• January 22, 2022

Los Angeles and Seattle: Owners, coaches, players and fans weigh in on the rivalry

Aug 4, 2010; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom (center) talks with players (from left) Lindsay Wistom-Hylton (14), DeLisha Milton-Jones (8), Marie Ferdinand-Harris (24) and Kristi Toliver (20) during the game against the Chicago Sky at the Staples Center. The Sparks defeated the Sky 82-77. Photo by Image of Sport Photo via Newscom

If tonight’s first-round playoff matchup between the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks feels like déjà vu, it’s because it is. The two teams have met in the opening round four times out of the last five years, and five times overall since the Storm franchise was established a decade ago.

This year, though, the Storm has a chance to advance past that first round against the Sparks for the first time. For one thing, star center and MVP candidate Lauren Jackson is healthy, whereas in the past two years she has been unable to play in the post-season due to injury. Secondly, the Storm are coming off a 28-6 season where they were undefeated at home and tied the WNBA record for most victories in a season, while the Sparks struggled all season, lost two key players to injury and barely claimed the last playoff spot.

The Storm would be happy to erase the record of playoffs past against the Sparks, but it goes deeper than the win-loss record: the teams have a decade-long history of bad blood between them that has translated into one of the most contentious rivalries in the league.

“I have to admit we have some history with Seattle,” said Sparks co-owner Kathy Goodman.

But the disdain of Los Angeles fans towards the Storm pales in comparison to the sentiments of Seattle fans toward the Sparks. Los Angeles fans mostly settle for booing Jackson at Staples Center when they feel like it. Storm fans bring “Beat LA” signs to Key Arena and chant those words loudly throughout the game.

Sparks coach Jen Gillom said the other day that she “didn’t get” the strong dislike from Seattle fans, and indeed, it doesn’t seem like too many Los Angeles fans do, either.

Scott Englehardt, a Storm founding fan who started the stormfans.org website nine years ago said the foundations of tension came about in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Jackson, playing for Australia, pulled out the hair extension of Sparks center Lisa Leslie when the two teams were playing.

“For LJ, according to her statements since, it was an accident and a surprise and she didn’t understand all the fuss,” said Englehardt. “For Leslie, I always got the impression that it was much more, and when the two started playing against each other in the WNBA she continued it.”

When the Storm franchise started that same year, the fledgling team was the underdog against powerful Los Angeles. Englehardt said he and other Storm fans felt that Sparks players had a “visible disdain” for the Storm, even when they were not a threat to them.

“There were times when the Sparks, win or lose, would meet at center court postgame on our court and not leave, even though that’s where the Storm always gather after a game for a final huddle, showing a total disrespect for the Storm,” said Englehardt.

Another key issue for Storm fans is what they saw as “dirty play” by the Sparks: elbowing, hitting, pushing. Englehardt said DeLisha Milton-Jones especially tried to get Jackson mad by playing her rough.

“Add all of that to the fact that the Sparks have knocked the Storm out of the playoffs so many times, and you get a Storm fanbase who won’t be happy unless the Sparks are on the business end of a couple playoff record setting blowouts,” said Englehardt. “We don’t want to ‘Beat LA,’ we want to ‘Crush LA’ and then kick their dogs.”

Goodman said “nothing makes her happier” than to see “Beat LA” signs, and she considers last Saturday’s game in Seattle one of the greatest WNBA experiences of her life.

“When Tina Thompson hit that shot to go ahead, and to see 10,000 screaming fans fall completely silent,” said Goodman. “Then to have them explode when they won.”

“If we can engender passion about our team, then come on in.”

The matchup pits two teams of veterans against one another, with the difference being that the Storm has been together much longer. Jackson and Sue Bird have been with the team for 10 and nine years, respectively, and the group around them has remained unchanged for the last few years.

“The only thing the same [about the Sparks] is the colors,” said Bird. “Every year you make changes in your roster, but for us, for the most part, the focal points of our team have been the same.”

Milton-Jones downplayed the differences between last year’s Sparks team and this year’s squad.

“There is nothing different,” she said. “This is playoff time and it means win or go home. The last two years, we’ve been eliminated in the Western Conference Finals. That is what we want to be the difference this year. We have a great team and we’ve taken our lumps but we made it to the postseason and now, we just have to finish it.”

Milton-Jones said the familiar matchup has a different feeling this year.

“The series is always a good one because we are so familiar with each other and have built a great rivalry,” she said. “With the year that they’ve had this year, they are coming in very confident and strong. We also finished our season strong and are coming in just as confident because the regular season is over and everyone is tied right now.”

Jackson anticipates a good matchup, but that’s all.

“Their team is really good,” said Jackson. “There’s not one thing I can say I’m looking forward to in the matchup. I think it’s going to be really tough—it’s going to be a battle. It’s going to definitely be more physical than it was last game. I expect a bit of a war out there. It’s going to be a really really hot series.”

Bird said she is taking this year for what it is.

“I don’t look at the last however many years we haven’t got out of the first round – I don’t think about them, I don’t compare them to previous years,” said Bird. “We know what are cast is about and that’s what we’re focused on. We’re just getting ready for the playoffs.”

This follows the Zen-like approach of the entire team, she said.

“The beauty of our team is we just stay in the moment in each game, and right now we just want to get the first game.”

The Storm and Sparks face off tonight at 8 p.m. PDT/11 p.m. EDT on ESPN.

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