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FAN OF THE HOUSE

Up against the Sparks, he tries to hold his own

The columnist takes part in a scrimmage, and it's a revelatory and squeamish experience.

May 06, 2010|Chris Erskine

Let it be noted that I am an in-your-face, slam-dunking, jive-talking beast of a ballplayer, raised on the polished playgrounds and cobbled driveways of suburban America. Some nights, I'd shoot for 45 minutes after school. Then I'd rush inside for trumpet lessons and 30 minutes with my Latin tutor.

So it makes perfect sense that I join the L.A. Sparks' all-male practice squad -- also known as "live bait" -- for a boy vs. girl scrimmage in El Segundo on Tuesday night. It was a revelatory and squeamish experience, like the first time you discovered that your parents still have sex when you're actually in the same house.

They are all elbows, these women. Might have knocked out my teeth on a couple of picks, were they not so wobbly to begin with. When really getting clobbered, I find squishy gums to be a significant advantage.

The women were also better shooters than us men, set K-rail picks and might be in better shape, though that's hard to tell for sure, since there were 14 of them and only seven guys. Those are good ratios for an end-of-the-year team dance. For a scrimmage, not so much.

In fact, when the scrimmage began, there were only five men, no subs, and the game was screaming fast. My teammates -- Simeon Spurling, Jonathan Williams, Ryan Jones, Pernell Gray -- all former high school players mostly in their early 20s, liked to drive to the basket. And they liked to run.

I appreciate Showtime myself, though by the second quarter, I am coughing up the first and only cigarette I ever had. I also cough up a pair of dice and the butt end of a glue stick I once mistook for a cigar at my buddy Steve's bachelor party. Amazing the keepsakes you accumulate over time.

Here's the thing you probably don't even realize about the WNBA: It is almost a semipro league. The players toil under a collective bargaining agreement that requires a salary cap of $750,000. That's per team, mind you. The dude who mops up the sweat at a Lakers game makes at least that.

So, to make ends meet, many of the WNBA's stars play in the more lucrative European leagues. Stars such as Candace Parker and DeLisha Milton-Jones still are trickling into camp, for a WNBA season that runs into September. The Sparks play an exhibition Saturday at the Long Beach Pyramid, then open the season May 15 at Phoenix.

For years, the Sparks were coached by Michael Cooper, a lovable bloke who spoke quickly and earnestly, like a guy trying to sell you muni bonds. They are now coached by the personable Jennifer Gillom, who might be the nicest coach in sports, unless you don't move your feet or stand around lock-legged on defense. Doesn't care much care for that. She also likes you to square up on your picks -- BAAAAAAAAM!

And to elevate the Sparks' game, Gillom has her team scrimmage frequently against a group of young men -- picked a few weeks back from a pool of some 40 applicants. Gillom says the men give the Sparks a fast, creative practice opponent. Face it, men are generally more athletic than women, particularly when you take me out of the equation. I have a body built for yard work.

That's not to bash the Sparks, who to a player seem to have more well-rounded games than I ever did. Ticha Penicheiro has a little Allen Iverson in her ballhandling and gives the Sparks what they've lacked the last couple of seasons -- an aggressive and effective point guard.

By the time the scrimmage ends in a 61-61 tie, I like the Sparks and respect their game. More than anything else, they are a symbol of why Title IX has created. The landmark legislation is still the most important sports development of my lifetime -- bigger than free agency, bigger even than those garlic fries they serve at baseball games. Seriously, don't you dream of those?

But my own Cinderella story would not be complete without this: In about 20 minutes of court time, I tallied four points on two-for-three shooting, no assists and one or two boards. Ron Artest, eat your heart out.

Scrappy if not skilled, I chased down one loose ball, leaving a fair amount of white boy on the hardwood court. I almost nailed a rather impressive reverse layup, except my knee buckled like a confetti egg.

I might also have re-torn my schnitzel, the long core muscle that runs from my nasal passages to my ankles.

Fortunately, the trainer had some pills.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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