Sparks rout Storm, ruin Breanna Stewart’s professional debut
The Sparks are 14 years removed from the franchise winning back-to-back titles in 2001-02. Parker has yet to experience a WNBA Finals appearance, despite winning two MVP awards. She just turned 30 last month, and making a serious run at the league championship is what’s foremost on her mind.
As Parker mentioned, she has been with the Sparks from the opening of training camp — as opposed to last year, when she sat out the first half of the season to rest. Her imprint is already on this team, which is helpful considering players like Nneka Ogwumike (the 2012 No. 1 draft pick), Kristi Toliver and Jantel Lavender just arrived from overseas a few days ago.
“We have a little chemistry from last year, but we’ve only had one full practice where everybody in it,” Parker said. “It’s telling as to how great we could be. We’ll develop that chemistry as the season goes on.”
While a lot of focus fell on preseason favorite Phoenix and the return of a well-rested Diana Taurasi, defending champion Minnesota looked healthy, deep and as formidable as ever.
Despite the 30-point loss, Seattle coach Jenny Boucek remained upbeat. She knows she has two very young and very talented building blocks to work with.
“Experience is the best teacher; I’m glad we got our butt kicked,” Boucek said. “I’m excited about the challenge; I can’t wait to watch the film and get back on the practice court.
“[Breanna] showed she’s got a lot to her, and she’s only going get better. She’s still got a ton to learn, but that’s the exciting part about it. Jewell’s already way different year one to year two. And when you have a young team, you’ve just got to learn as quickly as you can.”
Stewart is not wasting any time in that regard. You could almost see the wheels turning in her head as she continually processed information throughout her nearly 34 minutes on the court.
“I felt good. As each quarter went on, I felt more comfortable in the game and with what we were trying to do,” said Stewart, who was 9-of-13 from the field and 5-of-8 from the line, with six rebounds and three assists. “Obviously, there were a lot of mistakes. That’s going to happen.
“But it was fun. Being matched up with a team like them, they’re great. For my first game, it’s one I’ll remember. We lost, and that sucks. But I think there is a lot of good to come out of it as well.”
Stewart, of course, is coming off four consecutive NCAA titles and an undefeated senior season. She was also undefeated as a sophomore. The last game she lost, as a matter of fact, also was here in California — several hours north and a year and a half ago. The Huskies fell at Stanford in November 2014 at the start of Stewart’s junior season.
“It is a little weird; it’s a different perspective,” she said of losing after so much success. “But I think that at this level, it’s going to be a challenge. I haven’t been in a position where I’ve been down 20 and had to fight back.”
And as for a 30-point deficit? Stewart said she couldn’t remember the last time she has been that far behind in a game. Or if it has ever even happened before.
Stewart scored her first basket with 6 minutes, 33 seconds left in the first quarter, getting a layup after she’d grabbed a rebound off her own missed 3-pointer. She joked that UConn assistant coach Chris Dailey would have needled her about padding her rebound stats by missing shots, but even a very tough critic would have commended Stewart on how she handled her first game.
“I think she has a chance to be a special player,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “The game is different; it’s a little more physical. But in the second half, she sort of settled in and found her spots. She did some things on the move that impressed me.”
But Agler, who left Seattle and took over the Sparks last season, is really looking forward to a whole summer of working with Parker.
“She was energized today, and she’s practiced really well in the preseason,” Agler said. “It didn’t surprise me that she played this way. I’m not saying she’ll score in the 30s every night, but I think she wants to have a really good year. And she wants our team to have a good year.”
The 1976 Atlanta Braves weren’t a very good team. They finished with a record of 70-92, which left them in the cellar of the National League’s Western Division. (Yes, the Braves were in the NL West in those days. Go figure.)
But for about a month and a half of the ’76 season — basically 40 years ago right now — the Braves commanded a certain degree of attention in the baseball world. Their notoriety wasn’t based on how they were playing; it was about what they were wearing. Instead of having their surnames on the backs of their jerseys, the Braves’ players were wearing nicknames.
The ’76 Braves weren’t the first MLBers to wear nicknames, and they wouldn’t be the last, but they were the first and are still the only team to do it on a team-wide basis. There’s been a lot of misinformation and missing information about the nicknames in the ensuing four decades, and visual documentation of the nicknamed jerseys has been surprisingly difficult to find. But now, thanks to some excellent research by Braves historians Sam Wallace and Tony Cocchi and the discovery of some never-before-published photos taken by former Braves photographer Walter Victor, the full story can finally be told.
Then came the Italian Open. She didn’t lose a set, and now the WTA landscape suddenly looks different — but also more familiar. Like old times.
Keys was asked in her news conference after the Rome final what she thought of Williams’ form going into the French Open.
“I don’t think she has anything to worry about,” she replied.
Williams’ version: “Well, I feel really good about it. After my first few rounds, I started feeling better. I’m feeling pretty fit. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
This is bad news for the fleet of WTA contenders. It’s a large, somewhat rag-tag group because only No. 6 Victoria Azarenka has showed an appetite for domination. Williams’ other rivals juggle opportunities as if they were hot potatoes, dropping them as quickly as they get their fingers on them. There is much pecking, no clear pecking order.
Even with some of the top cars wrinkled up or already in the garage, Kenseth couldn’t breathe easy. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, both looking for their first career wins, challenged him over the final 35 laps. Kenseth, who had taken only two fresh tires on his pit stop with 51 laps remaining, never became a victim of not changing left sides because of the 14 laps of caution with a pair of two-lap green-flag runs that preceded a 35-lap green-flag dash to the finish.
“It was one of those days where everything lined up for us at the end of the race,” Kenseth said. “We were the only one left out there with two [old tires], we got those couple short runs to kind of cycle everybody else’s tires, give us a lot of caution laps to get our tires cooled down.
“It all worked out for us, kind of the opposite as I feel like it’s been going the last couple months.”
For a driver who had led all but one race in the first 11 of the 2016 season and have only one top-5 to show for it, Kenseth wanted badly to feel that he would eventually break through and win a race.
But he knows just how unfair the racing gods can get, and knows that, just because he had lost the Daytona 500 after leading on the last lap and continued to have fast cars, the cruelty of racing could keep him out of Victory Lane.
So his long-time-coming victory Sunday in the AAA 400 Drive for Autism came in just fashion — a day when he didn’t have the best car at Dover International Speedway, but he avoided many of the mistakes and the misfortune of others as he earned his first win of 2016 and 37th of his career.
Kenseth admitted winning at Dover doesn’t necessarily take the sting out of losing the Daytona 500. But it helped.