Advertisement

Sparks rookie Andrea Riley cools her flashy game

Genetics-wise, it’s Roosevelt Riley Jr.'s fault. The X chromosome he bestowed to his daughter, Andrea, held traces of his Harlem Globetrotters past, thus wiring her as a flashy basketball player from the start.

He would try to change her later on, but could not. Now, she has to. The Sparks, who picked the Oklahoma State guard eighth overall in the WNBA draft and begin their season Saturday in Phoenix (11 a.m., ESPN2) against the defending champion Mercury, won’t stand for much flash.

“‘You don’t want to show too much in front of your teammates,” Sparks Coach Jennifer Gillom said she told Riley. “‘They won’t like that too much. I understand you did that in Oklahoma because you were the show, but you’re part of a great team, and it’s not your show anymore.’”

But for so long, it was Riley’s show, and she stood out.

Advertisement

As a toddler, she shadowed her father at his girls’ basketball developmental program.

By age 3, she could mimic the drills. By 6, she was making shots. By second grade, she was playing with fifth- and sixth-graders. By her sophomore year at Lincoln High School in Dallas, she had helped the team to a state title — and they won it again her junior year.

She had college offers aplenty, but chose Oklahoma State because she wanted to help build a program. (Solid move: Pre-Riley, the Cowgirls had won eight Big 12 conference games in four seasons.) When she arrived in Stillwater and a public address announcer asked her during a Midnight Madness interview to identify the best player on her team, she said, “I hate to toot my own horn, but beep, beep.”

The nickname “Beep Beep” stuck, a fitting handle, what with that being the Road Runner cartoon character’s only sound and Oklahoma State Coach Kurt Budke having dubbed Riley the fastest player he ever had.

Advertisement

Yet, speed aside, the 5-foot-5 Riley’s boisterous basketball persona, rife with trash talking, drew attention too. Some of her moves — a behind-the-back pass here, a through-the-legs crossover there — were even considered showoff antics.

“I like hearing the crowd say ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh,’” she said. “That’s just the type of player I am.”

It’s the type of player her father was too when he played for the Globetrotters in the late 1980s, a squad known for its on-court theater.

Roosevelt left the team after a few months because he didn’t like the travel and wanted to be home.

Riley said he taught her “a whole bunch of moves,” but he wanted fundamentals, not showmanship, to be her basketball foundation. “She has always had that style,” he said. “I just wanted to control it.”

So when traveling streetball tours came to Dallas to do open runs, he wouldn’t let her go. When she would display those moves in games, he’d point toward the basics. And, above all, Roosevelt, whom his daughter described as “emotionless,” never praised.

“I taught her, ‘I’m not here to tell you what you do good, I’m here to tell you what you do bad,’” said Roosevelt, who is now a personal bodyguard for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

At Oklahoma State, Riley was all kinds of good.

Advertisement

She became the Big 12’s all-time leading scorer, female or male, (2,835 points) and OSU’s all-time assists leader (707). She also led the Cowgirls to three NCAA tournaments, a place they hadn’t been since 1996. As a senior, she averaged 26.7 points a game, second best in the country.

Riley also grew a fan base whose members reveled in her showmanship, Budke said.

“It was as contagious to the players as it was to the fans,” he said. “We wanted to bring it down a little bit so the coaches wouldn’t be resentful of her, but not much. That’s a part of who she is.”

But there was some bad too. Twice, in moments of lost composure, she hit opposing players; once it cost her a one-game suspension during the NCAA tournament.

The lesson there, she said, is to keep your cool when opposing defenses aim to suffocate and irritate. But that won’t be a problem with the Sparks, a team that features Candace Parker, Tina Thompson and Betty Lennox. “I have more talent around me, and I don’t have to do everything anymore,” she said.

Riley will play immediately, but behind veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro, her new mentor.

“Ticha has to make her understand, ‘If you want to play this position, it’s about team first and your shots come second,’” Gillom said.

But Gillom doesn’t want too drastic a change from her guard who is dart-quick, unafraid to penetrate and has NBA three-point range. “I want her to think pass-first, but I don’t want her to lose that killer instinct,” Gillom said.

Advertisement

Riley’s main adjustment, Penicheiro said, is learning to play safe, not showy. “I remember when I came in the league,” the 12-year veteran said. “I was the same way. I play way more conservative now than I did back then.”

Parker, like Penicheiro, figures Riley will soon shed some old habits.

“You learn that as a pro,” Parker said. “You want to come into a team and fit in. I know that because that’s what I tried to do in college.”

Thus far, Riley has fit in fine, Gillom said, laying to rest fears of questionable character. “I don’t think it’s a concern at all,” Gillom said. “Actually, she’s been great. It wasn’t what I expected.”

But it has been an adjustment.

“Sometimes you have to be reminded that you’re just a name,” Riley said. “You’re not anybody who has a legacy. Everybody knows who all my teammates are. Nobody knows who I am.”

Yet.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com


Advertisement