By Sue Favor
LOS ANGELES – Carol Ross definitely set a new tone on the first day of training camp for the Los Angeles Sparks yesterday.
The new coach explained what she wanted players to do, demonstrated it to them, directed them into action and then watched, carefully. Players responded. They moved through each drill like it was a playoff game, talking to each other the entire time. There was a distinct urgency to their play. And as practice wore on, the team visibly improved.
Veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones, who played under Ross at the University of Florida 15 years ago, said it was a different opening day than the Sparks have had in many years, due to the fact that Ross is a teacher who can also motivate athletes.
“Sometimes when people teach, the intensity level goes down, or the practice doesn’t have a good rhythm,” Milton-Jones said. “Carol talks a lot, with a lot of good information, but everything is rolling over fast. The drills aren’t drawn out, and she isn’t stopping every other minute. You do the drill, you make the mistake, she tells you, then it’s better the next time and then we move on.”
“She makes you think. She’s a very visual person in her words – she paints a picture for you. She uses a lot of phrases or clichés to make you think, but once you put the pieces of the puzzles together in your head, you can see exactly what she’s talking about. She has an intellectual way of speaking in layman’s terms.”
Aggressive play seemed to be the theme of the day, for both coach and players. It is understandable, too, as the Sparks have been accused of lackluster effort at times in recent years. But Ross said that is simply one of her main focus points.
“I’m really trying to shape their minds to play the way I want them to play,” Ross said. “I want them to play hard, I want them to play aggressively, whether they’re on offense or defense. I want them to be relentless in their attack.”
In addition to technical instruction, Ross also peppers her practice dialogue with bits of philosophical knowledge. Before demonstrating a defensive principle, for instance, Ross told the team that “defense is built on trust.” She said she wants players to be good teammates to one another, and to realize that coaches and fans also depend on them.
“I’m just trying to create a culture of accountability and sisterhood,” she said. “I want them to be in this thing together….(we’re) going to have each other’s backs and we’re going to play the game with passion and enthusiasm.”
Veteran Ebony Hoffman said the team was embracing Ross’ emphasis on aggressive play.
“She knows what she wants, and she’s teaching us exactly what she wants from us,” Hoffman said. “We’re going to be aggressive, and if we make mistakes, they’ll be aggressive mistakes. Nothing half-hearted.”
But while Ross’ approach is hard-hitting, the atmosphere at practice was sometimes tinged with humor. The session was ended with a more fun one-on-one drill where players were trying to beat a clock. Ross said she purposefully tries to strike a balance.
“I want them to have fun, and balance intensity with some humor,” she said. “Because we want to play the game with enthusiasm and enjoy it – it’s supposed to be fun, and that doesn’t change just because you get a paycheck.”
This year’s number one draft pick Nnemkadi Ogwumike said her first WNBA practice was good, and said she liked Ross.
“Her style is real cool,” Ogwumike said.
The Stanford graduate took Ross aside after practice to ask her some questions about post defense. It was apparent to all that the rookie is unique.
“She is special,” Milton-Jones said. “The energy, the hunger – she has it. She’s gonna be great for this league and even better for this team.”
“She’s different from some of the other rookies in the league that you run into, who say ‘what are you gonna do for me?’ It’s more of a communal thing with her. She’s very giving, caring and confident enough in herself to where she’s giving something away she doesn’t feel like it’s taking something away from herself, and we need a little more of that in this league. That is maturity, and she has a lot of it.”
Ogwumike said she was relieved after the first session and felt some of the pressure was off.
“I thought it would be something I wouldn’t be able to handle,” Ogwumike said. “But everyone here is real supportive.”
Milton-Jones said that is on purpose. She and Hoffman are known for their humor, and they were using it a bit during practice to help welcome the newcomers.
“With us being lighthearted with each other, teasing each other, that kind of breaks the ice a little bit,” she said. “And it allows them to see us in a different light and open up a little more….so they relax a bit.”
There were 10 players at opening day camp, with seven more scheduled to return to town from overseas play within the next two weeks, including Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender and Alana Beard. The Sparks have their first pre-season game Saturday, against the China National Team.
Ross said so far, she likes the blend of veterans and newcomers. Ogwumike does too.
“I’m excited, and I’m very excited I came to this team,” she said. “I’ve been watching these women play for years and now I get to play with them. It’s crazy.”
Will she pick the brains of the vets for tips?
“Oh yes,” she said. “Especially when they don’t know it.”
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