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Defense, camaraderie put L.A. in driver's seat


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000

When he accepted the job as head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks in October, Michael Cooper commonly was referred to as the Sparks' former assistant coach and defensive genius.

Now he's being called just a darn good head coach.

One year after leading the Sparks' defensive resurgence, Cooper has proven he is more than a one-hit wonder.

Behind his leadership, the Sparks are 23-3, 13-3 in the Western Conference. With their 76-63 win over Seattle on Thursday night, the Sparks avenged an earlier loss to the expansion team and improved their winning streak to seven games.

Los Angeles leads defending league champion Houston (22-4, 13-3) by one game in the West. The teams meet in a nationally televised game at 4 p.m. today on Ch. 8.

"I feel very fortunate and blessed to be in the position that we're in right now," Cooper said Wednesday. "It's been a lot of hard work to gain the opportunity that we have and to fight for the WNBA title. I think it starts with our defense and it ends with good camaraderie on the court."

The Sparks have both.

The team includes three All-Stars -- Lisa Leslie, DeLisha Milton and Mabika Mwadi -- among the top 20 in the league in rebounding. Leslie is third (average of 9.7), Mwadi 16th (5.8) and Milton tied for 17th (5.7).

Leslie is second in the league in blocks (2.46), and Mwadi is 11th in steals (1.85).

But as recently ousted Washington Mystics coach Nancy Darsch or Charlotte coach T.R. Dunn can tell you, having talented players is not enough. The keys are finding a way to make superstars play unselfishly, bringing out the best they have and getting them to believe in the system.

"I think we've got a great group of ladies that really believe in what the coaching staff is trying to pass on," Cooper said. "Work ethic is what it's about. Playing against Houston obviously creates a lot of excitement for us, and we try to compare ourselves to that team. But I think right now we know that we're winners. We're not cocky, but we're confident."

Leslie said the spiritually based friendship that team members have cultivated since last year has been important to the success.

"We have a really good friendship off the court," she said. "We participate in a Bible study, and we have a chapel before every game. And I think our ability to fellowship and stay in prayer together off the court has really been a huge focus for allowing us to be open with each other, not just about basketball, but about being friends and helping each other with everyday things and everyday issues."

The season's final stretch should determine whether the Sparks are contenders or pretenders. Their final home game was Thursday night. They finish with six on the road.

"We're working really hard to finish up these games strong," said Leslie, named player of the week for the third time this season for her performance last week. "I just hope to finish up strong as an individual as well as for my team to finish strong before we go into the playoffs."

GETTING BETTER: WNBA president Val Ackerman on the evolution of the game: "The quality of play in the WNBA has improved dramatically since the first year, even with expansion. I had occasion to dig up a fascinating statistic. In 1997, we had 110 active players, and of that 110, only 44 are still in the WNBA today. The influx of players coming in the league every year has been extraordinary, both from college basketball as well as from the international game."

MIRACLE STRUGGLES: Two weeks ago, Orlando Miracle fans probably were clearing their calendars for playoff games. Now they probably are wondering if the Miracle will make the playoffs.

The team that led the Eastern Conference before the All-Star break is struggling.

Orlando's 73-66 loss to Sacramento on Thursday night was the fourth consecutive defeat for the Miracle, which has lost six of its past seven.

The Miracle is 14-12 and was in third place in the East, 11/2 games behind league-leading New York going into Friday's games.

To make matters worse for the Miracle, just six players have scored in its past three games.

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