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Leslie not in Cooper’s ’07 plans

Times Staff Writer

The Sparks, who need help inside, won’t get it from star center Lisa Leslie if Michael Cooper has anything to say about it.

And he does.

“I’ve made a decision that she’s not going to play this year,” he said.

Speaking before a 57-56 loss to the Indiana Fever in front of an announced crowd of 8,262 on Thursday night at Staples Center that marked his team’s second-lowest offensive output of the season, the Sparks’ coach said he didn’t know whether Leslie had made a definitive decision about whether she will return this season but certainly sounded as if he had.

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“If she wants to come back and talk to me, and we can butt heads about it, then that’s another story,” Cooper said. “But for me, I’m not looking for her to come back. There’s a lot of things she has on her mind to get accomplished.”

Leslie, one of five original WNBA players still in the league and a three-time league most valuable player who has spent her entire 11-year career with the Sparks, has sat out the season so far on maternity leave; she gave birth to her first child, Lauren Jolie Lockwood, on June 15.

Despite her pregnancy, Leslie has remained on the Sparks’ 13-player roster all season, although most recently, she has been on the inactive list. According to league rules, teams may have up to 11 active players, with players’ availability allowed to be changed freely from active to inactive as needed or desired.

Leslie, who signed a multi-year contract in April and said in May that she might consider an August return, could not be reached for comment.

But Cooper thinks she should put off any return until next year.

“She’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached,” he said. “I think [Leslie’s] best attribute to the game of basketball, and our game, was her physical fitness. She was one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached. You don’t get that by training for a month or so. That’s going to take time.”

It can’t happen soon enough for the Sparks (7-10), whose loss Thursday marked their first four-game losing streak since 2003.

They have dropped eight of their last 10 games since winning two in a row after the retirement of another star player, Chamique Holdsclaw, was announced on June 11.

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Despite the struggles, particularly at center, where Taj McWilliams-Franklin has been injured recently and sat out again against Indiana (12-4), Sparks co-owner and President Kathy Goodman said the Sparks have not given up on the season but are simply looking out for Leslie’s welfare. The team on Thursday signed former Seattle center Tye’sha Fluker, a 6-foot-5 free agent who was cut by the Storm last week.

“What I heard Cooper saying is, I’ll win with what I have. He’s not building around one player, and that’s just the kind of coach he is,” Goodman said. “We have a great team. We’re going to make the playoffs with this team.”

Sparks General Manager Penny Toler said the decision about if or when Leslie returns will ultimately be left up to her.

“I figure if Lisa wants to come back, she’ll come back, and if she feels she wants to wait until next year, we’ll take her next year,” Toler said.

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And if she decides she wants to return this season?

“I will question her, look at her, and probably take her to a practice and see,” Cooper said. “You know what? [Leslie] coming back at this stage is probably better than half the players in this league, but she’s not that type of player. She’s one of the best players in this league. For her to come back and be half of a few, that’s not what we’re looking for from her.”

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lauren.peterson@latimes.com

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