When Los Angeles Sparks head coach Derek Fisher benched former MVP Candace Parker with the season on the line it was the most visible crack in the organization’s season.
It seems there are more coming to the surface from a report by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
The Sparks earned a No. 3 seed in the playoffs with a first-year coach despite injuries that prevented the starting five from taking the court together until mid-August. But a semifinal sweep by the Connecticut Sun, who evened the Finals series this week with the Washington Mystics, things began to fall apart both on the court and off of it.
General manager Penny Toler gave the team a “spirited speech” after Game 2 and admitted to using the N-word “in context” but not at her players, per Shelburne. Afterward, Fisher reportedly snapped at players in practice and continued his season-long “defensive” attitude toward players’ requests for new plays and looks.
It all came out after the public benching of Parker and the starters, and may have ramifications exceeding a season-ending game.
Toler uses N-word in ‘spirited’ pre-game speech
After a 94-68 loss in Game 2, Toler spoke to the players in the locker room and used obscene language that included racial epithets. She told Shelburne she did use the N-word, but “in a context” and not at players.
"By no means did I call my players the N-word. I'm not saying that I couldn't have used it in a context. But it wasn't directed at any of my players.
"It's unfortunate I used that word. I shouldn't. Nobody should. ... But you know, like I said, I'm not here to defend word by word by word what I said. I know some of the words that I'm being accused of are embellished. Did I give a speech that I hoped would get our team going? Yes.
"I think that this whole conversation has been taken out of context because when we lose, emotions are running high and, unfortunately and obviously, some people feel some type of way."
Toler noted it was the first time in 20 years as general manager an incident like this occurred and it “clearly is not the reason we lost game 3,” nor the earlier games. She said she didn’t mean to offend and was “saying what I was thinking. And I have the right to do that as the GM.
Per ESPN, several players said she called them “mother f---ers” and threatened to replace them if they were swept. Toler is the longest-tenured and winningest GM in the W. The Sparks’ postseason streak is 19 years and they have three titles in that span (2001, 2002, 2016). She’s also had 10 coaching changes over her two decades.
Fisher ‘defensive’ about new plays
Hiring the former Los Angeles Lakers guard was viewed as a questionable move by the organization. Toler bragged he was the only one they interviewed and credited his worth ethic as a reason for bringing him on. While players continued publicly supporting their coach, they were concerned behind the scenes, according to Shelburne.
Fisher reportedly bristled when players asked to bring in men to practice against, a standard practice in the league, and became “defensive” when players requested new offensive plays. One player said typically “you argue and you’re done with it,” but Fisher “seemed upset by it.”
“Fisher tended to preach better effort and execution instead of new strategies and plays,” Shelburne wrote.
In a practice before Game 3, after apologizing for Toler’s speech and saying “emotions are running high,” he got into an argument with Nneka Ogwumike and Parker about plays to counter the Sun trapping point guard Chelsea Gray.
When Parker proposed another play, one the Sparks had run to counter point-guard traps in previous seasons, Fisher snapped and said, according to sources, "Is that why we f---ing lost?" It startled the players to hear Fisher snap like that, multiple sources said, as he'd previously taken a more collegial tack with the team.
That was apparent in Game 3. ESPN footage showed Fisher telling his team in the huddle to “run harder and cut harder.” While he did that his counterpart, Sun head coach Curt Miller, was drawing up plays on a whiteboard and reminding his team of how it was specifically going to neutralize the Sparks. The Sun controlled the glass and trapped Gray, taking away the offensive weapon, and Miller seemed to out-do Fisher at every turn.
What does this mean for the Sparks?
Seeing as Toler was stead-fast about hiring Fisher, it seems unlikely he would be fired a year in any way the season broke. Sparks managing partner and governor Eric Holoman told ESPN he feels "good about Derek as our coach next season, excited to see what our core players will do, and confident that we will have a winning culture in and out of the locker room."
Per ESPN, a former player said she won’t return “until the culture changes,” calling it “unprofessional.” If one thinks that, others may be considering it.
Parker signed a multiyear extension with the Sparks in 2017 and plans to be back next season. Yet the 33-year-old is closer to the end of her career than the beginning, and may decide it’s not worth it to continue. She works as an NBA analyst with TNT, for which she signed a multiyear extension last month.
Her situation is similar to Chiney Ogwumike, who was traded to the Sparks from the Sun shortly before the season to continue her career with ESPN. She was ready to retire if she couldn’t sign with Los Angeles, where ESPN has studios.
Forcing one’s way out of town isn’t uncommon — Liz Cambage also did it to get out of Dallas during the offseason — and if the Sparks organization continues to ruffle players, it may find its postseason run squashed. The 2019 WNBA Finals shows that coaches who build teams over the long haul and adjust to others will make the championship run.
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