the league's second all-time leading scorer behind Leslie, and was still spry enough at 38 to average 15.7 points and 28.2 minutes a game last season for the Phoenix Mercury.

"I don't know how we got her, but she is a great addition for our team," Milton said. "It's a steal to have someone of her caliber coming off the bench as a sixth or seventh man."

Not only can the 6-foot-3 Gillom mentor Johnson, she gives Coach Michael Cooper flexibility behind Leslie or Milton. Gillom could also play alongside them if the Sparks want a big frontcourt. And she will help clear space for Byears to do even more damage on the boards.

Gillom said she will fill whatever role Cooper has in mind.

"I never thought in a million years I would be wearing a Sparks uniform," Gillom said. "I thought I would ride out on a white horse with the Mercury. But this opportunity came and I took a jump at it. What better way to end your career."




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