Time to laugh with (but not at) Sparks coach Bryant
It's 9:30 in the morning in Japan, and Joe Bryant is laughing. He's got one of those "OK, here we go!!!" laughs that picks up speed and carries you along. It's contagious, and maybe that's part of the reason the Los Angeles Sparks players seemed to respond to him so well when he replaced Henry Bibby, who resigned last August.
(All right, no wisecracks about how the Sparks might also have rallied around a stuffed likeness of Mr. Ed, the Travelocity Roaming Gnome or an empty chair after the mercifully brief Bibby fiasco.)
Bryant appeared to quickly earn the players' support last season. And earlier this week, he officially was named the team's head coach.
Oh, sure, there could be plenty of other factors. Some would probably point out that one of Bryant's children, a fellow named Kobe, is a fairly successful member of some other hoops team in L.A., the one that owns the Sparks.
Then there's the fact that so many WNBA franchises are enamored with the concept of having coaches who:
A) played in the NBA and have a history of entirely or predominantly working with men's teams or
B) played in the NBA and have never coached on any official level at all.
And then there's the fact that L.A. pretty much had to finally announce somebody as the coach, since the WNBA season opens in a month.
Yeah, it's easy to find the flaws with this. Is Joe Bryant really the right person for this job? Does L.A. management really take the Sparks seriously? Can anybody but Michael Cooper successfully coach this franchise?
OK, I'm really not trying to be a little Sunshine Spreader here. However after talking to Bryant for a bit this week, I'm willing to say, "Let's give him a chance. Let's see what he can do."
Bryant is coaching a men's team in Japan right now, getting ready for the playoffs. He'll finish off his duties there, board a plane and get back to L.A. on May 1 and begin coaching the Sparks that same day.
Sure, that will be a week or so after they start training camp, and that's a concern for some observers, too. But late arrivals and crash-course season preparation are parts of the WNBA for the foreseeable future. I've done enough griping about it; I don't see a big change anytime soon.
For what it's worth, Bryant seems like the kind of person who operates best when he's whirlwind-busy.
"No time off," he said by phone from Japan on Wednesday. "I came here in October, right after the WNBA was finished. This season started in November and ends in April. So I'm coaching 12 months out of the year."
He laughs and if you hear it, you can't help but smile, too.
"If there were 14 months in a year," he adds, "I'd have another team."
Why? When you've competed in the NBA, you've played and coached internationally, your son is an NBA megastar and you've traveled the world over many times, what compels you to want to spend the summer with the WNBA?
How about this reason: Bryant likes the league, just as many other people have for a while. And he just flat-out likes to coach. He told L.A. general manager Penny Toler that whether she hired him to become the Sparks' head coach this season, he'd be around the gym to do whatever he could.
"The fun part of coaching is watching players grow, seeing them understand a certain moment or really get something that's been hard for them," Bryant said. "I said to Penny, 'I just want to help. I'll be around.' If nothing else, I like telling stories of all the players I've known."
Again, laughter bubbles from Bryant like a rush of rapids.
"When you get older, that's what you do: tell stories," he said. "Sometimes, the same stories over and over. But you tell them because there is some meaning there."
There's work for Bryant and the Sparks' management to do in terms of shaping this team. When I last checked L.A.'s on-line roster, there were about 78 players listed. OK, it was actually 24, but that's still a heap more than you're allowed.
For the first time, the Sparks will take the court without shooting guard Tamecka Dixon, one of the team's original members who's now in Houston. Nikki Teasley was traded to Washington for last season's rookie of the year, Temeka Johnson, who'll take over at the point. Tamika Whitmore, the Sparks' third-leading scorer last season, is now with Indiana.
Of course, you know all about remaining stalwarts Lisa Leslie and Chamique Holdsclaw. Not much, just two of the best players in the history of the women's game. And Bryant said he has run up his phone bill checking in often to see how Mwadi Mabika is doing; she was limited greatly last season with injuries.
"We're looking forward to her being healthy; the updates I've been given indicate she is," Bryant said. "She's a special player. We're going to have a really good rotation and be able to run a lot of players in the game. As a coach, I would love to regularly use 10 players, not just six or seven. People who aren't going to be worried what their minutes or points are, but see the big picture."
Bryant is excited about Johnson's on-the-ball defensive skills.
"She's so aggressive, we'll expect her to pick up the opposing point guards as soon as they walk through the tunnel," he said, chuckling again. "And offensively, she can beat a press single-handedly."
He sees top draft pick Lisa Willis of UCLA doing a lot to help unclog the inside for Leslie, Holdsclaw and Christi Thomas.
Earlier Wednesday, I had talked to Willis about playing for her hometown Sparks, and she said one of the best parts about it -- besides staying close to all her family and friends -- was the chance to compete alongside one of the people she models her game after.
"Mwadi Mabika and Sheryl Swoopes are my favorite players," Willis said. "It's because they don't just play offense -- their game isn't limited to one thing, they have an all-around game. They always play defense well. When I was younger, I had to find somebody I felt I wanted to play like, and Mwadi was definitely that kind of player."
I relayed those thoughts to Bryant and asked if he saw similarity between Mabika and Willis.
"Absolutely -- for one thing, they both can shoot," Bryant said. "Lisa Willis can really extend the defense for us. If I have both Mwadi and her in the game at the same time, that really opens it up down low for Christi and Lisa (Leslie)."
The excitement in Bryant's voice looking ahead to the Sparks' season seemed genuine. Whether it will all work out well that's what we'll have to see.
Anybody who has followed the WNBA the first nine years knows there has been a lot of unintentionally comedic material when it comes to coaches. Washington's past revolving door (at least Richie Adubato seems to have provided some stability; previously, about all the Mystics hadn't done was let a randomly chosen fan coach each game) Detroit's pre-Bill Laimbeer soap opera Cynthia Cooper's bizarro exit from Phoenix. And, well really there has been enough just with the Mystics alone.
As the league is set to celebrate its 10th anniversary, questions are still being asked about the WNBA's coaching. And that's fair -- although there are far fewer obvious problems than there used to be.
Last season's situation in L.A. didn't exactly help that organization's track record. But Bryant did well in his short stint as an interim, going 4-1 to finish the regular season with the Sparks earning a playoff spot. Now, it's his team. There will be some who still wonder about that. And Michael Abraham's appointment as assistant coach has raised some eyebrows, too.
Abraham has a long history in women's basketball, as he was head coach at Cal State Northridge and an assistant at Oregon State and Long Beach State. But Abraham also served 18 months in jail after a 1999 conviction on federal drug-trafficking charges. Obviously, Toler -- who played for Abraham -- believed in giving him another chance, as did Bryant.
Who knows? As we get into the season, the Sparks' situation could show that these coaching moves weren't wise. But let's not jump to that conclusion before seeing evidence.
Bryant will finish up in Japan and then start work immediately in L.A. He says he's ready.
"It's the way I like it -- busy," he said. "Sure, at some point [jet lag] is going to hit me, and I'll feel like I'm in the 'Twilight Zone.' "
Then he -- you guessed it -- laughed again. And it's worth noting that not all "Twilight Zone" episodes are creepy or macabre or downbeat. Sometimes, they had happy endings.Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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