20 years later, Sparks remain WNBA’s last repeat winners
Los Angeles is the last team to win back-to-back WNBA titles, illustrating the difficulty of repeating as champions the last two decades
At the beginning of training camp for the 2002 season, Los Angeles Sparks head coach Michael Cooper gathered his team together to set the tone for the year ahead.
The Sparks had come off a season in which they had won their first championship in franchise history and most of the team’s key players had returned in 2002 for another run.
At center was the face of the franchise, three-time MVP Lisa Leslie. Everything started and finished with Leslie, the team’s steady and consistent leader. Forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, an All-Star in 2000, was a fierce competitor who did all the little things for the Sparks. Mwadi Mabika, a member of the 2002 All-WNBA first team, was an athletic guard with one of the smoothest jump shots in the game and was the first African champion in league history. Tamecka Dixon, a three-time All-Star guard Milton-Jones labeled the team’s Ginzu, could slice up a defense with her crafty handles and timely pull-up jumper.
At point guard was rookie Nikki Teasley, whose height at 6 feet combined with her incredible court vision and basketball IQ prompted comparisons to Magic Johnson before she set foot on a WNBA court.
“She was the maestro of it all,” Dixon said of Teasley.
As Cooper stood before the team, he aimed to establish a competitive group mentality to go along with the standard that the previous season’s championship team had set. If Los Angeles was going to make a run at a second consecutive title, it would need to be locked in and ready for the uphill battle that lay ahead, Milton-Jones remembers.
“Winning the first one is hard,” Cooper said. “But winning the second one is even harder. In order for us to go back to back, you have to realize that you have the biggest target on your back. Everybody is going to play their A-game against you every single night, so you can’t have any letup.”
It would be that mindset that the team would adopt on the first day and strengthened as the season progressed. By season’s end, they’d become the second team in WNBA history to win consecutive titles. Such a feat has since eluded league franchises for the last two decades, including the 2022 Chicago Sky, which missed out on their chance to repeat after being eliminated in the semifinals by the Connecticut Sun on Thursday night.
“It’s tough because the teams are really talented and teams that haven’t won a championship are always hungry,” Sky coach James Wade said after the game. “You’re going to always get their best. I was proud of how we were able to defend the title. I thought we defended the title with grace and poise. … We fell short. You can’t always win.”
As the years have passed and a number of franchises have tried and failed to stand atop the league in consecutive seasons, it has only served to deepen the achievement made by that star-studded Sparks team decades ago.
“I don’t even know if in the moment we realized just how special that moment was,” said Milton-Jones, a member of the Sparks’ 2001 and 2002 championship teams. “When you’re looking back 20 years and realizing that was the last time it happened, we did something that’s freaking awesome.”
Cooper’s speech at the beginning of the season was pivotal for the Sparks, not just in the message itself but in the experience of the man delivering it. As a member of the Showtime Lakers teams of the 1980s, Cooper won back-to-back championships in 1987 and 1988 – his fourth and fifth rings.
“It was everything for us,” Milton-Jones said. “It’s powerful when you’ve had someone that has been there and done that, and they can kind of give you the blueprint.”
The culture of the Sparks’ championship teams was built in practice. Cooper created an electric practice environment every day that brought out an intense competitiveness among his players.
“Our practices were hard,” Milton-Jones said. “They were hard and they were intense and they were physical. They taxed you. They were designed to be harder than the games. We won the championship through how we practiced.”
He’d make his starters guard each other if he didn’t think they were being challenged enough. Dixon would defend Mabika. Milton-Jones would guard Leslie. On-court battles ensued. Cooper wasn’t afraid to challenge his players. In return, they challenged one another.
“There were some days in practice where we would almost come to blows,” Dixon said. “It was that intense. We knew that no one was ever going to challenge us as much as we challenge each other in practice.
“Going through those intense moments together where we fought each other allowed us to bond together in a special way on the court to where if you mess with one, you mess with all,” Milton-Jones added. “I think that was our secret sauce to us being able to go back to back.”
By the time the Sparks played actual games, the preparation and precedent for the team had already been set. Milton-Jones said the team didn’t feel any pressure stepping on the court as the defending champs. They expected each opponent they faced to put its best foot forward. As a team, they took the floor each night with the mentality to swing first.
Their goal: Beat the opponent at every facet of competition – even before the opening tip.
“We wanted to win the warm-ups,” Milton-Jones said of her team, which finished the regular season atop the league with a record of 25-7. “That was the mentality. We’re going to warm up harder, we’re going to be more focused and fine-tuned, everyone’s going to be locked in for the pregame speech, everybody is going to be on point with everything.”
As Dixon watched the ball leave the hands of Teasley with the second-half clock running down, it felt like time stood still.
It was Game 2 of the 2002 WNBA Finals at Staples Center. A crowd of 13,500 watched as the New York Liberty, on the brink of elimination, had gone on a 9-0 run to close out the final quarter to tie the game 66-66. With 13 seconds left on the clock, Cooper drew up a play for Leslie, who had a game-high 17 points, to receive the ball on the right block and attempt the game winner.
