Plaschke: Gritty Sparks bring new hope and winning effort during their season opening loss

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The buzz reached its peak late in the fourth quarter, the Sparks losing but winning, the stands downcast but dancing, the tiny gym teeming with hope.

The buzz that has swarmed the WNBA in recent weeks finally came to the Southland Wednesday, engulfing a cellar team that played as if competing for a title in front of fans who cheered like they were champions.

The Sparks lost their season opener 92-81 to the favored Atlanta Dream, but make no mistake.

This is not the Sparks team that finished the last three seasons with three losing records. This is not the Sparks team that has been recently booed and questioned and, worst of all, ignored.

These Sparks look different. These Sparks feel reborn. These Sparks play with sparks.

Fittingly, the buzz roared loudest during one of the Sparks lowest moments Wednesday, late in the fourth quarter at Long Beach’s cozy filled Pyramid, their hopes of an upset dashed by a 9-0 quarter-opening Dream run but the fans still feeling it.

During a timeout, the fans danced to Bruno Mars, pounded their white noisemakers, ogled a courtside Kim Kardashian and eventually locked arms and swayed to “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Seriously. The Sparks are 0-1, but for the first time in a long time, nobody is going to stop believing.

They played the Dream even for three quarters. They outrebounded their bigger opponent. They had 24 assists on 28 baskets. They competed in every corner.

They miss the departed Nneka Ogwumike, but they introduced No. 2 overall draft pick Cameron Brink, and when she wasn’t on the bench in foul trouble, she was brilliant.

They miss the departed Jordin Canada, but they introduced No. 4 draft pick Rickea Jackson, and while she was just 3 for 10, she made several big plays and showed a wonderful flair for the dramatic.

They’re a team without a superstar, but veterans Kia Nurse, Layshia Clarendon and Dearica Hamby respectively produced 23 points, a double-double and a triple-double.

“With that energy and that effort and the chemistry we played with today, we’re going to win a lot of games in this league,” said Nurse.

That energy will be compacted into the 4,000-seat Pyramid for one more game before the Sparks move back to beginning with Caitlin Clark’s visit on May 24.

Come to that game not only to witness currently the most celebrated athlete in America, but to watch the Sparks defeat Clark’s Indiana Fever.

Seriously. It says here that Curt Miller’s well-coached team will steal the show. After watching them nearly steal the opener — they lost it in the fourth quarter with their exhausted starters on the bench — it says here they’re going to ruin a lot of parties this season.

“We never quit, we really battled and showed our scrappiness that we’re going to be defined by this year,” Miller said, adding, “Overall it is a disappointing result …but what a great start in a lot of ways on what we’re trying to build as a culture and how we’re sharing it and moving it…something to grow from tonight.”

The education was particularly intense for Brink, who shot well and defended hard and was a plus-8 for her 20 minutes … but the Sparks needed her for much more. Problem was, she couldn’t stay out of foul trouble, she had five hacks, and she will learn.

“Cam has to find a way to stay out of foul trouble, she’s so important to what we’re doing,” said Miller.

Jackson was also impressive throughout much of her 18 minutes, particularly in the final ticks of the first half when she stole the ball at midcourt and drove down for a game-tying layup at the buzzer.

“Rickea is a really talented offensive player,” said Miller. “She can find her own offense.”

In all, it was a timely start for a team in a league that has never been more popular, with Clark bringing in millions of eyeballs from Iowa to Indiana every other team basking in the reflection.

The women’s NCAA title game drew four million more viewers than the men, and 2.4 million folks watched the ensuing WNBA draft. All of this just compounds an existing WNBA interest that last season resulted in the most watched Finals in 21 years.

“We’ve known how great our product is, now we’re getting exposure to new fans,” said Miller. “This league is the best women’s basketball league in the world, the product that we put on the floor is simply amazing…It should be a really special year for the WNBA.”

Before Wednesday, there was concern that the Sparks might miss the wave. After all, in recent years, they have been arguably this town’s most disappointing professional franchise.

They were once one of the perennial powerhouses of the league, with three titles and numerous deep playoff runs as recently as a Finals appearance in 2017. But they haven’t made the playoffs in three years and haven’t won a playoff game in four years while watching some of their greatest players leave town.

In recent years they lost Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and, this winter, even the beloved Ogwumike walked. While the reasons for the departures varied, the Sparks have ceased to become a destination spot in a league where the super teams now reside in Las Vegas and New York.

Although the Sparks were essentially saved from relocation when they were purchased by Magic Johnson and Guggenheim-led investment group in 2014, there was a sense that ownership hasn’t devoted the necessary attention to the franchise in recent years.

This seemed to change last year with the hiring of respected WNBA coach Miller from the Connecticut Sun. This offseason they brought in another respected basketball mind in Raegen Pebley to serve as the general manager.

Together, this spring they passed on the flashy Angel Reese to draft the more-solid Brink and Jackson. They join a hard-nosed squad led by veterans Clarendon and Hamby, a group that had the league’s analytically top-ranked defense over the second half of last season.

It is this gritty culture that they believe can lead them to consistent success. Wednesday felt like the first sign of proof.

“This is a city that wants championships and we want to deliver,” said Pebley this week. “We’re working to put ourselves in a position that every year we’re competing for a title.”

Pebley said part of this Sparks new identity will be a strong connection between the front office and the players, something that may have been missing in recent seasons.

“We’re taking a look at all areas of the organization and how we can continue to improve the player experience,” said Pebley. “There’s relationships we’re trying to build with each of these players to see what it is they need to feel that LA is resourcing them and supporting them to become their best self.”

Yes, Magic was sitting courtside Wednesday, and when they showed him on the video board, the appreciative fans roared.

One giant remaining area of concern is the team’s lack of a permanent practice facility. They currently work out of El Camino College, their third headquarters in three years, while most of the other WNBA teams have their own permanent homes. Pebley said the team loves and appreciates the efforts of El Camino, but acknowledged that the franchise would like to keep up with their competitors.

“Obviously … it’s becoming more of a standard across the league, and I know there are a lot of efforts to try to make sure that we’re hitting that standard,” she said of a permanent practice home.

Changes are coming. Changes are here. A different look. A different team. Who knows? The Sparks might even become the Sparks again.

A disappointing opener. A great way to start.

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