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Sparks Add Star Power

Times Staff Writer

The Sparks and Washington Mystics on Monday agreed to a trade involving two of the WNBA’s best players, with Washington sending star Chamique Holdsclaw to Los Angeles for forward DeLisha Milton-Jones and the Sparks’ first-round pick in the league’s 2005 draft.

The price is potentially steep for the Sparks because if Holds- claw -- who missed part of last season and later acknowledged she was battling clinical depression -- decides not to report to the Sparks, they will still lose Milton-Jones and their draft pick, the 13th overall.

Milton-Jones missed nearly half of the Sparks’ 2004 season, including the playoffs, because of a knee injury but has been playing overseas this winter, reportedly without difficulty.

Spark General Manager Penny Toler, trying to contact Holdsclaw, who is playing in Spain, was unavailable for comment, but team President Johnny Buss confirmed the trade.

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“People [in Washington] were worried whether DeLisha is healthy, but her knee is fine,” Buss said. “We wish her nothing but the best. She has a real spirit for the WNBA and is a great player. We hated to give her up, but also we needed some new energy in Los Angeles. When we thought that Washington might be interested in a trade, Penny held on and kept talking to them.

“We are taking a risk, but that is what we’re about. I don’t know Chamique personally, but from what I know of her, I think she will be excited to come to L.A. We have a strong organization and a respectful approach for the players who play for the Lakers and Sparks.”

Buss added that this probably would be the Sparks’ only major preseason deal. He said the team had no salary-cap room to attract top-level unrestricted free agents “and we’re not interested in any other trades.” The Sparks open May 21 at Seattle.

Mystic official Susan O’Malley said, “Obviously, Chamique went through a very trying time personally last season, and we have attempted to support her in every way.... When she asked us to consider trading her for a fresh start, we felt it was best for everyone to honor that request.”

Holdsclaw and Milton-Jones could not be reached for comment.

Holdsclaw joined the Mystics as the top overall pick of the draft in 1999, after an outstanding college career in which she led Tennessee to three national championships. She then became WNBA rookie of the year in 1999.

In her six WNBA seasons the 6-foot-1, 172-pound forward has averaged 18.3 points and nine rebounds. Holdsclaw, 27, is a three-time All-Star and two-time all-WNBA selection, and won a gold medal with the 2000 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

Last season, she played in 23 games for Washington, averaging 19 points and 8.3 rebounds. But she left the team for the final 11 regular-season and two playoff games, revealing later that she had been suffering from depression.

Milton-Jones, a popular player in Los Angeles, has been considered one the league’s best defenders as well as a solid offensive complement to reigning league most valuable player Lisa Leslie.

In her six seasons with the Sparks -- who took her in the first round of the 1999 draft from the University of Florida -- Milton-Jones, 30, averaged 11.2 points and six rebounds. She also won a gold medal in the 2000 Games and played on the USA teams that won gold medals at the 2000 and 2002 world championships. Like Holds- claw, Milton-Jones is listed at 6-1, 172 pounds. She played only 19 games last year because of knee injuries, averaging 9.8 points and 4.7 rebounds.

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The Sparks are still looking for a head coach to replace Michael Cooper, who guided the team to WNBA championships in 2001 and 2002. He left last season to become an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets, who have since replaced him.

Karleen Thompson, the Sparks’ interim co-coach last season after Cooper left, has been hired by the Houston Comets, and Ryan Weisenberg, the other co-coach, is back on the Lakers’ staff.

The Sparks are interviewing candidates, and among those reportedly interested is former USC men’s coach Henry Bibby, who was fired four games into the 2004-05 college season. Buss would neither confirm nor deny Bibby’s interest.

“We’d like to have a coach in place by the draft [April 16],” Buss said. “But it’s not that critical since we no longer have a first-round pick.”


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