, Detroit Shock
, Los Angeles Sparks
September 10, 2003
Well, obviously it’s a great accomplishment for our ladies to have arrived here in the Finals. That was our goal, our stated goal of the year, but it’s not our mission. Our mission is to win the championship. We believe that we have the best team in the world out there and let’s go throw the ball up and prove it. We’re looking forward to it. We have a fairly healthy squad except for [Deanna] Nolan
; we’re unclear what her status is entering Friday’s game. There’s no question (about it) she will not be 100 percent. Other than that, we’re prepared to go forward with whoever we’ve got.
Q: Any guarantees this time?
Laimbeer: I knew you were going to come up with that one (laughter). No, the only guarantee is that I believe we’re going to show up and play very good basketball. We’ve been talking about the WNBA Finals for the entire year -- that we believe we were the team of destiny and what it would take, not only once we got there, but when we got there. We fully expected to play Los Angeles and we’ve been mentally preparing the entire time.
Q: You say you fully expected to play L.A., but you had talked about Sacramento coming out of the West. Any reservations or second thoughts about that, now that L.A. is in the Finals?
Laimbeer: No, I fully believed that with the way Sacramento had came together mentally, that they had the better shot to come out of the West; they almost did it. But as far as our team is concerned, we’ve been mentally preparing to play Los Angeles.
Q: With Deanna Nolan’s status unknown, have you decided on a starting lineup yet?
Laimbeer: That’s to be determined. I have a good idea of what I want to do. I’m not going to give it away right now, but I expect Deanna to start. Make no mistake about that one; that’s what I’m planning on. How good she’ll be remains to be seen, but I don’t think there’s any way that I’m going to keep her out of the starting lineup for Game 1.
Q: Just because of her determination?
Laimbeer: She’s showing pretty good progress today. She was out, actually got some shots in today, so that’s a positive. As each day goes along, it’s getting better and better. So there’s no structural issues. It’s just how much pain can she stand?
Q: Can you talk a little about this front line matchup, with four extremely strong players going against each other?
Laimbeer: Yeah, I think our strength all year long has been our post play, not only from Cheryl [Ford] and Ruth [Riley] but also Swin [Cash] in there. Everybody in the league has been pointing toward this matchup all season long. We think that’s one of our strengths: We attack ferociously. We attack the basket for the entire game with our post-up game and we have great sharp-shooters on the perimeter in case teams want to come and try to trap us as they normally do. But, we’re not going to change our gameplan. We’re going to attack the post at all times for the entire 40 minutes. They have to guard us and maybe we’ll get to the free throw line and get in their bench a little bit.
Q: How much do you think you and Michael Cooper may make the WNBA appealing to a fan base that it may not have been appealing to before?
Laimbeer: Well, I definitely think that the opportunity to attract some people to watch this is there, not only because of me and Michael. I think that’s part of it, I can only talk to that factor. I believe there will be people who will tune in just to see the two of us and what we have going on, but once they tune in I think, I know at least for our team, we’re fun to watch. We’re exciting. We’re big. We’re strong. We’re fast. We play solid defense and we’re fun to watch. Once they tune in, hopefully, they’ll enjoy the product and the show we put on.
Q: How much is your experience of playing for a championship helpful to your players?
Laimbeer: I think it’s a big positive for our ballclub. It’s not just something I’ve been talking about this week. I’ve been talking about playing for the championship from the opening of training camp. I’ve continuously, every week, and sometimes every other day, talked about what they will experience in the playoffs and what they will experience when they get to the Finals. We also have two players that won college championships – Swin Cash and Ruth Riley – so they’ve been there. But for the most part, I think I’ve educated them very well on what they’re going to expect here in the Finals and how they should perform. So, I don’t think the inexperience or the lack of Finals experience will hurt us at all.
Q: Could you recall some of your favorite memories from the days when the Lakers and Pistons were playing each other?
Laimbeer: I was thinking about that last night after Cooper starts calling me names in the paper from playing the Lakers. The hardest part for us as the Pistons was getting past the Celtics. We matched up with the Lakers in the Finals, kind of like this situation we have going on now. We had a bunch of young players who were very aggressive and very focused and very confident of themselves, going up against the two-time defending champion. And we didn’t really know any better except to bring our game and see who wins. Unfortunately, we lost in seven, should’ve won, but hey that’s life. But it was a great series and the next year, once we figured out the Lakers, we swept them. I wish I had time to play them some more before we went into the series to learn about them, but toss the ball up and we’re going to see who’s best.
