Sparks take some tips from Magic Johnson going into the WNBA Finals

Sparks co-owner Magic Johnson waves during Game 2 of the WNBA semifinal series between the Sparks and the Chicago Sky on Sept. 30, 2016.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

With 12 days between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason, the Sparks decided that one afternoon could be spent away from the court.

A semifinals series against the Chicago Sky was still a few days away and the Sparks had just finished a morning workout. So when the players walked into Crustacean in Beverly Hills for a luncheon, most of them were thinking about the popular garlic noodles dish instead of how they could win the franchise’s first title since 2002.

Then Magic Johnson, who played 13 Hall of Fame seasons with the Lakers, stood up and shared the wisdom of a five-time NBA champion. The Sparks are now carrying his message into Game 1 Sunday of the WNBA Finals (noon PDT on ABC) against the defending champion Lynx in Minnesota.


“We were able to share a special moment with him, with the team, with the organization,” Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said. “Now we want to be able to follow up on what we discussed.”

Johnson, a co-owner of the Sparks, started by highlighting what each player brings to the team.

He told Ogwumike, who was named the WNBA’s most valuable player before the playoffs, that she has been fantastic all season. He told Jantel Lavender, who was named the league’s sixth woman of the year, that she is the heart and soul off the bench. He told Candace Parker, the two-time MVP who has been with the Sparks since 2008, that they are going to win it all for her.

The message was clear: The Sparks, a team that started 11-0 before finishing 26-8, are chock full of talented players.

But what came next was even more important.

“He told us that at this point of the season, both teams are the best,” Sparks guard Chelsea Gray said. “Both teams know each other. Both teams want the same thing. Talent’s not enough.”

Especially against the Lynx, who ended the Sparks’ spotless start back in June. The Lynx were then a perfect 13-0 to start the season, and the Sparks handed them their first loss three days later. The teams then spent the rest of the season jockeying for the WNBA’s best record, which the Lynx earned by finishing 28-6.

That’s why the finals will start at the Target Center in Minnesota, where point guard Maya Moore leads a Lynx core that includes Lindsey Whalen, Seimone Augustus and 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles. Moore is averaging 25.7 points in the playoffs, which was a big reason why the Lynx swept the Phoenix Mercury with three double-digit wins in the semifinals.

“I think a lot of teams really get intimidated,” Lavender said. “Like when Minnesota gets them down there is nothing you can do. But that doesn’t have to be true.”

That brought Lavender to the last part of Johnson’s speech, which was to play together and stay together. It sounds overly simple, but Sparks Coach Brian Agler thinks the wisdom of the advice will materialize when the finals start.

When Agler was coaching the Seattle Storm in 2010, he had 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell speak to his team before the playoffs started.

The Storm, coincidentally or not, rode seven straight wins to a WNBA championship.

“Those people are kept in such high regard,” Agler said. “When that message comes from them I’m sure it resonates.”

Twitter: @dougherty_jesse