At the start of training camp for the 2002 season, Los Angeles Sparks head coach Michael Cooper assembled his team and set the tone for the upcoming year.
The Sparks are coming off their first championship in franchise history, and most of the team’s key players are back for another run in 2002.
In the middle was three-time MVP Lisa Leslie, the face of the franchise. Everything was started and finished by Leslie, the constant and consistent leader of the group. Forward Delisha Milton-Jones, an All-Star in 2000, was a fierce competitor who did all the little things for the Sparks. A member of the 2002 All-WNBA First Team, Mwadi Mabika was one of the most athletic guards in the game and the first African champion in league history. Tameka Dixon, a three-time All-Star guard Milton-Jones has dubbed the team’s Jinzu, cuts through the defense with her crafty hands and timely pull-up jumper.
At point guard was rookie Nikki Tesley, whose 6-foot-6 combined with her impressive court vision and basketball IQ prompted comparisons to Magic Johnson before she even took the WNBA court.
“She was the leader of it all,” Dixon said of Teasley.
As Cooper fronts the team, he intends to instill a competitive team mentality that will go along with the standards set by last season’s championship team. Milton-Jones reminds Los Angeles that if it wants to make a run for a second straight title, it needs to be locked in and ready for the uphill battle ahead.
“It’s hard to win the first one,” Cooper said. But winning the second one is more difficult. For us to bounce back, you have to realize that you have the biggest target on your back. Everyone is going to play their A-game against you every night, so you can’t catch a break.
It’s that mindset that the team embraces on day one and reinforces as the season progresses. By the end of the season, they would become the second team in WNBA history to win back-to-back titles. Such success has eluded the league’s franchises for the past two decades, including the 2022 Chicago Sky, who lost their chance to repeat after being eliminated in the semifinals by the Connecticut Sun on Thursday night.
Sky coach James Wade said after the game: “It’s tough because the teams are so good and teams who haven’t won the Championship are always hungry. “You always get the best. I was proud of how we defended the title. I thought we defended the title with grace and dignity. … We fell short. You can’t always win.”
With the Chicago Sky title, James Wade completed the path paved by black general managers before him.
As the years went by and several franchises tried and failed at the top of the league in back-to-back seasons, that star-studded Sparks team helped fuel the success it achieved decades earlier.
“I don’t even know how special that moment was,” said Milton Jones, a member of the Sparks’ 2001 and 2002 championship teams. “When you look back 20 years and realize that’s the last time that happened, we did something pretty shocking.”
Cooper’s speech at the start of the season was crucial for the Sparks, not just in its message, but in the experience of the man delivering the message. In the year As a member of the Showtime Lakers team in the 1980s, Cooper won back-to-back championships in 1987 and 1988 – his fourth and fifth rings.
“It was everything to us,” said Milton Jones. “It’s very powerful when you have someone who’s been there and done that, and they can give you the blueprint.”
James Wade is living the dream, thriving as a black coach and executive in the WNBA.
The culture of the Sparks’ championship teams is built on practice. Cooper created an electric practice every day that brought intense competition between the players.
“Our practices were tough,” Milton-Jones said. “They were tough and they were aggressive and physical. They taxed you. They were designed to be tougher than the games. We won the championship the way we practiced.
If he doesn’t think the rookies have been challenged enough, he makes them protect each other. Dixon defends Mabika. Milton-Jones waits for Leslie. Court battles ensued. Cooper isn’t afraid to challenge his players. In response, they argued with each other.
“There were a few days in practice where we were able to hit,” Dixon said. “It was that intense. We knew no one was going to challenge us as much as we challenged each other in practice.”
Milton-Jones added: “Going through those tough times together has given us a unique bond on the court, where if you mess with one, you mess with all of them.” “I think it’s our secret sauce that we can bounce back from.”
By the time the Sparks played actual games, the team’s preparation and conditioning had already been set. Milton-Jones said the team felt no pressure when they stepped on the court as defending champions. Each opponent they faced was expected to put their best foot forward. As a team, they took the stage every night with an early rock mentality.
Their goal: beat the opposition in every aspect of the competition – even before the opening tip.
“We want to win heats,” said Milton-Jones of her team, which finished the regular season with a 25-7 record. “That was the mindset. We warm up harder, we focus more and we adjust better, everyone is locked in for pre-game talk, everyone will be on top of everything.
As Dixon watched the ball slip out of Teasley’s hands as the clock ticked down in the second half, it felt as if time had stood still.
It was Game 2 of the 2002 WNBA Finals at Staples Center. A crowd of 13,500 watched the New York Liberty go on a 9-0 run to close the final quarter to tie the game 66-66. With 13 seconds left on the clock, Cooper set up a play for Leslie to receive the ball on the right block and attempt the game-winner.
