Down a couple of All-Stars, the L.A. Sparks have filled Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver’s slots at forward and guard with Reshanda Gray and Te’a Cooper — opportunities that feel fateful for both women.
Gray is a 27-year-old native Angeleno who grew up going to Sparks games, screaming for T-shirts and waiting afterward to meet players: “When I put that Sparks jersey on, I think I might cry,” said Gray, who Wednesday sported a T-shirt that read “Change Has No Offseason,” a reference to the team’s new social justice initiative. “Like, it’s like a dream come true that I get to rep the purple and gold and play for my home team.”
Cooper, 23, is a rookie point guard who grew up in Georgia and who just might have sung the Sparks’ invitation into existence. She hasn’t forgotten the song she created for school when she was about 6 years old, rapping the lyrics for reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday: “I was like, ‘It’s Te’a from the arc / I shoot it from the park-ing lot / I’m hot, I should be on the Sparks.”
An aggressive rebounder, after two seasons out of the WNBA, Gray thought she’d established herself last season with the New York Liberty, and said she was hurt when she was waived May 26.
Cooper was one of the most exciting prospects in the WNBA Draft, but when the pandemic robbed her and other rookies of a training camp to prove themselves, the Phoenix Mercury waived her on May 26, too.
Both players said they were dutifully staying in shape, but that neither was expecting the call from the Sparks to join the team — considered among the WNBA title favorites heading into a 22-game regular season and prospective playoffs, all of which are set to take place this month at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
The 2020 season was supposed to start May 15 before being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic that first shut down play in South Korea, where Gray was was playing well for Asan Woori Bank Wibee, and then abruptly curtailed Cooper’s college career at Baylor.
“Korea was really well prepared,” said Gray, a former Washington Prep high school standout who who credits advice she received from Kobe Bryant when she was 14 with helping her navigate life’s challenges en route to professional basketball career and her position as a mentor for L.A. youth.
“They had tests ready, they had temperatures ready, they had heat sensors ready,” Gray added. “(And then) when things started calming down in Korea and getting back safe, that’s when the United States started to take a toll. And it was scary, because I’m leaving one quarantine and going into another.
“I just leaned on my faith in the end and I just tried to — I feel like if you’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it. But that doesn’t mean you go out there and be like, ‘Give it to me.’ You take care of yourself, you social distance, you wear a mask, you wash your hands, and you stay out of people’s faces. I just lean on my faith and I just try to be positive about the situation and try to be prepared and worry about safety.”
Ogwumike and Toliver were among the players who’ve opted out of this truncated WNBA season, citing a desire to focus on their health. Other players have said they want to dedicate the time to advocate for racial justice in the United States following the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis.
For her part, Cooper said she isn’t concerned about playing in the confined environment that will be instituted by the WNBA in order to limit players’ potential exposure to COVID-19. There will be regular coronavirus screenings and limited contact with those outside of the league.
“I’m not really an outside type of person, so I’m not really struggling with the idea of the bubble,” Cooper said. “I mean, beside that you can’t bring a plus-one. I would like for my family to be there, but other than that, I mean, we get to play. I get to be in the WNBA. I’m considered a professional. I get to get a jersey. I’m pretty optimistic about it. This is the opportunity I get, so I’m pretty happy and blessed.
“With everything that’s going on in the world, I get to take my mind off that.”
Just as athletes train year-round to be elite on the court, we all need to work together year-round to fight for justice and equality off the court.
To be a part of the change, visit https://t.co/X51vgSEtwf#ChangeHasNoOffseason #GoSparks #LeadTheCharge
— Reshanda Gray (@nograyareas21) July 1, 2020
Dream come true #BlessedAndGrateful pic.twitter.com/THst0o30f6
— Tc2 (@TeaCooper2) June 29, 2020
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