When Mwadi Mabika was a girl in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo), she
lived across the street from an outdoor basketball court
frequented by a women's team. Mabika and her friends, who were
used to playing with a small, cheap basketball, would eagerly
sweep the court of sand for the players in exchange for five
minutes with a regulation ball. "One day they wouldn't give us
the ball to play with, so we put all the sand back," she says.
Years later, there is still a cost to denying the ball to
Mabika, a fifth-year guard with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks.
"When the ball is in Mwadi's hands, something good usually
happens," says L.A. guard Tamecka Dixon. "She can do things that
few women can do."
Such as perform a spot-on impression of Michael Jordan defying
gravity. On an NBC video that Mabika keeps among a neat stack of
game tapes in her Culver City apartment, there's a clip of Jordan
driving the baseline in a seemingly hopeless foray to the basket,
then floating past the defense and delivering an acrobatic
reverse layup. Seconds later, another clip shows the 5'11" Mabika
making the same move in a Sparks game. "Sometimes you find
yourself standing there watching her," says Dixon. "She is so
graceful in the air."
She doesn't need to be near the basket to thrill. Often
employing what Sparks coach Michael Cooper calls "the
best-looking jump shot in the game, men or women," Mabika scores
from all over the court. She is particularly reliable in crunch
time. "Mabika is a moan and a groan to guard," says Houston
coach Van Chancellor, whose Comets lost 66-63 to the Sparks on
Memorial Day, thanks in part to Mabika's 10 points. "She is a
great outside shooter, gets the offensive rebounds and puts the
ball on the floor. She is the most improved player in the WNBA
from the first year to right now."
In fact, she's a big reason L.A. is favored to win the league
title now that four-time champion Houston has lost stars Sheryl
Swoopes to an ACL injury and Cynthia Cooper to the Phoenix
Mercury, which she is coaching. Besides being the second leading
scorer on the Sparks last year with a 12.3 average, Mabika
finished in the WNBA's top 20 in assists, rebounds, steals and
three-pointers and made her first All-Star team. She averaged
17.5 points in the playoffs and held Swoopes, the league MVP and
leading scorer, to 15 points per game (3.8 below her playoff
average) in L.A.'s loss to Houston in the conference finals. In
the Sparks' first three games, all victories, this season, Mabika
has averaged nine points, all but one of her field goals a
Mabika, 24, has learned most of her defensive skills since coming
to the U.S., but she picked up many of her offensive moves
watching the broadcasts of NBA highlights on Zaire's one TV
channel. "Every morning, when I was between 14 and 18 years old,
I'd play basketball with the guys," says Mabika, "and we'd copy
the moves we'd just seen Jordan, Magic and [Clyde] Drexler make.
That's basically how I learned the game."
It wasn't a bad education. Three years after joining her first
Zairian Division III team, at age 12, Mabika became the go-to
player on the national team. At 19, when she scored 20 points
against the U.S. at the Atlantic Olympics, future WNBA vice
president of player personnel Renee Brown took note. In 1997, as
Zaire was in the throes of civil war, Brown, fellow Kinshasa
native Dikembe Mutombo, now of the Philadelphia 76ers, and his
brother Tshitingo appealed to the country's authorities to grant
Mabika a visa to try out for the fledgling WNBA.
After beating out 300 WNBA wannabes in an open tryout to make the
L.A. roster, Mabika learned English by listening to her teammates
and watching Oprah and Montel Williams. Now fluent, the shy
Mabika is no longer likely to shock teammates by announcing,
"Everybody makes me sick," as she did at a 1998 team meeting when
she intended to say, "Everybody makes mistakes."
"I love living in L.A., but I worry about my country," says
Mabika, who brought her mother to the U.S. in 1998 and hasn't
been back to the war-ravaged Congo. Like Mutombo, she wants to
help others in her homeland. Though her WNBA salary is between
$50,000 and $60,000, only about 1/250th of Mutombo's $14 million
NBA compensation, she is thinking of ways to set up a foundation
to help bring shoes, jerseys and balls to kids in Congo. "I want
to help them with their dreams," says Mabika, "because I wouldn't
be here if someone hadn't helped me with mine."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO
Coach Michael Cooper says Mabika has "the best-looking jump shot
in the game, men or women."