The Storm and the Sparks: A Rivalry Revisited

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Kevin Pelton, | Aug. 23, 2010

Lauren Jackson says she'll remember the chants long after she's finished playing in the WNBA. "Beat L.A." rings out from every corner of KeyArena, and it's clear the Seattle Storm's biggest rival is in town.

"Every year for the last 10 years I've heard it every time I've played against L.A. That's a lot of games at KeyArena."

"Every year for the last 10 years I've heard it every time I've played against L.A. That's a lot of games at KeyArena."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty Images

The specific chants cross the lines of different leagues and can be heard at arenas and stadiums throughout the country. "Beat L.A." may be a common sentiment, but there's something special about the matchups between the Storm and the Los Angeles Sparks, especially the ones played in Seattle. The feeling dates back to the start of the franchise. Jackson said then-Storm Head Coach Lin Dunn told her about the rivalry before she even played her first game in Seattle.

It certainly helped matters that Jackson and L.A. center Lisa Leslie brought their own personal rivalry to the two teams. Things only escalated from there, with incidents like Sparks Head Coach Michael Cooper marching his team to center court as the Storm was concluding shootaround and a scuffle between Michelle Marciniak and Latasha Byears serving as flashpoints to stir up tensions.

The rivalry has managed to outlast the departures of many of its key protagonists. Cooper left after last season to become the head women's basketball coach at USC, while Leslie retired. Candace Parker's season-ending shoulder surgery left Marie Ferdinand-Harris and DeLisha Milton-Jones as the only active players left on the Sparks from when these teams met just two years ago. Still, the rivalry lives on.

"Lisa definitely was a lynchpin in that rivalry initially," Jackson said, "but I think that's just the way it's always going to be with the Storm and L.A. Long after I retire, it's still going to be the same air. It's something that's going to be there forever; it doesn't matter who's playing."

In part, that's because the teams have become familiar foes. This is the third playoff meeting in as many years between the Storm and Los Angeles, and they've played each other four times in the last five postseasons. While the Storm has generally had the upper hand in the regular season - the Sparks have won the regular-season head-to-head series just once in the last six years, with the teams splitting their meetings twice and a pair of Storm series sweeps - Los Angeles has knocked the Storm out of the playoffs each time.

The changes made on both sides, but especially by the Sparks, cast doubt on how relevant that history is to this series.

"I was going to say the names on the jerseys were the only things the same, but that's different too," said Storm guard Sue Bird, referring to Bing's jersey sponsorship. "The only thing that's the same is the colors. They're a completely different team than they were last year. They're missing two important players in Lisa and Candace. Every year, you make changes in your roster. For us, the focal pieces of our roster have been the same, so that's what's similar. But for the most part, it's the same name but a different team."

Those newcomers are quickly getting indoctrinated into the rivalry. Jennifer Gillom, who replaced Cooper as Los Angeles' head coach, said she was surprised by the intensity of the games between the two teams.

"Every game, even during the season," she observed. "I don't know what it is, but there's tension between these two teams. I thought it would be more of a Phoenix-L.A. rivalry, but no, I think it's definitely a lot thicker air with Seattle. I don't understand what the deal is."

New Sparks point guard Ticha Penicheiro might have a better idea because of her experience on the other side of a fierce rivalry with Los Angeles. While playing for the Sacramento Monarchs, Penicheiro faced the Sparks in the playoffs five times in six years. The Sacramento-L.A. rivalry has similar intensity across sports for geographical reasons as the one between L.A. and Seattle. Now, Penicheiro finds herself on the receiving end of the chants.

"There are maybe a bit more boos when we are being introduced," she said. "You kind of get used to the 'Beat L.A.' chants. When I was playing in Sacramento, our fans always chanted 'Beat L.A.' Now I've got this uniform on and people are saying 'Beat L.A.'"

Someday, Jackson says she might even join the fans in their chants as part of the Storm's longest-running rivalry.

"I'm sure I'll be watching WNBA games at home on TV," she said, "chanting, 'Beat L.A.'"

She won't be alone.