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Los Angeles Sparks, Howard University women’s hoops inspire each other

In their road trip to Washington, the Sparks became the first WNBA team to practice at an HBCU

The Los Angeles Sparks made history this weekend as they became the first WNBA team to practice at a historically Black university.

The Sparks’ first stop in Washington was the Entertainment & Sports Arena, where they lost to the Washington Mystics 79-77 on Aug. 4. The following morning, before the Sparks toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the team held a practice at Burr Gymnasium at Howard University to prepare for its next game against the Mystics.

Howard women’s basketball team bonded with the Los Angeles Sparks while watching the team run through drills and plays. The Sparks’ practice at Howard evidently paid off, as they beat the Mystics 91-83 on Aug. 6.

Throughout practice, the WNBA players shared their perspectives on the game and gave advice to the HBCU student-athletes.

“I’ve made my career off of being a sixth man, and everyone can score in this league,” Sparks forward Dearica Hamby told the Bison team. “But in order to stay in this league, you have to find something you’re special at and rock with it.”

The practice at Howard was planned by Ilene Hauser, Sparks vice president of basketball operations and player relations. In her previous position with Athletes Unlimited as senior adviser of operations, Hauser conducted a panel discussion at historically Black Paul Quinn College to celebrate Black women’s history and saw how Athletes Unlimited athletes and staff interacted with the students. She knew that during the Sparks’ time in Washington they had to visit Howard’s women’s basketball team.

“To see [Howard] sitting over there and watching is really special. It’s special for me and I know it’s special for our athletes as well,” Hauser said.

From left to right: Howard University guard Kaniyah Harris, Howard forward Marissa Steel, Howard guard Destiny Howell, Los Angeles Sparks forward Dearica Hamby, Howard guard Tyana Walker, Los Angeles Sparks guard Jordin Canada, and Howard guard Iyanna Warren following the Sparks’ practice Aug. 5 in Burr Gymnasium in Washington.

Alan Gaffere/Los Angeles Sparks

Tiesha “Ty” Grace, Howard’s women’s basketball coach, expressed the same sentiment while watching her players and the Sparks on the court.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for my team to be able to witness professionals and people that are successful in the field and path they’re looking to go in,” Grace said. “I hope they’re soaking it all in and embracing it, because it doesn’t happen every day.”

Fifth-year student Iyanna “Deuce” Warren and senior Destiny Howell shared their excitement about the Sparks using their court. 

“It means a lot that the WNBA is showing love to HBCUs. It’s definitely a good feeling knowing that they’re here, showing love and supporting us,” Warren said.

“The level of support is definitely unreal, just having a WNBA team even wanna be down here in D.C. and come to us … there are so many schools around the DMV area and they chose to come to Howard,” said Howell, nodding in response to Warren’s statement. “So that’s a blessing.”

The WNBA is a league of predominantly Black players, yet it has drafted only six players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Compared with predominantly white institutions, HBCU talent goes unnoticed by scouts.

Jackson State University alum Ameshya Williams-Holliday was the 25th overall pick in the 2022 WNBA draft. She is the first HBCU graduate to be drafted to the WNBA in 20 years. When told this fact, Howard sophomore Tyana Walker shared her plan to create a legacy after graduation.

“I plan to strive for greatness whether it’s on the court and off the court, and to follow that path that she set for people coming out of HBCUs,” Walker said.

Los Angeles Sparks guard Zia Cooke visits an exhibit of boxer Muhammad Ali at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Aug. 5.

Alan Gaffere/Los Angeles Sparks

The Sparks’ practice at Howard University was not just an opportunity to practice before their two-game series. This historic moment was an opportunity to inspire HBCU athletes and let them know they have people who believe in their success.

Sparks guard Jordin Canada attributes her success to having a village behind her.

“Do you know the phrase, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’?” Canada said. “I think I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have people in my life that have poured into me and want to see me get to where I am today.”

Practice ended with a Sparks-Bison huddle. The two teams talked as if they were teammates, trading tips and stories. It is apparent that the Howard women’s basketball team has added the Sparks’ roster to their village.

Sparks rookie Zia Cooke described her transition from college to the WNBA.

“The pace is the thing that I had to adjust to,” said Cooke. 

The Howard players had numerous questions for their pro counterparts, but the Sparks posed a question of their own: Why Howard? 

“I love the [Howard] culture because of the atmosphere,” said senior Kaniyah Harris. “We play the games, the band is there, the majorettes are there, and the crowd [is there]. We pour energy into them and they pour it right back into us.”

Ogwumike looked encouragingly at the young team across from her and said, “Your answer to ‘Why HU?’ is very important.

“It’s the culture and the environment that is really what drives success and that’s the foundation of a place like this,” said Ogwumike. “We see so much of HU, even while not being here. There’s so much culture and history, and there’s a reason why people want to play at an HBCU. There’s a reason why people want to play in the W. Because of all of the Black women that represented themselves to give us this opportunity.”

Takier George, a 2024 Rhoden Fellow and native of Arlington, Virginia, is a senior majoring in English with a minor in television and film. Takier enjoys writing poems and has had her work published in The Amistad, Howard University's literary arts journal, and The Hilltop, Howard's student newspaper. She is also editor-in-chief of the Sterling Notes Literary Journal.