Everyone knew where the ball was supposed to go. As the Los Angeles Sparks in-bounded the ball with 13 seconds left and the score tied at 66 in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals last Saturday, the obvious choice to take the last shot was Lisa Leslie, the Los Angeles Sparks' all-everything center. But when the New York Liberty refused to allow Leslie a look in the paint, the ball instead wound up outside the arc in the hands of rookie point guard Nikki Teasley, who had clanged her four previous three-point tries and had never hit a buzzer-beater in her life. Only two seasons ago Teasley took an extended break from North Carolina to battle depression, anxiety and shattered confidence. On paper she was not a good bet to end the best-of-three series and clinch the Sparks' second consecutive title.
L.A. coach Michael Cooper, however, had no doubts. "Any player on this team takes a big shot like that, I know, I feel, I expect it to go in," said Cooper after Teasley's swish with 2.4 seconds remaining iced the 69-66 win and set off a storm of purple and yellow confetti at the Staples Center. "That's what we prepare for. Besides that, it was great for everyone to see that Nikki is the player we knew she would be."
Given Teasley's checkered college career, Cooper and general manager Penny Toler raised eyebrows around the league on draft day in April when they traded starting point guard Ukari Figgs to Portland for Teasley, whom the Fire had taken with the No. 5 selection. As L.A.'s loss total increased from four last year to seven this season, even Teasley wondered if the Sparks had made a bad deal. But Cooper never wavered. "He has so much confidence in me, it's ridiculous," says the 6-foot Teasley. "He makes me bring my game up a level because he believes in me so much."
Cooper had good reason to, as it turns out. "We traded for Nikki because she has Magic Johnson qualities," he says. "She is a big point guard with very special skills. Think about this: In his final game as a rookie [in 1980], Magic had 42 points and 15 rebounds to win the championship. Nikki Teasley, in our last game of the year, hits the biggest shot of the season and has 11 assists for the second game in a row."
The Sparks' resemblance to the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, for whom Cooper played the fiery, well, spark off the bench—he won five titles in his 11 seasons in L.A.—doesn't end with Teasley. "Lisa is smooth like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], [forward] Mwadi [Mabika] shoots like James Worthy, [shooting guard] Tamecka Dixon reminds me of Byron Scott, and D-Nasty [thin, long-armed forward DeLisha Milton] reminds me of myself," says Cooper, 46. "It's scary, the similarities."
Cooper provides more than a few reminders of his former coach, repeating such Pat Riley bromides as No rebounds, no rings and Championships are won on the road. But it is Cooper the player whom the Sparks most resemble. Friendly and engaging off the court, they are flinty and aggressive on it, an 11-woman squad of smiling assassins. When Cooper joined the Los Angeles staff as an assistant in 1999, he inspired toughness and defensive tenacity in a team that was perceived as soft. Now Liberty coach Richie Adubato, among others, considers L.A. an "overly aggressive team" that "throws an awful lot of elbows."
While some might not appreciate every aspect of the Sparks' brand of defensive intensity, it is inarguably effective. After losing 44 games in its first three seasons, Los Angeles has dropped only 15 in the three years since Cooper took over for Orlando Woolridge. For the last two seasons the Sparks have also led the league in field-goal-percentage defense. "The difference here," says veteran guard Sophia Witherspoon, who played for New York and Portland before joining L.A., "is that from Day One you're thinking championship. You're not thinking about just making the playoffs. That's Cooper, that's the whole organization."
But defense and desire were almost not enough to close out the Liberty. After taking the opener at Madison Square Garden 71-63, the Sparks held New York to 20.0% shooting in the first half last Saturday but led just 31-24 at the break. In the first two minutes of the second half Los Angeles stretched its lead to 14 points, only to see it vanish in a flurry of turnaround jumpers by Liberty forward Tamika Whitmore. A nine-point lead with 2:47 to go disappeared under another barrage of New York layups and jump shots. This was, after all, a Liberty team that has reached the Finals four times in the WNBA's six seasons and was intent on seizing its first title. "We never thought they were going to give up," said Leslie, sporting a shower cap under her championship cap to keep her hair champagne free. "They were double-and triple-teaming me so I couldn't get that last shot off. It was great that the ball went to Nikki and she knocked it down."
Knowing that defenses would swarm her regularly this year, Leslie, the MVP in 2001, worked on her passing and ball handling in the off-season. "She can dominate a game in almost any phase right now, with her rebounding, her shot blocking, her scoring or her passing," says Cooper, "but her greatest accomplishment may be that she hasn't had a lot of turnovers out of the double and triple team. Her teammates have been looking to get open, and she's been finding the appropriate person. She does whatever we need her to do to win."
The same might be said of Cooper, who says he sleeps only two hours a night during the season, regularly bolting awake to scribble down a play or watch tape. He is only slightly less driven in the off-season; for the past two years he has begun working out with Leslie in January. (Mabika, a gifted athlete with one of the purest jump shots in basketball, also participated in the drills for the first time this year and joined Leslie on the first-team all- WNBA squad.) "The type of relationship I have with him, it's like you would have with a father," says the 30-year-old Leslie, who was named MVP of the Finals for the second straight season. "You wouldn't want to disappoint your father."