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Sparks focus on Breonna Taylor, social justice before opener

Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike catches her breath during a game against the Liberty last season in New York.
(Gregory Payan / Associated Press)

Nneka Ogwumike waited for months to play basketball again, and once the Sparks forward entered the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Fla., the sport quickly took over again. Between practices and interviews and physical therapy, basketball shifted to the forefront.

But a mother’s words readjusted Ogwumike’s priorities: She and other WNBA players spoke with Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, on a webinar this week.

“It was a remarkable moment,” Ogwumike said Friday. “I think it gave a lot of the players that motivation that they needed, maybe as a reminder or just as simple motivation to understand that we’re really playing this season for a much bigger purpose.”

WNBA players are happy to use the long-awaited return of the basketball season as a canvas for social justice issues. Players will wear Taylor’s name on their jerseys this weekend, which starts with a tripleheader Saturday featuring the Sparks at noon PDT against the Phoenix Mercury. Throughout the season, players will wear warmup shirts with the messages “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name.”

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Wednesday’s webinar, organized by players on the league’s social justice council, featured Palmer, former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia; and Lonita Baker, an attorney for Taylor’s family.

Players and coaches are working and living in a bubble at the IMG Academy designed to isolate them from the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are not willing to let themselves be shielded from everything.

The Sparks, who had the WNBA’s third-best record last season but got swept in the playoff semifinals, look to build a championship bond among players.

“Whether COVID or not, civil unrest or not, basketball should never trump humanity,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said. “Basketball should never be more of a priority than confronting racism. Basketball should never be more important than gender equality. … I think we all find ourselves on the same team now, in terms of fighting systemic racism and trying to figure out how to beat this virus, and sports can be used as a way to still communicate the message that we’re all in this together.”

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Taylor, 26, was killed in March when Louisville, Ky., police used a battering ram to enter her home while executing a “no-knock” warrant related to a narcotics raid. Her boyfriend, who was legally armed, fired a gun thinking there were intruders. Police fired several rounds. Taylor, an emergency medical technician, was killed. No drugs were found at the home.

Her death gained national attention in light of protests after George Floyd, a Black man, died while in police custody during the same month.

“Anyone of us could have been Breonna Taylor,” said Sparks forward Candace Parker, who called the webinar extremely impactful. “Although we wear Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of our jersey, it represents so many other different African American women that have been killed by the police. I really feel strongly about making sure we step out on the floor and when we’re out there, we’re carrying ourselves in that way and making it known that it’s super important to us.”

Sparks guard Sydney Wiese, who is white, proudly shared a photo of her game jersey featuring Taylor’s name printed below hers Friday before the season opener. Wiese, one of just two white players on the Sparks roster in a league where about 80% of players are Black, captioned the photo, “With purpose.”

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“I’m new to being vocal,” Wiese said. “At first what was holding me back was I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t feel like it was my place to say anything, but there’s no time for that anymore. So to have her name on the back of our jersey, that’s what it’s about.”

The WNBA season begins Saturday with former champion and title favorite Seattle taking on New York and No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.

WNBA players have long led discussions for social change as they protested at games against racism and police brutality in 2016 after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Four years later when presented with the same issue, players are responding more fervently than ever.

“They’re energized,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. “That’s probably the best word, to make their voices heard and make lasting change in this country because that is what they are here for. It is bigger than basketball right now for them.”


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