Sparks Still Unbeaten After Debut at Staples


The Sparks started their day Tuesday by turning loose their first-round draft choice for the second consecutive season.

This time it was former Purdue center Camille Cooper

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 7, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 7, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
Pro basketball--Latasha Byears, No. 00 with the Sparks, was misidentified in a Sports photo on Wednesday.

OK, so the Sparks don’t do so well on draft day. But cut the Sparks some slack because they sure know how to win.

In their historic first game in Staples Center, the Sparks defeated the Cleveland Rockers, 58-50, before 11,445. So the Sparks, on a night when their shots weren’t falling, made it to a 4-0 WNBA start largely with an aggressive, nonstop defensive effort.


They limited the Rockers to 11 points in the final 11 minutes. And they got a major inside play by newcomer Rhonda Mapp with less than four minutes to play, a putback with a free throw that gave them a 54-46 lead and secured the victory.

The Sparks had the arena’s top level closed off and had hoped to fill the lower bowl for their home opener. Instead, the lower seating area seemed about 80% full of balloon-waggling fans.

So the all-time Spark home-crowd record remains 14,284, the number who saw them play the New York Liberty in their 1997 opener at the Forum.

What Tuesday’s Staples crowd saw couldn’t be called an entertaining offensive game. Both sides missed wide-open jump shots, even layups.

Spark Coach Michael Cooper blamed it on new-building jitters, playing for the first time in an arena the Sparks had practiced in only a few times.

Rocker Coach Dan Hughes simply called it a defensive game.

“Both teams just got after each other,” he said. “I think the people who like aggressive, defensive basketball liked what they saw.”


Cleveland made 31.7% of its shots, the Sparks 36.2%. The Sparks missed their first four shots and never stitched together anything that could be called a run.

The Sparks thus equaled their 4-0 start of last season. The team now goes on the road again for games at Minnesota and Houston before returning to Staples Center on June 14 to play the Orlando Miracle.

Cooper hailed his center, Lisa Leslie, who played part of the game on the perimeter and then, late in the game, moved inside to help out with rebounding. She finished with a game-high 23 points and eight rebounds.

“I know they shot poorly too, but I like to think we had something to do with it,” Cooper said.

“This is a bigger building than the Forum, the depth perception is different and it may take some time--maybe not until the All-Star break--for us to feel comfortable shooting here. We got good looks tonight, the shots just wouldn’t fall.”

Cooper put his team into a zone that thoroughly shackled Cleveland but wasn’t happy about it.


“I like to think of us as a man-to-man team, so it’s discouraging to have to use a zone,” he said. “Even when we were in a zone, their guards were getting rebounds.”

Hughes was impressed with the power and strength of the newly beefed-up Sparks, whose roster includes off-season acquisitions Latasha Byears and Rhonda Mapp, a pair of 200-pound veterans.

“They present some problems for you in the post,” Hughes said.

“They have good size and their pursuit is very good. L.A. is a very good defensive team, but I felt we did a good job defensively tonight too.”

Mapp’s apparent breakaway play came with the Sparks leading, 51-46. Tamecka Dixon missed a 10-foot baseline jumper, and Mapp rebounded and scored. She added a free throw to make the score 54-46.

Merlakia Jones led Cleveland with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

Earlier Tuesday, the Sparks sent Cooper to the Liberty for a second-round pick in next spring’s draft.

In other WNBA games:

Houston 72, Utah 68--Janeth Arcain scored a career-high 27 points and Tina Thompson had 23 points and 10 rebounds at Salt Lake City to lead the four-time defending champion Comets to their third consecutive road victory.


Phoenix 76, Charlotte 69--Bridget Pettis scored 11 of her 15 points in the second half to lead the Mercury at Phoenix.

Orlando 92, Detroit 71--Nykesha Sales scored 19 points and Elaine Powell scored a career-high 16 to lead the Miracle rout at Auburn Hills, Mich.

Miami 63, Indiana 61--Sheri Sam scored 21 points at Miami and the Sol handed the Fever its fourth consecutive loss.

Washington 75, Sacramento 72--Chamique Holdsclaw had 19 points and 16 rebounds and the Mystics rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit at Washington.