Just as the Sparks began to unveil their 2016 WNBA championship banner at Staples Center on Saturday afternoon, Kobe Bryant eased his way in, drawing as many cheers as the three-time champions did from the now overly excited fans.
But as the game began to take shape, and especially as the Sparks began to surge ahead in the latter stages of the fourth quarter, the crowd’s roar was decidedly all about Los Angeles’ pulling out a 78-68 victory over the Seattle Storm in a season opener.
Before the nationally televised game went live, the Sparks rolled out their three championship trophies, putting the 2016 hardware next to the back-to-back ones from the 2001 and 2002 seasons.
Then Mayor Eric Garcetti was shown on the jumbo screen, congratulating the Sparks for being crowned champions.
A few seconds later, Bryant strolled in and sat next to his daughter Gianna on the baseline. The fans went crazy when they saw him.
The fans also applauded when Magic Johnson was shown on the jumbo screen. Actress Vivica A. Fox was given an ovation when the cameras got a shot of her at the game.
But the fans were most inspired by the play of Nneka Ogwumike, who had 23 points; newcomer Odyssey Sims, who scored 20 off the bench; and the rest of the Sparks who were responsible for the banner dropping.
“It meant everything. Kind of just a surge of recollections and memories, and it set the tone. It set the tone for the season,” Ogwumike said about the banner and the first win of the season. “I think we’re all really excited for this next season.
“Nothing is going to be the same, and that’s what’s most important about it. And we’re here for the challenge.”
The first step toward repeating as champion was going to present the Sparks with a stiff test anyway.
They were missing starters Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender and key reserve Essence Carson, who are still playing overseas.
“It’s just part of our league. It’s part of the dynamics of women’s basketball at the pro level,” Sparks Coach Brian Agler said. “It’s not like that on the men’s side. On the women’s side, they’re playing overseas. They come back and they get integrated at different times.”
And because that trio wasn’t here, the Sparks decided to postpone their ring ceremony until Friday, when Parker, Lavender and Carson are expected back.
That left the Sparks with just nine active players to face the Storm, making the game that much more difficult.
Four of the Sparks had to play more than 31 minutes because the team is so short-handed.
It didn’t help that Ogwumike picked up her fourth foul with 6 minutes 8 seconds left in the game.
With 4:04 left, a 10-point lead had been sliced to three by Seattle, which was led by Jewell Loyd with 25 points, with Ramu Tokashiki adding 14.
But a three-pointer by Chelsea Gray and back-to-back baskets by Ogwumike pushed the lead back to 10 and restored order for the defending champs.
“Obviously, tonight was the hanging of the banner, one of those precious things,” Agler said. “But we are really trying — really trying to keep a narrow focus and just focus on the practice that we have ahead of us and the game that we have ahead of us.”
Follow Broderick Turner on Twitter @BA_Turner