Q: Do you think this is the East’s best chance to win the championship?
Laimbeer: I can’t really comment about New York's opportunities and before us. But I know our opportunity that is in front of us is tremendous. We believe not only are we representing the Eastern Conference, we’re also playing this one for ourselves. We spent all year long winning the Eastern Conference for our franchise, for our fans, but we knew that what we wanted was the WNBA championship. We believe we’re going to win. That’s really a large part of the battle, is the belief and the will you have in yourselves. We believe we have the best team and we’re going to go prove it. So we’re going to play 120 minutes of basketball in this series, not just 40 minutes for the first game. We’re going to play 120 minutes of Shock-style basketball and we’ll believe that we’ll be good enough.
Q: How important is it to have two former NBA basketball players who played against each other coaching in this series?
Laimbeer: Well, I think it’s more of the mental part of preparing the ladies and just the demeanor and the presence and the will that we can exude in our teams. We’ve been there, we’ve done that and hopefully it rubs off on our players.
Q: Will we see you talking to the refs a lot during the games?
Laimbeer: (laughter) Well, I converse with the refs. Talking’s probably the best way. I don’t yell at the refs; I converse with them. I point out some of the errors of their ways and they remind me of some of the calls that they made correctly, so it’s an ongoing conversation.
Q: Is there anything that you’re trying to do to prevent your players from becoming starry-eyed, or is that not even a factor with this group?
Laimbeer: I’ve thought about that a lot with our ball lub and if there’s anything I could see in it. I don’t see it. We’re a very composed group, surprisingly so throughout the course of the year. We are very focused, we’re determined. Our composure in any pressure situation has been unbelievable all year long. I don’t think that we’ll get nervous. I don’t think we’ll lose any composure. The only thing I worry about is any distraction, with all the hoopla and the media, where we don’t walk into the court from the opening tap totally ready to play, but I think we’re past that. We learned that in the Cleveland series. If we don’t show up we’re going to lose. I think we’ll do just fine.
Q: Cheryl Ford has been a little overwhelmed at times. How will she handle the pressure?
Laimbeer: I agree with that. It seems that way at times that she’s not there because she’s just – overwhelmed would probably be a reasonable word to use. She’s experiencing it. She’s been in two playoffs series right now. If there’s one player that we’ll have to keep an eye on, it probably will be her. But, hopefully she’s learned. I think the players are working with her to get her on the same page and I think we’ll do just fine.
First of all, it feels good to be back in the WNBA Finals. It’s been a long, tough season for us. We had a heck of a playoffs against Minnesota and Sacramento, and now we’re just ready to defend our title, and we know it’s going to take a good defensive effort. I think the key in this series is going to be our rebounding, but in the same respect, we have to get out and run. This Detroit team is unlike any Eastern Conference team. This team can get out and run, because they have some athletes. It’s going to be an interesting series.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your memories of playing against Bill Laimbeer in the NBA Finals back in the ‘80s?
Cooper: They are very fond memories, but no fondness for him. We were rivals. They were the Bad Boys, and it was good basketball. You knew you had to come and compete against those Detroit teams, and I’m sure they felt the same way about us. It’s kind of funny to see him on the other side, but this book isn’t about us. We’re just the book cover everyone wants to talk about, Laimbeer and Cooper, but this is the Sparks vs. the Shock, and the players are the ones that are going to make the book interesting. But it is fun to look down there and see him once again. His uniform fit him better than his suit does.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the frontline matchup?
Cooper: I think it’s going to be very crucial to which team has the greatest success, who controls the boards, both offensive and defensive. They’ve been the number one defensive team and we’ve been the number three team. With Cheryl Ford, Ruth Riley and Swin Cash, they present a problem for you, not only because Riley and Ford are big bodies, but they can also get out and go and they can rebound at angles. They don’t have to rebound straight up and down, they can get those rebounds that fall off to the side in mid-air. That’s the reason Cheryl Ford is the rookie of the year. I also like our frontline. It’s going to be a tough series. The little things are going to come into play as far as boxing out and the footwork it takes to box people out, because both teams have athletes. You’re going to have to go that extra yard. The team that does the better job rebounding is probably going to win.