After Mabika inbounded the ball to Teasley, she tried to free up Leslie with a screen near the high post as Leslie cut to the low block. As Leslie fought for position, future Hall of Famer Teresa Weatherspoon, anticipating action for Leslie, sagged off Teasley to deny an entry pass. With space, Teasley opted to shoot the 3 from a foot or two off the line.
Said Dixon of what happened after seeing Teasley’s shot glide through the net:
As the final buzzer sounded and her teammates erupted in celebration at half court, Milton-Jones was overcome by a wave of mixed emotion. A sense of relief. A sense of accomplishment. A sense of pride and honor.
“We knew we had a chance and while we were in it, we wanted to make sure that we did something with that moment and not walk away with regret,” she said.
For Dixon, that final play that sealed the Sparks’ 2002 title embodied the very reason they were able to repeat: selfless basketball.
“We always said that no one ever cared about who shot the ball. We didn’t care how big the moment was,” said Dixon, who described those 2001 and 2002 teams as “legendary.” “Everybody had confidence to shoot it. It was just Nik’s turn. They left her open and she drilled it.”
At the helm was Cooper, who went 116-31 in his first coaching stint with Los Angeles from 2000 to 2004 (Cooper left in the middle of the 2004 regular season to become an assistant for the Denver Nuggets) and made three consecutive Finals appearances. Cooper, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was named WNBA Coach of the Year in 2000 and was the first Black coach to win a WNBA championship in 2001. He is one of two coaches in WNBA history to win back-to-back championships, the other being Van Chancellor, who led the Houston Comets to the WNBA’s first four championships.
Cooper is one of five coaches in WNBA history to win multiple championships. His 230 regular season wins rank sixth all-time. His 27 playoff wins rank fourth.
“He does deserve a lot more praise and admiration,” Milton-Jones said. “Coop wasn’t flamboyant. Coop was very laid-back, mild-mannered – just a blue-collar worker. … He didn’t really look for the praisec, so he didn’t search for the camera. When you’re like that, even when you’re doing phenomenal things, it’s easy for you to be overlooked.”
For Dixon, Cooper’s ability to reign in a cast of stars and create an environment that prioritized team over individual stardom was a major key in their success as a franchise. Without a group of selfless players, Dixon said, the Sparks would have never repeated.
“I think Coop has an uncanny ability to put together a team like us and be able to put those pieces in places and make everybody feel that there was no role more important than another. He preached that,” Dixon said. “There was one ball and in order for it to work, everybody’s role has to be just as important as the next woman. He did a great job of being able to relay that message to us and get it through to us.”
The Sparks also had a Black general manager in Penny Toler, who was hired by the Sparks in 1999 after playing three seasons for Los Angeles as a player. Toler hired Cooper in 2000 and oversaw the franchise during its repeat championship. Before the 2002 season, Toler traded starting point guard Ukari Figgs to the Portland Fire for Sophia Witherspoon and the No. 5 overall pick Teasley, who ultimately became the Finals hero for Los Angeles.
Since 2002, six teams (not including the Sparks’ return to the Finals in 2003) have returned to the WNBA Finals the season after winning a title, but have failed to repeat as champions.
“Unfortunately, it’s still a scar in my soul,” said former WNBA All-Star Nicole Powell. “It is so difficult to repeat.”
Powell still feels the sting of missing out on the chance to make history with her Sacramento Monarchs team that won a title in 2005 and was on a mission to run it back in 2006. After finishing the 2006 regular season atop the league, the Monarchs got through the Leslie-led Sparks and Sheryl Swoopes-led Houston Comets in the first two rounds of the playoffs without dropping a game.
In an up-and-down Finals series with the Detroit Shock, the Monarchs entered Game 4 at home with a 2-1 series lead and a chance to win a title at home. But Sacramento would squander its opportunity, falling to the Shock by 20 points and scoring just two points in the final quarter of the game.
“I think we let up a little bit,” Powell said. “That extreme sense of urgency, you can’t lose it. I think we did have that sense of urgency, we just didn’t make winning plays when we should have. That was a lost opportunity.”
Detroit, playing a decisive Game 5 at home, defeated Sacramento to win the title.
Powell stressed that as teams get to the playoffs and the only teams that remain are the best in the league, the difference between teams in those final stages shrinks significantly. At that point, she believes it’s about which team can consistently make those crucial winning plays, minimize its margin of error and perhaps, most importantly, maintain its focus.
“It’s that honing in of elite-level focus,” Powell said. “I think it’s really what it comes down to. It’s so easy to get there, but it’s hard to stay there … It’s not just on the shoulders of stars; there cannot be a drop-off from anyone. You can’t miss the moment, not one person can miss the moment. If one person misses the moment, you don’t win.”
The following season, the Shock would miss its repeat opportunity, losing to the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Finals in five games.
With Chicago’s inability to add its name to the record books, the cycle repeats once more. A new WNBA champion will be crowned and another opportunity will arise in 2023 for that franchise to add its name to a short list that has existed two long decades without a new entry.
“At the moment that it happens, you’re not really thinking about how huge that is and how hard and difficult of a feat that is,” said Dixon, who when asked which semifinal team most embodied the spirit of the championship Sparks teams she answered the Aces. “As I reflect back, obviously it’s huge, because it hasn’t happened since then.”