BACK FOR MORE: Tina Thompson and the LA Sparks start their 2010 campaign at Phoenix Saturday with new coach Jennifer Gillom and a healthy Candace Parker to start the season.Â (Nick Koza / Sentinel)
Sparks open 2010 season Saturday relaxed, yet motivated
By Evan Barnes
Sentinel Sports Editor
One look at the Sparks’ media day this week would have you thinking it was fitting they had it at St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood.
The loose atmosphere between the younger players and some of the veterans like Noelle Quinn and free agent signee Ticha Penicheiro was no different than that of the students at the all-girls Catholic school.
It was a reminder that this is a new era for the Sparks. Gone are former head coach Michael Cooper and icon Lisa Leslie and enter new coach Jennifer Gillom, who’s brought a fresh energy to the team.
Gillom, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame who ended her playing career with the Sparks in 2003, comes to L.A. after coaching with the Minnesota Lynx.
She hasn’t taken long to make her presence felt as her players have quickly warmed up to her.
Veteran guard Noelle Quinn praised her “consistent, passionate attitude” while second-year forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton called her “outgoing” and described her personality as “contagious.”
Rookie Andrea Riley, the team’s No. 1 pick, added: “She cares for her players and it makes you play extra hard for someone like that.”
Fellow rookie and first-round pick Bianca Thomas, who followed in Gillom’s footsteps at Ole Miss, said that having her as a coach helped ease her transition.
Her presence has only added to the team having a better chemistry while bringing a balance of youthful energy and competitive fire to a team expected to contend for the WNBA title.
Perhaps the biggest change in personnel comes from the addition of Penicheiro, the league’s all-time assist leader who strengthens an area the Sparks lacked last season.
It’s a change of pace for Sparks fans who were used to seeing Penicheiro play for the rival Sacramento Monarchs. She even joked about “playing for the enemy” but appreciated the chance to continue her career, now in its 13th season
“I love what I do and I want to keep it going,” she said.
Her impact is already evident in being a mentor to third-year guard Shannon Bobbitt and Riley while her teammates relish the thought of having an additional coach on the floor.
Some things haven’t changed though. The core of Candace Parker, Tina Thompson, Betty Lennox and Delisha Milton remain to provide stability and remind everyone what they’re playing for.
The expectations of winning remain first and foremost in everyone’s mind and with last season’s disappointing end in the Western Conference Finals still fresh, the loose atmosphere is a mirage to the bigger picture of a WNBA championship.
“Everyone has that mentality,” Thompson said, “It’s what we do and what we think about.”
It’ll be the first thing on the minds to start the season as they travel to Phoenix for their season opener. It was the Mercury who ended their season in the Conference Finals en route to their second WNBA championship in three seasons.
After missing several games at the start of last season due to the birth of her first child, Lailaa, Parker sounded happy to be able to contribute from the start. This week marked the first time she practiced with the team after returning from Russia.
All the pieces are in place for the team to break through back to the WNBA Finals and after the team saw what not to do in an up and down 2009 campaign, the focus is now on doing better instead of picking up the pieces and starting over.
“I’m tired of just learning lessons,” Parker said, “I’m ready to learn and win.”