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The Quiet Court Battle Back

Since settlement with Sparks, Byears downplays emotions, saying her WNBA return, even against L.A., has been `cool'

July 10, 2006|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

One always approaches Latasha Byears with care. It's best to take time to gauge the mood of the moment, which can range from curt to coy. At 5 feet 11 and 206 pounds -- her listed weight in the Washington Mystics media guide -- if Byears doesn't want to be bothered, she won't be bothered.

Still, there's a curiosity about whether the former Sparks forward does any looking back about what she went through to get back into the WNBA. On July 1, she made her first visit to Staples Center in three years.

"I kept faith in the Lord and good friends," she said before the Mystics took the court against the Sparks. "I kept good people around me. There was no doubting my mind, because I'm a fighter."

It was a long road back.

Byears, 32, came to the Sparks from the Sacramento Monarchs in a 2001 trade. The Sparks were looking for muscle underneath the basket, and Byears was the answer. She averaged 8.3 points and 5.6 rebounds over the next two seasons and helped the team to consecutive championships.

Then, as the 2003 season began, her world crashed.

And the league that had welcomed Byears as an openly gay player suddenly shunned her.

Byears had become caught up in an alleged sexual assault on a former teammate during a party at Byears' condominium. Within days of the case becoming known, the Sparks released her.

This was not Byears' first brush with trouble. In 2001, she was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was suspended by the league for one game. On the court, the way she pounded bodies in the paint earned her a reputation as a thug. That was reinforced by her role in a brawl with the Seattle Storm in 2002 that earned her a two-game suspension.

Byears denied the assault allegations.

The woman who wears number "00" is not one to back away and sued the Sparks and the WNBA for wrongful termination, believing her sexual orientation played a role in the team's decision. As if to underscore that point, the allegations surfaced around the time of Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case, and the difference in the way the players were treated by management and their respective leagues stood in stark contrast.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department conducted an investigation. But by July 2005, no charges had been filed and the case was dropped. According to the L.A. County district attorney's office, the alleged victim did not file a complaint and left the United States.

Still, no team was interested in Byears. Not until the lawsuit was resolved. The out-of-court settlement was reached on Feb. 9 this year. Two weeks later, Byears signed with Washington.

"It's been cool; I'm having fun," Byears said of her return to Staples Center.

She was sitting in the Mystics' locker room, inside Staples Center for the first time since her abrupt dismissal. The last time Byears was in the building -- June 5, 2003 -- she and her teammates were awarded their second WNBA championship rings.

Byears curled her lip in what could have been a smile. "Ain't no emotions here for me, know what I mean?" she said. "That's the truth.... I did get a couple of championships here. But now I'm with a different team. I feel good. I've got my health and my strength. No jitters about coming back and playing here. That's what we do, we play in the WNBA."

Her basketball talent was never an issue.

Byears, who was an All-American at DePaul but was ignored in the draft, signed with Sacramento as a developmental player in 1997 and is now among the league's top 20 all-time rebounders (1,106). Her 8.6 career scoring average has come primarily from inside the paint, battling taller players and compensating for most height disadvantages with her grit.

Byears knew basketball was what she did best but didn't return to pro ball until last winter, when she played in Turkey. She said that when the settlement was announced, the Sparks invited her to their 2006 training camp. But the team had traded two of her best friends, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Nikki Teasley, to Washington, and that helped steer Byears back East. Mystics Coach Richie Adubato said Milton-Jones and Teasley eased Byears' return.

"They all get along great, very good friends and teammates over here," he said. "In fact, DeLisha was the one who really convinced me that we should take her, and that she would contribute to our team. Teasley was her roommate [in L.A.], and she was also in favor of it. They were both 100% 'go.' "

Milton-Jones declined to talk about what influence she might have had on Byears' signing with the Mystics, but acknowledged that she and Teasley provided a better environment for Byears than other teams might have.

"It's a luxury to have us here, because this is something she is comfortable with," Milton-Jones said. "It's like family. We know her and understand her, and we'll be able to express or explain to others who may not know her how she is. And it will be easy for them to adjust."

Byears has played in all 20 games coming off the bench, and is averaging 5.1 points and 3.8 rebounds.

"To me she's Wes Unseld," said Adubato, referring to the Hall of Fame NBA center who was undersized at 6-7. "She's only 5-11, but she's strong, knows how to use her body to move people in and out. She's got long arms and very good, soft hands. So she's going to rebound."

And if you talk with Byears long enough, she makes it clear how she feels.

"Everything I went through was worth it to get back to play," she said. "I'm a fighter; I ain't just gonna lay down for nobody. And that sends a message to other people who go through similar situations -- don't give up. It's ways out here to deal with people. That's why we've got a justice system."

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