Q: Can you talk about your team’s mental growth?
Cooper: I’m very thankful and pleased all the words you can say about our team in the respect. It does take a certain mental toughness and it does get harder each year, because everybody’s gearing up and all eyes are focused on you and every game feels like a playoff game. That was the case with us from Day One. Of our first 11 games, eight were on the road, so we were tested from the get-go. We held our own then. Then we had the little slide, which definitely gave us a gut check and made us really look within, and now everybody’s back and playing well. You’re always getting everybody’s best shot, and then you get into the playoffs and face a tough team like Minnesota, and then Sacramento. Now we have to go against the number one rebounding team. It’s been a very interesting season for us, but I’m very pleased and happy and I’m just proud to be a part of it and coaching these ladies.
Q: Can you talk about what Lisa Leslie brings every night to this team?
Cooper: You saw it when she went down. She went down during the All-Star Game and missed 11 games, but she’s our go-to player, gives us point in the paint. She’s such a team leader out on the floor. You’d like to think that your leaders are your point guards or ballhandlers, but for her being our center, she keeps us together. She’s the glue. When we get rattled, where coaches don’t want to waste a timeout, she can pull the team together. She can play with her back to the basket, but she also has the ability to shoot the three and that’s where she causes problems for the defense. But her biggest contribution is her shot-blocking ability in the low post. She reminds of a cross between Bill Russell and Nate Thurmond, two great centers who weren’t seven-footers but did their jobs, blocked shots and kept the ball in play so we can get points off of it. And I think people do take her for granted. It’s kind of like Phil Jackson in the NBA never getting consideration for Coach of the Year, but he just always wins, and the Coach of the Year goes to the other coaches trying to get to the level that he’s at. If she doesn’t win the MVP, it’s sad because she is an MVP player and she’s shown that. MVP players take their teams where they are supposed to be. They put them in the playoffs and take them to the next level.
Q: Earlier in the year, Laimbeer said his team would beat yours and they did. Does that linger?
Cooper: No. I don’t take things personally. He guaranteed that they would beat us this year, and I don’t think they beat us. We gave them that game. If Bill Laimbeer goes back to the tape, we were up by two with 12 seconds left and Nikki Teasley was going to the line to shoot two free throws. It was our inability to win that game. We lost; they didn’t win. We lost. Our goal is not to beat Bill Laimbeer. Our goal is to beat the Detroit Shock, because we feel that we’re still the best team in the league. Bill is doing what he’s supposed to do as a coach and that’s give his team confidence. You have to talk about winning for your players to get that feeling. He feels they can beat us and I feel we can beat them.
Q: Will team depth be a factor?
Cooper: Our bench is a different type of bench. It may not be as deep as theirs, but people have to understand, you only have to play five and I think our five is the best in the league. Yes, we can slip another player in here or there, and as a coach, you always want to keep three starters on the floor and I feel like we have the three best. The five we put on the floor is still the best five and if they’re not playing well, we’ll get beat, but if they are, I can’t see anybody beating us.
Q: Would you concede that this is the best team to come out of the East so far?
Cooper: I would say so. They’ve been the best team all year long. You have one and two, and I think that makes for a great series. This is probably the best team as far as mental toughness, athleticism, getting up and down the floor, getting things done in the paint. But we still feel we’re the team to beat.
Q: Who will have the psychological edge with the refs, you or Bill?
Cooper: Bill was terrible with the officials when he played. But I don’t know. I really don’t pay attention to the officials. The only time I get up is when I think there’s a questionable call, but other than that, I don’t ride the officials. I think the players will dictate how the officials call it. If they play ugly basketball, there will be a lot of fouls. I’m not about working the officials. I don’t think that’s part of coaching. You can’t do anything. I’m worried about my players competing against his players and if we do what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to win the game.
Q: Do you consider your team to be the underdog because they own the home-court advantage, and how important is Game 1?
Cooper: Very important, but we’ve been the best road team all year. Those two playoffs losses, that doesn’t mean anything to me, because you work hard to get home-court advantage so you can play two at home. The first game is always important. Granted in the last two series we faltered, but now we’re at home and if it goes the way I think it might go, we might lose this one and may have to win two back there. We don’t have home-court advantage, but we still feel like we’re the team to beat.