Storm-Sparks: A Rivalry Renewed

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Kevin Pelton, | September 17, 2008
Maybe it began when the Seattle Storm drafted Lauren Jackson the year after the precocious Jackson matched up with Lisa Leslie in the Olympics. Maybe it began at a seemingly-innocuous pregame shootaround at KeyArena. Maybe it was simply a geographic inevitability. One way or another, the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks have built one of the WNBA's most entertaining rivalries, which will add another prominent chapter when the two teams match up in the Western Conference playoffs starting Friday.

Storm Assistant Coach Shelley Patterson brings a unique perspective to the rivalry, having coached on both sides. Patterson spent the 2005 season as an assistant in Los Angeles before joining the Storm in 2007. Even though she was coaching elsewhere at the time, Patterson quickly heard through the grapevine about the shootaround incident, which took place in July 2002.

"I think this is the one team where they boo. They'll boo Lisa and they'll say, 'Beat L.A.!' as loud as they can."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty Images
The Storm, wrapping up by shooting free throws, went slightly over the allotted time. Sparks Head Coach Michael Cooper took that as his cue to march his team onto the court and begin huddling and doing a team cheer at center court as the furious Storm looked on. Later that night, Michelle Marciniak and Latasha Byears tussled during a Storm victory.

"It almost seems like ever since then, there's been something brewing with that," says Patterson. "Now, obviously they changed coaches when I was there, so it really wasn't like that when I was in L.A. I was with Henry Bibby and Jellybean (Bryant). I think when Coop came back in the mix, it almost seems like it's back again."

Even before then, however, there was some tension between the teams' respective superstars. While the media took notice of the Jackson-Leslie battle during the 2000 Olympics, they first tangled the previous fall, when an 18-year-old Jackson squared off against Leslie and the U.S. in an exhibition game. Either way, by the time Jackson arrived in the WNBA, she had served notice that she would not back down against the more accomplished and experienced Sparks star.

There is also the position that the Storm and Sparks were destined to become rivals. Sue Bird noted earlier this season in an interview with King5 that, at least here, the L.A.-Seattle rivalry transcends the Storm and the WNBA and extends across the sporting field.

Of course, rivalries are nothing new for the Sparks. Being one of the league's elite teams for an extended period will make that happen. In Los Angeles, it could be Sacramento that is the biggest rivalry. Once upon a time, the Comets were the rivals the Sparks needed to get through in order to accomplish their goal of winning a championship. Patterson even goes across conferences to suggest Detroit as L.A.'s top rival because of the history between coaches Cooper and Bill Laimbeer and a physical style of play that erupted into the worst fight in league history earlier this season.

Certainly, there is no doubt that no matter the feelings on the floor, Los Angeles is the archrival in the eyes of Storm fans and the team KeyArena loves to hate.

"Our fans are great. Our fans cheer everybody," says Patterson. "I think this is the one team where they boo. They'll boo Lisa and they'll say, 'Beat L.A.!' as loud as they can almost the whole game. That proves to us that the Storm fans, they're going to be behind us during this playoff. They want us to beat L.A."

On a regular basis, the Storm has done just that. The matchup is surprisingly even given that the Sparks have been one of the league's elite teams throughout the past decade. Nonetheless, the Storm holds a 14-11 head-to-head advantage in the regular season dating back to 2002. Even taking out last year's 4-0 sweep against a Los Angeles team without Leslie, the Storm has played the Sparks essentially to a draw during a span in which L.A. has won at a .673 clip during the regular season overall. Included are some of the most lopsided losses in Sparks history - a 36-point Storm win at KeyArena in 2003, a 26-point thumping the following season and a 23-point win in 2006 on Opening Night.

Listen to audio from Wednesday's Storm practice featuring Swoopes and Head Coach Brian Agler.
Yet there's one thing the Storm has yet to accomplish against Los Angeles - winning a playoff series. In 2002, the Sparks swept a young Storm squad en route to winning their second straight WNBA championship. Two years ago, the teams met in an even series that saw Los Angeles hold off a Storm comeback in Game 3 at the STAPLES Center to win two games to one.

The Storm's latest matchup with the Sparks may present the team's best opportunity. For the first time, the Storm faces Los Angeles with the benefit of home-court advantage. In both 2002 and 2006, the Sparks entered the series with seven more wins in the regular season. This time, it's the Storm that edged Los Angeles by two games in the standings. Strangely, the season series is also flip-flopped; while the Storm won 2-1 in both 2002 and 2006, this time the Sparks had the upper hand 2-1 by virtue of beating the Storm in a meaningless game Sunday in Los Angeles.

If the rivalry loses any luster because of the absence of Jackson, who will not play against the Sparks as she rehabs following August surgery on her right ankle, the Storm's new additions help make up for it. Swin Cash's Detroit team defeated the Sparks in the 2003 WNBA Finals. Sheryl Swoopes tormented Los Angeles as the Comets won consecutive matchups in the Western Conference Finals.

"They're going to battle, obviously, but I think it's a mutual respect for each other."
Aaron Last/Storm Photos
Yet that pales in comparison to the lengthy history between Storm center Yolanda Griffith and the Sparks. This is the sixth time in the last eight years Griffith will face Los Angeles in the postseason, the previous five coming in Sacramento. While the Sparks defeated the Monarchs in the 2001 and 2003 Western Conference Finals, Sacramento turned the tables in the first round in 2004 and went on to eliminate Los Angeles three straight seasons. While Griffith is unwilling to discuss the matchup between her and Leslie, noting that the games are between the Storm and Sparks, there is no question that the two greatest centers in WNBA history have a storied past.

"I think it's a respectful rivalry," says Patterson. "They have a lot of respect for each other. They know each other's strengths and probably weaknesses, so from that standpoint they're going to battle, obviously, but I think it's a mutual respect for each other. It will be a good matchup."

Griffith has had tremendous success defensively against Leslie in their last three playoff meetings. Over the span of seven games, Leslie was limited to 9.9 points and 7.7 rebounds on 35.6 percent shooting as the Monarchs went 6-1. Griffith helped the Storm contain Leslie during this year's regular-season minutes. Leslie averaged 6.0 points per game and shot 20.4 percent from the field.

At some point, Griffith was asked earlier this week, do you get sick of playing Leslie and the Sparks? Her answer spoke to the essence of the rivalry.

"No," Griffith said, "you always want to play against the best. You have to go through the best in order for people to recognize who you are as an individual."

Those kinds of confrontations also produce the most memorable games and series, and that's what Cooper is anticipating from this matchup.

"This is always a great rivalry between the Storm and the Sparks going back to the early 2000s," he says. "This is just a continuation of it."