Inside The W with Michelle Smith

Pat Summitt built her legacy in collegiate basketball. But legacies, by definition, mean your touch, your reach, your influence extends far beyond the place where you started.

It is not an overstatement to say that the WNBA might well not be here if not for Summitt, the legendary Tennessee coach, who passed away Tuesday morning.

What would have happened if Pat hadn’t paved the way?

If she hadn’t been the guiding hand for not only her own program and players, but for her fellow coaches, for the SEC, for the NCAA, for USA Basketball?

If she hadn’t been an inspiration for not only her own players, but for players on teams she never coached for a minute who dreamed of playing for her, or playing against her, or just playing at all because she made their opportunities possible and their dreams seem attainable?

If she hadn’t been an example – and a mentor – for powerful, confident women everywhere?

Would professional women’s basketball have been possible without her influence, her success, her ability to transcend labels and limits?

The sad reality is that Pat Summitt is gone, but her impact on the WNBA remains direct, immediate and current.

She was an advisor to WNBA leadership as the league ramped up. She has been a fan in the stands. The league is still littered with her players, including some of the best that the WNBA has ever seen, namely Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings.

From the very beginning of this league – 20 years ago, as we all well know – her Tennessee program was not only a pipeline to professional basketball, but a standard to live up to in terms of skill, passion, fan interest, recognition and legitimacy.

It’s so difficult not to be sad about the fact that she won’t continue to be here to see it grow and change. But there is a piece of her legacy of excellence and commitment left behind everywhere from Los Angeles, to Indianapolis, to Atlanta to Minnesota.

Pat Summitt never coached a minute in the WNBA. But her impact on the league is felt every day.

The players and coaches who took a moment to reflect today, to mourn with an entire game, recognize it and they will continue to honor it.

And that is how you define a legacy.

LOOKING UP AT L.A.

Right now, at this moment, the Los Angeles Sparks are the best team in the WNBA.

Not merely because they have the league’s best record at 14-1. That would be too obvious a criteria. But there isn’t a team in the league right now playing with more grit and motivation and balance.

The Sparks lost their unbeaten record in last Tuesday’s spirited game against then-unbeaten Minnesota, the record-setting game that the whole league had been waiting for.

But two days later, Los Angeles turned around, flew to Minnesota and smacked the Lynx with a 94-76 win on the home floor of the defending league champion. And then on Tuesday night, with Candace Parker fueled by the emotion of Summitt’s passing, the Sparks overcame a 53-34 halftime deficit to defeat the Dallas Wings 89-84.

Parker had a monster second half, finishing with 31 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. And after the game, she broke down and said she will play the rest of this season for her former coach.

But one of the things that has made the Sparks so strong this season is that Parker doesn’t have to do all the work on most nights. It is one of three big things separating the Sparks from the field at this point in the WNBA season.

1) They don’t need to their best player to score more than everyone else on the floor: Parker is undeniably one of the best players in the world. And she isn’t always her team’s leading scorer because she doesn’t have to be. Ogwumike leads the way for the season at 17.9 points per game. Parker is second at 15.3 and Kristi Tolliver isn’t far behind at 14.8. Before Tuesday night’s game, Parker hadn’t been the Sparks leading scorer since June 17 when she put up 24 points against Phoenix. But when Parker isn’t scoring, she’s distributing, leading the team at 4.6 assists per game, ranking her ahead of guards such as Odyssey Sims and Lindsay Whalen.

2) The Sparks have balance, not just on the box score, but on both ends of the floor: Los Angeles is the third-best scoring team in the league at 85.6 points a game and are holding opponents to a league-best 71.9 points a game. They are forcing turnovers (16.4 a game- best in the WNBA) and taking care of the ball (13.1 turnovers per game – second-best in the WNBA).

3) Los Angeles is in a great spot for the moment. Literally. The Sparks are in the middle of an extended homestand, with six straight games at Staples Center. The Sparks won’t go on the road again until Wednesday, July 13. But once they leave Staples, they will not be back until Sunday, September 4. They play five in a row on the road heading into the Olympic break and four in a row coming out of it.

MERCURY GET STRONGER

The Phoenix Mercury are officially making every effort to turn around a tough start. The biggest in-season roster move of 2016 so far was the trade that brought All-Star Kelsey Bone to the Mercury from Connecticut.

Bone had been asking to be traded and she got her wish, heading to a team that could still be a title contender.

The Mercury will host Connecticut on Wednesday.

Bone admitted earlier this week that she was looking for a way out of Connecticut, that she was looking to be “comfortable.”

“When things don’t work, you have to be comfortable enough to say it’s not for me,” Bone said. “That was a situation that wasn’t for me and I’m OK with that. I played there for 2½ years. It’s been hard. We’ve been doing a lot of losing. That’s a franchise that’s going to get it together and figure it out. I’m happy to have been a part of them.”

TOUGH STRETCH LOOMING FOR LIBERTY

New York has been playing as well as almost anyone save Los Angeles of late, winning eight of its last 10 games and playing three overtime games in the last four, including an OT loss to Phoenix that snapped a six-game win streak.

But it’s going to get tougher as the Liberty – led by Tina Charles, who has to be considered the MVP favorite right now – on a tough three-game road trip to Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

That’s the kind of stretch that tells you if you are good enough to contend for a title.

MILESTONES

Diana Taurasi’s status as the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer is really just an inevitability, isn’t it? On Saturday, Taurasi reached 7,000 points faster than anyone else in history. In 348 games. Faster than Tamika Catchings, who did it in 428. And faster than Tina Thompson, the current all-time scoring leader, who did it in 460…

The San Antonio Stars, frankly, don’t have a lot to cheer for in this difficult season. But the Stars found a highlight moment this weekend, when they retired the jersey of Becky Hammon

Breanna Stewart’s biggest night as a pro was followed by her next biggest night as a pro. Coming off a 29-point game on Friday against Connecticut, the Rookie of the Year frontrunner put up 38 points on Tuesday night in Seattle’s 84-81 win over Atlanta, leading the Storm to their first consecutive wins of the season.


Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season.

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