Sparks prepare for life after Leslie
INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- It's sinking in slowly even though it was planned and rehearsed a thousand times. Lisa Leslie announced her retirement from the WNBA before last season, giving everyone time to say goodbye before she finally hung up her high-tops and left the franchise she had been the face of since it was born.
There is no shock in her absence this season, but there is sentiment. Of the kind of player she was, of what she meant to the WNBA and the Sparks, of the kind of leader she was.
"I keep thinking we don't have all the players yet," Sparks guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris said. "We're still missing one. You know how we've been waiting on players to come from overseas? Well, Candace [Parker] was the last one on Saturday. But I'm like, 'No, we're still missing a player.'
"It still hasn't really dawned on me that Lisa is not coming back. Just getting used to not hearing that Lisa voice is taking some getting-used to."
It's a task that didn't get any easier when Leslie dropped by a Sparks practice during training camp and then the team's exhibition game in Long Beach against San Antonio on Saturday.
"We've seen her at practice and the preseason games, and I'm like, 'OK, where's your jersey?'" Ferdinand-Harris joked. "But it's just something we're going to have to move past. She's gone, she's happy, she just had a beautiful little boy. I think no one can replace Lisa, but with Candace and DeLisha [Milton-Jones] and Tina [Thompson], all three can collectively try to do their best to fill that hole."
Although they'll miss the three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player, the Sparks refuse to accept that life after Leslie means a year of rebuilding.
That conversation begins and ends with Parker, who has returned from four months in Russia healthy, happy and hankering to start winning WNBA championships with the sort of frequency that she won NCAA titles at Tennessee.
With Leslie, 37, having retired and moved on to a broadcasting and public speaking career, the Sparks are undoubtedly Parker's team now. The WNBA just might be hers for the taking, too.
Lofty mantles such as those can't simply be claimed or bestowed in advance. They must be earned and then re-earned over time.
"You can't like claim it, or put dibs on it," Parker said. "You have to prove it, that's the way I look at it. I don't think it really matters whose team it is as long as we get it done."
"It" is nothing short of a championship, and the Sparks haven't won one since 2002.
To change that, Parker, 24, must lead the charge. But she won't have to go it alone.
"She's totally capable," Thompson said. "I mean she was the first rookie of the year and MVP in the WNBA. And now she's had a full season after having [her first child] Lailaa. She's definitely back to her old self, and I expect great things from her.
"But it's not something we need to hammer in. Candace is talented. She can score 25 points a night if that's necessary. But the idea of this team is to put it together where that doesn't have to be a burden.
Candace is talented. She can score 25 points a night if that's necessary. But the idea of this team is to put it together where that doesn't have to be a burden.” -- Tina Thompson
"If that happens every night, great. Are we going to be upset about it? Heck no. We're going to be glad about it, but we want to have a balanced team. We don't want to be easy to guard to the point where people think, if they can shut her down, it's going to be easy to beat the Sparks."
Although Leslie's presence in the low block will be missed, Parker still has a talented supporting cast.
Thompson, 35, decided a couple of months ago that she had at least one more season in her before retirement; fellow Olympian Milton-Jones is back; and the team has upgraded significantly at point guard by adding Portuguese star Ticha Penicheiro after the Sacramento Monarchs franchise folded.
Former UCLA star Noelle Quinn likely will slide over to the wing when Penicheiro, the league's all-time assists leader, brings the ball up. Betty Lennox, Shannon Bobbitt and first-round draft pick Andrea Riley also will be in the mix in the backcourt.
If that sounds like a lot of guards for what must be an 11-woman roster by Friday, you're right. But new coach Jennifer Gillom said that the abundance of talented guards is a good problem to sort through, and she is planning a more up-tempo style of play as a result.
"I'm loving this, I really am," said Gillom, a Hall of Famer and Olympian who took over for Michael Cooper during the offseason.
"I thought there'd be some challenges with egos -- you know how you hear rumors and that kind of stuff -- but it hasn't been that way at all. This is a really good group. I'm surprised how quickly they are gelling and accepting the new system."
Now the question is: How quickly will they accept the reality that the "Lisa voice" is only going to be heard cheering from the stands?Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.