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The Check-In: Sparks’ Sydney Wiese looks ahead after coronavirus infection

Guard Sydney Wiese had a breakout season for the Sparks last year.
(Associated Press)

Saturday led to a range of emotions for Sparks guard Sydney Wiese.

It started with joy. That day, her two-year extension with Los Angeles became official. Wiese prides herself on her loyalty, and she took the deal as a sign of the team’s commitment to her following a breakout last season in which Wiese, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2017, started a career-high 16 games and found a connection with coach Derek Fisher. Plus, the deal promised a reunion with new Sparks forward Marie Gulich, a close friend since they were teammates at Oregon State.

But any satisfaction from the feeling of long-term stability was tempered by the short-term uncertainty facing the WNBA, as the league’s season has yet to begin because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Saturday was supposed to mark the Sparks’ season opener.

“I had written in my planner the games for the summer,” Wiese said. “Now I’ve been writing plans over those games because they are not happening.”

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Few in the league have a better understanding of why than Wiese, the first WNBA player to test positive for COVID-19. An increase in testing capacity nationwide is seen as a critical hurdle before teams can resume play, and Wiese knows first-hand the difficulty of receiving a test. She first felt ill while playing professionally in Spain and self-quarantined in her parents’ Phoenix home after returning to the United States in mid-March.

Wiese asked to be tested twice but was turned down by doctors — the first time because she was asymptomatic and the second because she was told her doctor could not arrange for one, even if he wanted.

She eventually was tested at Phoenix’s Mayo Clinic, learned of her positive result two days later and announced it on Twitter on March 27, she said, “to use my story and my experience to connect with others who might be going through a similar thing.”

A follow-up test in April came back negative. Wiese demurred Tuesday when asked whether she considered herself a survivor, saying her case was mild and she was most worried for her parents, with whom she has spent the last two months. Wiese has been donating her plasma weekly to share antibodies present in her blood.

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“I’m not trying to say I’m saving lives by any means, but to have the opportunity to at least use that experience and give it back in some way has been really cool for me to be a part of,” Wiese said.

Sparks guard and Washington Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver talks about life as a WNBA star and NBA assistant coach.

Like leagues at all levels around the world, the WNBA is grappling with how to return to play while ensuring the safety of its coaches, players, employees and fans. More than half of NBA teams have reopened their practice facilities in recent days for limited individual workouts under stringent guidelines, but WNBA teams are not that far along, continuing to rely on “virtual training camps” by using video-chat software.

Wiese’s preparation for carving out an expanded role in a deep backcourt featuring Chelsea Gray and Kristi Toliver has included using a nearby park’s outdoor court and the very same hoop in the Wiese driveway she practiced on as a child. The only catches: It has no backboard and no net.

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Despite her desire to play on a regulation WNBA court again, surrounded by teammates and buoyed by the confidence from her contract extension, her experience with COVID-19 has taught her first-hand the hurdles standing in the way of a season.

“I’ve gone back and forth with is it safe, is it safe to be opening things back up, is it safe to play sports?” she said. “Because you’re in such close contact with people, breathing heavily on each other. There’s been so much talk of the virus being passed through surfaces, so you’re touching a ball. I touch my face all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when I was in Spain, you never know because I was touching the bottom of my shoes and then wiping sweat on my face. You just don’t know.

“There are so many unknowns that come with it, and so I feel for the people who are in positions to make these difficult decisions. I mean, there are so many things to take into account. The health and safety of people in general, I mean, that is the main focus and the main priority, but trying to also come to terms or come to a place of what a season could look like, if it’s in people’s best interest. That’s a lot to take into consideration.”

It was why opening her planner last weekend, and seeing the reminder of the May 16 season opener against Washington that she’d scribbled in pre-pandemic, felt like finding an artifact from another time.

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“It was an interesting idea that with all this going on that we should be playing basketball,” she said. “Because that doesn’t even seem — a lot of it doesn’t seem real sometimes.”


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