The Rivalry Resumes
“Go ahead, Coop,” Laimbeer said, offering the initial remarks on their season-opening back-to-back to Cooper during a recent media conference call with league coaches.
“No, Bill, you’re first, you’re the champion,” Cooper protested, with some tongue-in-cheek flattery for good measure. “Go ahead.”
With oodles of star power, championship tradition and a healthy dose of genuine animosity, the Shock and Sparks have forged precisely the type of rivalry that the WNBA needs to attract fans. It’s no wonder the league decided to have the teams meet in its 13th season opener in Los Angeles on Saturday.
“Quite frankly, these are two teams that I think in the long run really don’t like each other to some degree,” Laimbeer said. “So we both think we’re rivals for the championship and we want to get out there and put on a good show.”
In a scheduling quirk, the teams will travel cross-country to meet again Monday at The Palace, where the Shock will raise their third championship banner. Barring a WNBA Finals matchup (which no one would rule out), that’s it for the league’s hottest rivalry in 2009, which is a shame. The long-running duel won’t be quite the same after this season.
“I think it’s a little unfortunate that the scheduling came out back-to-back,” Laimbeer confessed. “I know that the Shock-Sparks matchup is a highly anticipated one, not only by our own fans in L.A. and in Detroit but I think a lot of WNBA fans really want to see that matchup at different times [in the season]. It comes so fast, it kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”
Coaches Looking Forward
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
“As coaches we get by that,” Cooper said of the bad blood. “I think it helps add [promotional value] for the league as far as the intensity and the rivalry. [But] that game is said and done and we’re looking forward to this season.”
The tension that may have pervaded this matchup initially has been diffused by the uncertain status of last year’s protagonists. Parker, who had her first child in May, and Ford, still recovering from the season-ending ACL tear she suffered that night, missed their respective preseasons in their entirety, as did Shock guard Deanna Nolan. Pierson played just five minutes in the preseason finale after crashing hard to the floor.
With neither team likely to field its full cast of characters, it will be hard to duplicate the drama of the Sparks’ 84-81 victory at The Palace, an epic clash in which Detroit rallied from 21 points down to make it a one-point game.
One prominent figure sure to appear is three-time MVP Lisa Leslie, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer. Leslie was the face of the Sparks, if not the entire league, when her two-time defending champions were dethroned by Detroit in the 2003 Finals. The 6-foot-5 center has announced she will retire after the 2009 season, depriving the league of an icon and the rivalry of a player who roused strong emotions in both cities.
Leslie’s farewell tour evokes the same path NBA career scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took 20 years ago. Both coaches were on the floor at Abdul-Jabbar’s final game in Los Angeles, when Laimbeer’s Pistons finished their sweep of the Cooper’s Lakers in Game 4 of the 1989 Finals.
Led by integral characters from those Pistons-Lakers battles, today’s Detroit-L.A. feud in the WNBA connects effortlessly with that era, in a manner that would seem contrived otherwise. That charm will be diminished after 2009 when Cooper departs to become the head women’s coach at Southern California.
“As coaches, that’s all last year,” Laimbeer said of July 22, “although Coop and I have a little bit of a rivalry going on between the two of us, and that also feeds down to our players. They’re not naïve; they understand L.A.-Detroit, not only from our prior history but our history now, the last four or five years.”
Since 2003, the Shock and Sparks have split their last 14 meetings, seven wins apiece, with Detroit taking both meetings in 2007 and L.A. winning twice in 2008.
An Immediate Test
Though neither team is expected to be at full strength or in peak form, both coaches are eager to see how their squads handle the immediate test. “What a way to start the league off,” Cooper said. “… What a way to test your team and see where you’re at right off the bat.”
Both teams have new players to incorporate into key roles. Four-time WNBA champion Tina Thompson has joined the Sparks, which also have a new starting backcourt in Noelle Quinn and Betty Lennox. In addition to a banged-up frontcourt, the Shock have a pair of new guards in rookie Shavonte Zellous and Kristin Haynie.
“We’re going to come in just trying to keep our head above water and hopefully by the end of the day, after the first two games, we can win two or at least [get] a split,” said Laimbeer, who won season openers in 2004 and 2007 as defending champions.
In the end, neither Laimbeer nor Cooper got the last word on Detroit and L.A. in 2009. That went to Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault, who sounded delighted to be above the fray, offering the same candid assessment of this rivalry a lot of WNBA fans would:
“I hope you kill each other.”