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Fostering a Dream

Former Spark McCrimmon left the WNBA behind to develop her foundation

August 17, 2004|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

The silent, slender woman with large brown eyes and a half smile watches as high school girls -- dressed in baggy shorts, mesh jerseys over undershirts and the best sneakers they can afford -- bounce into the small gym nestled in the back of the Rita Walters Learning Complex in South Los Angeles.

She wonders whether they dream the way she dreamed. Basketball gave her a chance to go to college, earn a living as a professional in the ABL and WNBA, and win a couple of WNBA championships with the Sparks. The game put her in a position to help these teens do more than dream.

At 32, Nicky McCrimmon could still be playing in the WNBA if she wanted to. When the Sparks -- for whom she'd played four seasons, mainly as a reserve guard -- did not re-sign her for 2004, the Houston Comets did. When she was waived a week into training camp, people wondered what happened.

"What people don't know is that it was my choice," McCrimmon said recently. "When I got to Houston, four days into training camp I realized my heart wasn't in it. I went to the coach [Van Chancellor] and told him I wanted to be waived. He asked me why, because he felt I was doing good.

"I told him it wouldn't do him or me a good service [to stay], because my heart wasn't in it. It had nothing to do with them. I just wasn't into playing any more at that moment."

She had decided to pursue another dream -- Play Mode Inc., a nonprofit foundation she founded in March 2003 with Kim Bly, the athletic director at Los Angeles Washington High, and Trisha Stafford-Odom, a former pro who played with McCrimmon on the Long Beach Stingrays in the ABL. Stafford-Odom is now a probation officer and coach of the Westchester girls' basketball team.

Bly handles the administrative duties and keeps the website up to date. Because of her job at Washington, she was able to get the word out to high schools. Stafford-Odom also does networking and fills in where needed.

"Nicky and I both had ideas about what we wanted to do [with a foundation]," Bly said. "It was not me going to her or her coming to me, it was simultaneous. And then Trish came along and we all collaborated. That's really how it all came about."

Said Stafford-Odom, who came up with the name Play Mode: "Even when we were playing, we were thinking about the things we wanted to do while we had a platform to do them. We've all had similar concepts. When [all three of us] actually sat down to discuss things, we pretty much put them all together."

The trio has developed three summer basketball leagues that play from June 17 to Aug. 19. The Junior Dream On League is for high school girls and features teams from nine schools -- Crenshaw, Dorsey, Los Angeles, L.A. Jordan, Lynwood, Manual Arts, Morningside, Washington and Westchester. There is also the Dream On League for college and adult women, and the After Dark League for men.

But McCrimmon, Bly and Stafford-Odom are concentrating on the high school players. Not only do the girls have something to do and a place to go in the summer, they also get basketball training necessary to be able to compete for college scholarships.

So the games are not just run-and-gun, playground affairs. Each school's assistant coaches run the teams. Head coaches, such as Stafford-Odom, are able to watch and assess players as they run motion offenses, work on full-court pressure and handle fastbreaks. Even though admission is free, the players are mainly cheered on by family and friends

The foundation works with a limited budget. Each team pays $400 to play, but that barely covers renting the gym and insurance. Other expenses -- jerseys, ice, a DJ playing music during timeouts -- come out of the pockets of Bly, McCrimmon and Stafford-Odom. They get donations -- "a hundred here and there," McCrimmon said -- but they are seeking sponsorships and grants.

"Instead of building our foundation first, which you should do when you're doing a nonprofit, we just went out on a limb because we had all these ideas," McCrimmon said. "We wanted to get them out there, then work on the foundation.

"We need some sponsorships, but we're still getting our business plan together. That's why I haven't been trying to get coverage, because we want to have our plan set. I'm doing it because I love giving back to kids. Basketball gave me a name, and people can recognize and associate me with something. And if people look at our website, and come down and see what we're doing, they'll know we're not just asking for money for no reason."

Although the leagues are in their first year, they have been certified by the NCAA, which means college coaches can scout the players. On this day, representatives from Division I schools Long Beach State, Oregon State, Pepperdine and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo monitor the proceedings.

"What you're looking for is that diamond in the rough," said Coach Faith Minmaugh of Cal Poly. "That good player who, for whatever reason, isn't playing in the other summer camps or travel teams.

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