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Reshanda Gray and Te’a Cooper took strange routes to Sparks

Te'a Cooper drives to the basket while playing for Baylor last season during a game against UConn.
Te’a Cooper drives to the basket while playing for Baylor last season during a game against UConn.
(Baylor University)

Reshanda Gray had been cut from teams before. She had always bounced back. But this one was different.

The 6-foot-2 forward was coming off career highs in points and rebounds with the New York Liberty. She had proved she belonged in the WNBA after two years overseas. They waived her anyway.

Discouraged, the 27-year-old did almost nothing for a week in May. But she kept praying.

“God,” Gray said Wednesday on a virtual conference call, “I know you’re trying to tell me something, but what exactly are you trying to tell me?”

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Gray received her answer last weekend when she signed with the Sparks. Both Gray and guard Te’a Cooper are embracing second chances as they join the Sparks for the WNBA’s coronavirus-shortened season after stars Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver opted out last week. The team signed the pair of free agents before traveling next week to Bradenton, Fla., where IMG Academy will house training camps and games later this month.

The journeywoman forward who spent two of the past three seasons playing in Hungary and South Korea and the rookie from Baylor will try to help the Sparks overcome losses of a two-time All-Star and a two-time champion. While not as potent offensively as Ogwumike, Gray is praised for her rebounding. She averaged 5.2 rebounds last year with the Liberty, her first full season in the WNBA since 2016. She knows her chances of staying in the league rest on her ability to control the glass.

“Basketball has took me so many places and it’s changed my life in so many ways and gave me so many opportunities, so every time I go for a rebound, I look at it as that’s my opportunity,” said Gray, an L.A. Washington Prep alumna who attended Sparks games growing up. “That’s my chance and I don’t want to miss my chance and I don’t want anybody else to get my chance. So I tried to get every rebound that’s possible, even if I have to run through a brick wall, I want to get the rebound.”

The Sparks’ social justice campaign to feature initiatives focused on voter registration and education and immigration reform, combined with existing projects.

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Cooper got her first WNBA opportunity as the 18th overall pick in April’s draft, going to the Phoenix Mercury. She met coaches and teammates via Zoom calls. “It was so exciting,” she said.

But she was hearing ominous conversations going on around the league; teams needed to cut their rosters down so players could get paid. Cooper went from the high of realizing her draft dream to the low of getting waived without even having an in-person training camp. The point guard who averaged 13.6 points and 4.3 assists per game for Baylor last season was the highest pick in last year’s draft to get waived in May.

“You didn’t even have the opportunity to prove yourself, it was very hard to be OK with at the time,” Cooper said. “But I’m an optimistic person, it didn’t bother me much because I knew it wasn’t the end for me.”

As the team prepares to play in a basketball bubble, Cooper remains undaunted by the unprecedented season. She came so close to not having a season. She’ll be thrilled to be there.

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“No one’s promised tomorrow so I really just want to be there,” Cooper said. “And when I say ‘be there,’ I mean really enjoying every second, every moment I get with the team and the coaches, and just playing and putting on that jersey.”

The Sparks, led by former MVPs Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, are still title contenders, even without Chiney Ogwumike and Toliver. After getting swept in the semifinals last year, they returned in free agency with an aggressive win-now approach that included signing Toliver, who helped the Sparks win a title in 2016, and four-time WNBA champion Seimone Augustus. A reporter asked Gray on Wednesday if joining her hometown team with championship aspirations would bring extra pressure.

“You know pressure makes diamonds, right?” Gray responded. “I feel like the worst already happened to me. I don’t have anything to lose. … I don’t have any pressure and if it is pressure, I’m going to turn it into some Tiffany diamond earrings.”

The Sparks would like to turn it into championship diamond rings.


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