Everyone knew where the ball was supposed to go. As the Los
Angeles Sparks inbounded the ball with 13 seconds left and the
score tied at 66 in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals last Saturday, the
obvious choice to take the last shot was Lisa Leslie, the Los
Angeles Sparks' all-everything center. But when the New York
Liberty refused to allow Leslie a look in the paint, the ball
instead wound up outside the arc in the hands of rookie point
guard Nikki Teasley, who had clanged her four previous
three-point tries and had never hit a buzzer-beater in her life.
Only two seasons ago Teasley took an extended break from North
Carolina to battle depression, anxiety and shattered confidence.
On paper she was not a good bet to end the best-of-three series
and clinch the Sparks' second consecutive title.
L.A. coach Michael Cooper, however, had no doubts. "Any player on
this team takes a big shot like that, I know, I feel, I expect it
to go in," said Cooper after Teasley's swish with 2.4 seconds
remaining iced the 69-66 win and set off a storm of purple and
yellow confetti at the Staples Center. "That's what we prepare
for. Besides that, it was great for everyone to see that Nikki is
the player we knew she would be."
Given Teasley's checkered college career, Cooper and general
manager Penny Toler raised eyebrows around the league on draft
day in April when they traded starting point guard Ukari Figgs to
Portland for Teasley, whom the Fire had taken with the No. 5
selection. As L.A.'s loss total increased from four last year to
seven this season, even Teasley wondered if the Sparks had made a
bad deal. But Cooper never wavered. "He has so much confidence in
me, it's ridiculous," says the 6-foot Teasley. "He makes me bring
my game up a level because he believes in me so much."
Cooper had good reason to, as it turns out. "We traded for Nikki
because she has Magic Johnson qualities," he says. "She is a big
point guard with very special skills. Think about this: In his
final game as a rookie [in 1980], Magic had 42 points and 15
rebounds to win the championship. Nikki Teasley, in our last game
of the year, hits the biggest shot of the season and has 11
assists for the second game in a row."
The Sparks' resemblance to the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, for
whom Cooper played the fiery, well, spark off the bench--he won
five titles in his 11 seasons in L.A.--doesn't end with Teasley.
"Lisa is smooth like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], [forward] Mwadi
[Mabika] shoots like James Worthy, [shooting guard] Tamecka Dixon
reminds me of Byron Scott, and D-Nasty [thin, long-armed forward
DeLisha Milton] reminds me of myself," says Cooper, 46. "It's
scary, the similarities."
Cooper provides more than a few reminders of his former coach,
repeating such Pat Riley bromides as No rebounds, no rings and
Championships are won on the road. But it is Cooper the player
whom the Sparks most resemble. Friendly and engaging off the
court, they are flinty and aggressive on it, an 11-woman squad of
smiling assassins. When Cooper joined the Los Angeles staff as an
assistant in 1999, he inspired toughness and defensive tenacity
in a team that was perceived as soft. Now Liberty coach Richie
Adubato, among others, considers L.A. an "overly aggressive team"
that "throws an awful lot of elbows."
While some might not appreciate every aspect of the Sparks' brand
of defensive intensity, it is inarguably effective. After losing
44 games in its first three seasons, Los Angeles has dropped only
15 in the three years since Cooper took over for Orlando
Woolridge. For the last two seasons the Sparks have also led the
league in field-goal-percentage defense. "The difference here,"
says veteran guard Sophia Witherspoon, who played for New York
and Portland before joining L.A., "is that from Day One you're
thinking championship. You're not thinking about just making the
playoffs. That's Cooper, that's the whole organization."
But defense and desire were almost not enough to close out the
Liberty. After taking the opener at Madison Square Garden 71-63,
the Sparks held New York to 20.0% shooting in the first half last
Saturday but led just 31-24 at the break. In the first two
minutes of the second half Los Angeles stretched its lead to 14
points, only to see it vanish in a flurry of turnaround jumpers
by Liberty forward Tamika Whitmore. A nine-point lead with 2:47
to go disappeared under another barrage of New York layups and
jump shots. This was, after all, a Liberty team that has reached
the Finals four times in the WNBA's six seasons and was intent on
seizing its first title. "We never thought they were going to
give up," said Leslie, sporting a shower cap under her
championship cap to keep her hair champagne free. "They were
double- and triple-teaming me so I couldn't get that last shot
off. It was great that the ball went to Nikki and she knocked it
Knowing that defenses would swarm her regularly this year,
Leslie, the MVP in 2001, worked on her passing and ball handling
in the off-season. "She can dominate a game in almost any phase
right now, with her rebounding, her shot blocking, her scoring or
her passing," says Cooper, "but her greatest accomplishment may
be that she hasn't had a lot of turnovers out of the double and
triple team. Her teammates have been looking to get open, and
she's been finding the appropriate person. She does whatever we
need her to do to win."
The same might be said of Cooper, who says he sleeps only two
hours a night during the season, regularly bolting awake to
scribble down a play or watch tape. He is only slightly less
driven in the off-season; for the past two years he has begun
working out with Leslie in January. (Mabika, a gifted athlete
with one of the purest jump shots in basketball, also
participated in the drills for the first time this year and
joined Leslie on the first-team all-WNBA squad.) "The type of
relationship I have with him, it's like you would have with a
father," says the 30-year-old Leslie, who was named MVP of the
Finals for the second straight season. "You wouldn't want to
disappoint your father."
Feeling more confident in his best players' understanding of the
game, Cooper did a lot less of his usual sideline pacing this
season. (Perhaps not coincidentally, his technical-foul total
dropped from six last year to one.) What will he be like next
year, after an off-season of training with Teasley, who plans to
join Cooper's workouts after completing her degree in
African-American studies at Chapel Hill this fall? "It's going to
be wonderful to get a chance to work on Lady Magic's game," said
Cooper on Saturday. "She stood up today and told people about
next year: The ball is mine; I want it in crunch time."
He smiled, his faith in next year's team already deepened.
"Winning one title is one thing, repeating another. Winning a
third in a row is a whole different challenge," said Cooper, who
never had that pleasure as a Laker. "That one we'll have to learn
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [LEADING OFF] Liberty Denied Sparks point guard Nikki Teasley hits a game-winning three-pointer over Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon in Game 2 to clinch the WNBA championship for Los Angeles last Saturday (page 56).
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH D MEANER Leslie's pressure on Becky Hammon was typical of a defense that Cooper (above) has stiffened.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH NIKK OF TIME Cool on the break and in the clutch, Teasley called to mind L.A.'s Johnson administration.
Cooper "has so much confidence in me, it's ridiculous," Teasley
says. "He brings my game up a level because he believes in me so