After Mabika inbounds the ball to Teasley, Leslie cuts to the low block and tries to free Leslie with a screen near the high post. As Leslie jockeys for position, future Hall of Famer Teresa Witherspoon, anticipating Leslie’s move, pulls out of Tislin to block an entrance pass. With space, Teasley chose to hit his 3 from a foot or two from the line.
Dixon spoke about what happened after seeing Tesley’s shot slide into the net:
As the final whistle sounded and her teammates erupted at half court, Milton-Jones was overcome with mixed emotions. A sense of relief. A sense of accomplishment. A sense of pride and honor.
“We knew we had an opportunity and while we were at it we wanted to make sure we did something and didn’t walk away with regrets,” she said.
For Dixon, that encapsulates the reason they were able to repeat the final game that sealed the Sparks’ 2002 title: unselfish basketball.
“We always said no one cares because no one shoots the ball. We didn’t care how big the season was going to be,” said Dixon, who described the 2001 and 2002 teams as “legendary.” It was Nick’s turn. They left it open and she drilled it.”
Cooper went 116-31 in his first coaching stint with Los Angeles from 2000 to 2004. Cooper, who could not be reached for comment, was named the WNBA Coach of the Year in 2000 and was the first black coach to win the WNBA Championship in 2001. She is one of only two coaches in WNBA history to win back-to-back games. championships, another Van Chancellor who led the Houston Comets to their first four WNBA championships.
Cooper is one of five coaches in WNBA history to win multiple championships. His 230 regular season wins rank sixth all-time. His 27 playoff wins rank fourth.
“He deserves more praise and admiration,” said Milton Jones. “Cope was not brilliant. Cope was very laid back, gentle – just a blue collar worker. … He didn’t really want the credit, so he didn’t want the camera. When you’re like that, it’s easy to ignore even when you’re doing great things.
Dixon Cooper’s ability to buy in a stellar cast and create an environment that prioritized team over individual stardom was a key to their success as a franchise. Without the unselfish team, Dixon said, the Sparks would never have repeated.
“I think Coop has an uncanny ability to bring a team like ours together and put those pieces in place and make everyone feel like no one role is more important than the other. He preached that,” Dixon said. He did a great job of getting that message across to us.
The Sparks had a black general manager in Penny Toler, who was hired by the Sparks in 1999 after playing for Los Angeles for three seasons. Toler hired Cooper in 2000 and led the franchise during back-to-back championships. Prior to the 2002 season, Toler traded starting point guard Ukari Belas to the Portland Fire for Sofia Witherspoon and 5th overall pick Tesley, who eventually became Los Angeles’ Finals hero.
Since 2002, six teams (not including the Sparks’ return to the Finals in 2003) have returned to the WNBA Finals after winning the title, but failed to repeat as champions.
“Sadly, it’s still a scar in my soul,” former WNBA All-Star Nicole Powell said. “It’s very difficult to repeat.”
Powell still feels she missed a chance to make history with the Sacramento Monarchs in 2005 and was on a mission to do it again in 2006. Led by Leslie Sparks and Cheryl Swoopes, the Houston Comets went undefeated in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
In an up-and-down final against the Detroit Shock, the Kings entered Game 4 with a 2-1 series lead and a chance to win the title at home. But Sacramento squandered the opportunity, falling to the Shock by 20 points and scoring only two points in the final quarter of the game.
“I think we got left behind a little bit,” Powell said. “That sense of urgency, you can’t miss it. I think we had that sense of urgency, we didn’t make the plays to win when we should have. That was a lost opportunity.
Detroit, playing a crucial game 5 at home, defeated Sacramento to become the champion.
Isabelle Harrison’s unwavering personality stands out for the Dallas Wings and the WNBA
Powell noted that as teams reach the playoffs and the only teams remaining in the league are the best, the gap between teams narrows significantly in those final stages. At that point, she believes, whichever team can make those critical winning plays in a row, minimize the margin of error and, perhaps most importantly, stay focused.
“That’s what paying attention at the highest level is,” Powell said. “I think it really comes down to it. It’s easy to get there, but it’s hard to stay there… It’s not just on the shoulders of the stars; there’s no getting off anyone. You can’t miss the moment, you can’t miss someone’s moment. If you miss someone’s moment, you don’t win.”
The following season, the Shock would miss out on a repeat, losing to the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Finals in five games.
The cycle repeats once more as Chicago fails to add its name to the record books. A new WNBA champion will be crowned and In 2023, another opportunity arises for that franchise to add its name to a short list that has gone two long decades without a new entry.
“When that happens, you’re not thinking about how big that thing is and how difficult and difficult that task is,” Dixon said when asked which semifinal team best embodies the spirit of the championship Spark teams. He replied to Aces. “Looking back, it’s obviously huge, because it hasn’t happened since.”