This story appears in WSLAM 2. Get your copy here.
Ask Michael Cooper, the coach who led the Los Angeles Sparks to back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002, what he keeps in mind most from those 2 seasons, and you get an unanticipated reaction.
“The Houston Comets.”
No, actually. He indicates that.
“The reason I say that is that they set the bar very, very high,” Cooper states. “And we were looking to compete with them. They were our measuring stick.”
In those 2 years, twenty years back, the Sparks did more than contend. They stopped the Comets’ four-year run as WNBA champs, and by going back-to-back—winning WNBA titles in ’01 and ’02—they accomplished something that just Houston had actually achieved prior to and no WNBA group—not the Seattle Storm, not the Minnesota Lynx, not the Phoenix Mercury—has actually achieved considering that.
“It shows me just how difficult a feat it was,” states Sparks forward Delisha Milton-Jones. “I’m proud to know we’ve done something that has yet to be achieved again.”
The structure for successive title runs was laid in the previous season, frustration and disappointment offering the supreme inspiration for the Sparks to take their video game to the next level.
Los Angeles had actually currently developed themselves as one of the League’s finest groups in Cooper’s very first season at the helm.
In the 2000 project, Los Angeles entered into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed out of the West with the very best record in League history (28-4) and after that lost 2 straight video games to the Comets in the conference finals to end their season.
“I remember how defeated we felt at that moment,” states previous guard Tamecka Dixon. “It was at that point that we all made a commitment and a pact to one another. Wherever we went [overseas], we were going to improve our games for the sole purpose of putting together a title run.”
Cooper entered into that locker space and informed his group, “Remember this feeling.”
“He told us to let it drive us, that it should be our fuel,” Dixon states.
Cooper bears in mind that offseason well. Star center Lisa Leslie—“Smooth” as Cooper still calls her—stayed at home, handing down the chance to play overseas.
“We worked four days a week, and we worked hard every day,” Cooper states. “We needed her to get her game together. [Houston] had [Cynthia] Cooper, and [Tina] Thompson and [Sheryl] Swoopes. We needed her to be as good as two of those three at least.”
Cooper likewise persuaded Mwadi Mabika to stay at home, to deal with her defense with the objective of enhancing her capability to guard Swoopes.
“Those were the things we needed to put ourselves in a position to beat them,” Cooper states.
“Intuitively, I think we knew we were right there,” Dixon includes.
The start of the 2001 season was marked by extreme practices. Physical fights in between colleagues, competitors for playing time. A noticeable cravings for more.
“We beat each other up,” Dixon states. “We felt like nobody was going to challenge us more than we were going to challenge us. And I think that training camp set the tone for the season.”
The Sparks relocated to the brand-new STAPLES Center for the 2001 season, a fresh start in numerous methods. Leslie, Milton-Jones, Mabika and Dixon blazed a trail for another 28-4 record and another first-place surface in the West.
“Latasha Byears was big for us, we had a real legit point guard with Ukari Figgs. She didn’t have to be special, she just had to be good, and she was,” Cooper states. “She didn’t have to score a ton for us, but she needed to hit her shot when we needed it.”
The Sparks opened the playoffs versus Houston, sweeping the four-time champs out of the three-game series with 2 wins. What followed was a 2-1 series win over Sacramento and after that a 2-0 win over Charlotte for L.A.’s very first title. Leslie, who balanced 19.5 points a video game, was the All-Star Game MVP, the League MVP and the Finals MVP that season.
“We were so connected, so determined and so committed,” Dixon keeps in mind. “We had a bunch of All-Stars on that team—we were stacked—and we were able to put the egos aside. It didn’t matter who scored, who did what.”
Winning a champion was something, winning a second was another.
Cooper states he never ever had a doubt.
“That first championship, I was a little worried about whether we’d be able to weather [Houston] and play well on their home court,” Cooper states. “But that’s the only time I wavered. The second year, I knew from day one that we would win again.”
Cooper may have been the just one who understood for sure.
“The difference between the first and the second was that the second was extremely hard to get,” Milton-Jones states. “Every team gave us their best effort and played each game like it was their championship game.”
“We had a target on our back every night,” Dixon includes. “The hard part was never being able to take a night off. But we were battle-tested.”
Milton-Jones states the gamers held each other more liable than the coaches did.
Nikki Teasley was the No. 5 draft choice in 2002 out of North Carolina to the Portland Fire. Cooper and then-general supervisor Penny Toler chose to pursue Teasley and traded Figgs and a second-round choice to get her on the group.
Cooper states he understood Teasley would be a game-changer for his group, calling the novice guard an “it factor” for the Sparks. Teasley would begin every video game that season, balancing 4.4 helps per.
“She reminded me so much of Magic: she made baskets easy for all of our players. We knew once we got Nikki that we would be in a good spot,” Cooper states. He keeps in mind calling Teasley into his workplace when she got here and informing her he understood she would strike a champion shot.
It was not a routine season without its minutes. There would be unpleasant injuries to star gamers. There would be considerable contributions from the bench.
“Coop could go 10 deep and not worry about it,” Dixon states.
And yet completion outcome would be almost the exact same.
The Sparks would go 25-7—once again the League’s finest record—to win the West for the 3rd straight season. Los Angeles led the then-16-team League in scoring and rebounding with 4 gamers, Leslie, Milton-Jones, Mabika and Dixon balancing double figures.
The Sparks eventually made a 6-0 run through the playoffs, sweeping Seattle, Utah and New York for their 2nd straight WNBA champion. And Cooper’s forecast for Teasley would become a reality as the novice struck a three-pointer to seal the win in the champion series and finish the back-to-back.
“For me, No. 2 was even more fulfilling because it was harder,” Dixon states.
The Detroit Shock would reject L.A. the opportunity at the three-peat in 2003.
Still, the accomplishment remains in the WNBA’s record books.
“Houston showed us it was possible,” Dixon states. “And they also made us understand how hard it was.”
So hard that nobody has actually done it considering that. Minnesota has actually come as close as anybody, winning 4 titles in 7 years, however none in back-to-back seasons. The Sparks won the title in 2016 and went back to the Finals in 2017, however fell in a five-game series to Minnesota.
“It’s an interesting mix, because you’ve got to have the talent to do it, there’s a little bit of luck involved as well,” Dixon states. “The injury bug can’t hit you too hard, you have to be able to sustain the intensity and be OK. And you have to be unselfish. Sometimes you win one and you come back and maybe somebody wants a little more playing time, a little more money. It’s really a delicate balance.”
Dixon thinks that those Sparks groups were a few of the very best in the history of the League.
“When you have to look at the top three or four teams all-time in League history, you have to look at us,” Dixon states. “We did it back-to-back and player for player, we had amazing talent. And we put the pieces together.”
“We had a starting five that would have been premier players on any team in the League,” she states.
“We loved basketball and each other. Our legacy will never die.”
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Photos by means of Getty Images.