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Bryant Is Sparks’ Coach, at Least for Time Being

Times Staff Writer

Joe Bryant says he didn’t join the Sparks’ coaching staff a month ago looking to become a head coach.

But that’s what Bryant is today, having replaced Henry Bibby with five games left in the WNBA regular season.

Bryant, who was hired by the Sparks on July 18 to work with post players, has limited coaching experience. He previously led the Las Vegas Rattlers and the Boston Frenzy of the American Basketball Assn., a minor men’s professional league.

Bryant met with team President Johnny Buss for nearly two hours after the Sparks’ practice Wednesday, but no long-term deal was reached.

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“I will work on Friday,” said Bryant, laughing. “Johnny and I talked, and I guess it is my choice. But everything is happening quickly. We’ll take it game by game, but common sense says it will be the rest of the regular season.

“I do want to coach the team. Any support or help I can give the Buss family is a no-brainer. If they’d like me to stay I’ll be happy. It will be an honor.”

Buss said he needs to determine whether Bryant is capable of handling the team beyond this season.

“We’ve drawn him into a rather precarious situation,” Buss said. “I want to make sure he’s ready to do this. He’s indicated to me he’s ready to do this.... Of course, there will be talk for 2006 because now we’re in the official hunt [for a coach] for next season.

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“It will still come down to figuring out what is best for the players. I want the players to be comfortable with him coaching them. I just want a good, decent situation that we can try to live with.”

Buss said he offered the job to Bryant because Bryant “has a great rapport with the players, and he certainly knows basketball. He might have a different approach to [coaching].”

Bryant made his debut Tuesday night in Staples Center, a game the Sparks lost to Sacramento, 72-63. He was told 30 minutes before the game that he would be handling the head-coaching duties. Among those in the crowd were his son, Laker star Kobe Bryant, Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, and daughter, Natalia.

“We had talked about him coming to the Indiana game because he knows [Fever forward] Tamika Catchings very well,” Joe Bryant said of his son. “He couldn’t make the Indy game but came last night. And I hope he will come to the rest of the games depending on his schedule.”

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Despite the loss, Bryant called his debut “exciting.”

The Sparks (13-16) are in sixth place in the Western Conference with five games remaining. They trail Phoenix, which is in the fourth and final playoff spot, by 1 1/2 games. Phoenix, which won the season series, has the tie-breaker should the teams finish with identical records.

Bryant said he would not change the offensive and defensive schemes Bibby installed this season but might try to simplify some things.

“The only thing I could do now is give the women a little more freedom offensively, maybe try and open up the floor,” Bryant said. “I want to give them a freedom to express themselves on the court.

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“Yes, we need to win. But on Friday, the important thing is I don’t change because I am wearing a different hat. I will still be who I am. The relationships I have with the players will be the same. I will demand we have fun.”

Buss, who did not comment on Bibby’s status before Tuesday’s game, said Wednesday that Bibby had not been fired. He added that he didn’t want the Sparks to think the team’s management had given up on the season.

“There’s always a risk with change,” Buss said. “Sometimes things are good, sometimes they don’t work out. Right now, what was best for both of us was to make that change.”

Bibby, who finishes his only WNBA season with a 13-15 record, agreed with how his departure came about.

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“It wasn’t a firing, but an agreement we had,” Bibby said Wednesday. “I have nothing bad to say about Johnny Buss. This was a great learning experience for me, probably the most I’ve learned about working with people since I’ve been in coaching.

“We both felt something was needed to jump-start the team for this final push to make the playoffs, and to get better. Sometimes you have to give up something to get something more.”

Bibby added that there were personal issues tugging at him. His brother Jim, who pitched for five major league teams from 1972 to 1984, has been diagnosed with bone cancer. Bibby might need to return to their family home in North Carolina to provide a bone marrow transplant.

He said he wants to spend the rest of the summer with his three children and four grandchildren. He said his son Mike, who plays with the Sacramento Kings, “called me last night from his home in Phoenix and wants me to come down there.”

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Bibby said he is not retiring from coaching but is in no rush to land another job.

“I’ve spent too much time being a one-man show as a coach,” he said. “So I’m going to visit and talk with some other coaches to try and learn some other ways of doing things.”

On his list: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, former Louisville coach Denny Crum and former UCLA coach John Wooden, his mentor during his college playing days.

Bibby said that Bryant would be fine as his replacement: “He’s a go-getter. He doesn’t have a lot of experience, but he has the enthusiasm and has a veteran team.”

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