Sparks win eighth straight as WNBA resumes with reinvigorated social justice push

Sparks guard Chelsea Gray sets up a play against the Indiana Fever on Aug. 15, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla.
Sparks guard Chelsea Gray, pictured Aug. 15, had a season-high 27 points in Friday night’s 80-76 victory over the Connecticut Sun in Bradenton, Fla.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Before their game against the Sparks on Friday, their first in six days, Connecticut Sun players and coaches kneeled shoulder to shoulder on the court. They each raised a piece of white paper.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” the signs read, spreading the message across the team and attributing the quote to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

With emotions still raw from a two-day stoppage during which players reflected on the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the WNBA resumed games Friday. The Sparks overcame the jarring pause and an 11-point third-quarter deficit to win 80-76, notching their eighth straight win behind a season-high 27 points from guard Chelsea Gray.


“For them to be able to somehow find a way to channel that energy and commitment to each other to just figure out a way to win this game as a team, it says a lot about who they are as people,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said. “They cared about each other, and they wanted to win the game even though they had all the room not to win and not to play well.”

After protests across sports leagues this week, the WNBA, already at the forefront of social justice, returned with a reinvigorated commitment to its cause. In addition to players still wearing shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name,” LED boards showed the #SayHerName slogan during the Sparks game instead of sponsorship messages. The largest boards behind each team’s bench listed names of 18 female victims of police violence.

On Wednesday night, after games were postponed, players and team officials in Bradenton, Fla., met for a candlelight vigil, honoring Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot by police in Kenosha, Wis., and other victims of police brutality. Having mourned George Floyd in May and continuing to call for arrests to be made in connection to Breonna Taylor’s death, seeing another Black person injured by police “put us over the top,” Fisher said.

Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the players’ association, spent all of Thursday doing interviews, speaking to other players and relaying messages to league officials. She was tired by day’s end, she said, but after scoring 17 points Friday, she said she wasn’t tired of the work.

“I really find strength in my team and these women that are here in the bubble with me,” the forward said.


Key plays from the Sparks’ 80-76 win over the Connecticut Sun on Friday night.

The emotions appeared to wear on the Sparks (11-3) early Friday. The team that entered the week leading the league in three-point shooting at 40.9% shot just 30.7% from distance during the first three quarters.

But Gray willed them with 15 second-half points, including back-to-back three-pointers in the fourth quarter. She broke the game’s final tie with a three at the 5:01 mark of the fourth quarter, giving the Sparks their first lead since the middle of the second quarter. Defense from Te’a Cooper (14 points, six rebounds) and Brittney Sykes, as the guards combined to draw at least three charges in the fourth quarter, helped the Sparks hold on to the win.

Before Friday’s game, Gray announced a partnership with Equality California and Rock the Vote to donate $50 for every assist she has this season with the Sparks matching the donation. She has 68 assists this year, including three Friday.

While playing in the bubble, Gray was itching to find ways to effect change on the outside. There are so many areas that interested her, from Black Lives Matter to advocating for the LGBTQ community. For Gray, the importance of voting has come into focus recently as she realized the education she received only scratched the surface of what she wants people to know.

“I didn’t really know the importance [of voting],” Gray said before the game. “You know you’re supposed to vote for the president, right? But how important it is at the smaller level, at the local level, at the state level? And then it goes to the bigger picture. Voting on those types of things actually impacts you.”

On Friday, Fisher wore a yellow shirt with the word “vote” across the chest in purple letters. Promoting voting is one of the league’s top calls to action this season, which the Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird reiterated in an interview on ESPN on Thursday when she reminded viewers their votes translate to electing people responsible for holding officers like those involved in Taylor and Blake’s cases accountable.

With sports leagues embracing the fight for social justice that the WNBA has long led, players often struggle to balance their emotions with their professional responsibilities, but they proudly carry the burden.

“[If] we think the weight is heavy for us, imagine those families that won’t have a chance to talk to their daughter again, talk to their son, cousin, uncle, whatever the case may be,” Gray said. “Somebody’s situation is a lot worse than yours. And we have to get outside of ourselves and understand that.”

Nguyen reported from Los Angeles.