WNBA Gets Its Spark

By Josh Peter
Updated: April 14, 2008

LOS ANGELES — The most marketable duo in women’s basketball locked eyes as if in a stare down.

Standing on opposite sides of their coach, Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker looked less like teammates than archrivals, as if the veteran star and the phenom already were vying for control of the Los Angeles Sparks, if not the entire WNBA.

“Good,” said the photographer, and the smoldering stares melted.

The staged expressions were part of a photo shoot last week during which it became clear the WNBA and women’s basketball got all it could hope for: a glamorous pairing with the requisite traits.

Beauty? Check.

Leslie has modeled for Armani, Tommy Hilfiger and Anne Klein. It’s only a matter of time before fashion magazines court Parker. (Bad news, gentlemen: Leslie is married and Parker is engaged.)

Brains? Check.

Leslie has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California. Parker has a 3.35 grade point average at the University of Tennessee and will earn a degree in sports management this spring.

Skills? Check.

Leslie has won three Olympic gold medals, three MVP trophies from the WNBA and two WNBA championship rings. Parker, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft last week, just led Tennessee to its second straight national championship and for the second year in a row was the consensus pick as the women’s national collegiate Player of the Year.

Leslie stands 6-foot-5, Parker stands 6-foot-4, and both can dunk with ease. In fact, Leslie was the first woman to dunk in a professional game and Parker was the first to dunk in an NCAA collegiate game. Maybe that had something to do with why Michael Cooper, coach of the Sparks, was beaming when asked about how he thinks the two will fit in together on the court.

“This is Showtime at its best,” said Cooper, a member of the Los Angeles Lakers’ “Showtime” teams that featured Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a fast-paced style that led them to five NBA titles in the 1980s. Cooper said he envisions the versatile Parker as Magic, the fluid Leslie as Kareem and his team as one that will entertain fans of women’s basketball the way the old Lakers entertained NBA fans.

“We’re going to get up and down the floor, and it’s going to be fun,” he said. “We’re going to let it fly and rebound and play defense. And then do it again in another night in another city.”

A celebrated duo on a barnstorming tour comes at an optimal time for the WNBA. Entering its 12th season, the 14-team league still is trying to prove it is a viable enterprise.

Reported attendance has declined from a high of 9,100 per game to about 7,500 per game, according to published reports. Earlier this year the league signed an eight-year TV deal with ESPN, but ratings remain strikingly low.

In what has amounted to child support, the NBA has given the WNBA upwards of $10 million a year. But now the NBA would like to see the women’s league flourish on its own.

Recognizing a PR boon when it sees it, the marketing division of the WNBA has seized the moment. A day after the photo shoot in Los Angeles, a picture of Leslie and Parker standing on either side of Cooper was featured on the league’s website.

And surely it’s just a coincidence that the WNBA’s national telecast on May 17, opening day, will feature a game between the Phoenix Mercury, the league’s reigning champions, and the Sparks.

“There is general consensus around the world that Candace represents a special level of player,” Donna Orender, the WBNA’s commissioner, told the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press after the Sparks drafted Parker.

“I think the impact and the quality of her play is only going to be positive for everybody. But she also represents a broadness in her appeal.” But for now, the real appeal is the prospect of watching Parker and Leslie on the court together.

The Sparks’ good fortune resulted from the team’s misfortune in 2007. Before the season started, Leslie, pregnant with her first child, announced she would sit out the year on maternity leave.

Then, five games into the season, Chamique Holdsclaw, a perennial All-Star expected to lead the team in Leslie’s absence, abruptly retired.

Meanwhile, starting point guard Tameka Johnson was battling a knee injury that limited her to 11 games last season, and the Sparks sputtered to a league-worst 10-24 record.

Of course, there was no better time for a nosedive.

In October, during a lottery weighted in favor of teams with the league’s worst records, the Sparks won the No. 1 overall pick. Parker announced four months later she would forgo her final year of college eligibility, clearly in part because she realized she’d likely end up playing alongside Leslie, her childhood idol.

The two also figure to play prominent roles in August when the USA women’s basketball team competes at the Olympics in Beijing and will be favored to win the gold medal. But the Sparks already think they’ve struck gold.

Last week at the photo shoot in the Staples Center, where the Sparks play their home games, no one thought to bring a baton. But Leslie sounds inclined to pass the baton to Parker — in due time.

At 35, Leslie looks as trim and fit as ever less than a year after giving birth to her daughter, Lauren, and told a gaggle of reporters, “I’ve won it all, I’ve done it all. But I’m still not done yet.”

But Leslie also said Parker is much further along than she was at the age of 22.

“As far as her game, dude,” Leslie said with the look of awe. ” … She’s very close to my game now. She’s phenomenal, the things she’s capable of doing, so I feel honored that people compare us.

“I would love being her role model and mentor and just give her all the knowledge that I have about the game. That’s what it’s really about is passing it on.”

She’s not just talking about passing along insight on low-post moves either.

“With L.A., the funny part of it is, so many people are coming at you,” Leslie said. “They want to give you their card, they want to do your hair, they want to do so much. I will let Candace know, ‘Look, here are the numbers. Whatever your need.’

“That’s probably the problem with the big city is that you can’t trust everybody. With Knoxville, she probably knows who to trust and where to go and you can stop by somebody’s house and go eat some apple pie and it’s OK. Here, it’s like, ‘Check out that apple pie.’ “

Told that Leslie had declared “Everything’s about Candace, it’s not about me,” Parker looked taken aback.

“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s all about Lisa. I’m the newbie. I’m the new person to the team. I’m trying to learn. This is her city.”

Growing up, Parker marveled at Leslie’s on-court skills. She said she has tried to incorporate the same versatility Leslie exhibited into her own game.

“Her being a tall, mobile post player, forward that can run the floor, get out in transition,” Parker said. “I’ve watched her play a lot, I’m a huge fan of the WNBA and I’m still pinching myself to really believe that I’m going to be playing alongside her.”

It’s no dream anymore. There they were during the photo shoot, looking at home as they stood side-by-side, Parker wearing No. 3, the same number little girls in Tennessee wear in tribute to Parker, and Leslie wearing No. 9, the number on so many replica jerseys worn by Sparks fans.

There’s still the uncertainty of whether Leslie can fully regain her form after skipping last season. There’s also the uncertainly of how quickly Parker can recover from the separated left shoulder she played with during the NCAA tournament.

But neither issue seemed pressing during a photo shoot when the two basketball stars fixed their hair, chatted and occasionally giggled — when the photographer wasn’t instructing them to exchange serious looks, that is.

Taking it all in, Parker’s mother, Sara, beamed.

“If you had taken pencil and paper,” she said, “you couldn’t have scripted this any better.”