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Sparks prepare to move forward behind the ‘wisdom’ of Fred Williams

(Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

A day after the Sparks parted ways with head coach and general manager Derek Fisher, Fred Williams, who had served as assistant since Fisher took over in December 2019, was introduced as interim head coach.

Williams brings 39-plus years of women’s college basketball coaching experience, including having coached in the WNBA since 1998. The 65-year-old coach said Fisher informed him on Monday afternoon that he and the organization had mutually agreed to split, and that he felt Williams was the right person to assume head coaching duties in his place.

The following day, Sparks CEO Eric Holoman officially elevated Williams to interim status after the two spoke. Williams then called each of his players individually to discuss the coaching change.

“Fred’s been an OG,“ Sparks captain Nneka Ogwumike said. “Having that sageness and wisdom in a no-nonsense type of way is what he offers.”

“That man has the brain for basketball,” guard Brittney Sykes added. “There’s that level of comfort knowing that we have someone who knows the game in and out. There’s no bad blood on his name. To have that as a head coach, that’s amazing.”

Both Sparks players characterized their new head coach as a man of few words.

“He talked a little bit more than usual (in practice Wednesday),” Sykes said. “When he talks, it’s very important and we all listen.”

Sykes was getting her hair done on an off-day Tuesday when, suddenly, her phone blew up with messages form people sending her articles and asking about the big news. She still hadn’t had much time to absorb the change when asked about it Wednesday.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Sykes said. “We’ve just been in game after game after game.”

Fisher’s ouster marked the third time during Ogwumike’s Sparks tenure that the team has let go of its head coach. Los Angeles had won three of its last five games under Fisher after enduring a five-game skid, leaving them at 5-7 a month into the season. The expectations were higher in his fourth season after the Sparks acquired several marquee players in the offseason, including Liz Cambage, Jordin Canada and Chennedy Carter.

While Ogwumike said that she did not expect Fisher’s exit and was “not necessarily excited about it,” she said she was locked in with her teammates and focused on remaining unified.

“When these changes happen, we can’t stop,” Ogwumike said. “Someone’s gotta play the game, someone’s gotta coach.”

Sykes expressed a similar sentiment, saying that she can only control what she can control, which is playing hard and staying positive.

“Whoever it is in that seat, then so be it,” Sykes said. “We know that the team is together. We all want the same thing and so do our coaching staff and front office.”

On Wednesday, Williams led his first practice as Sparks head coach, laying the foundation for how all his practices will be run. And run the Sparks players he did, as cardiovascular conditioning is a hallmark of Williams’ approach. He told the team that in two weeks they’ll be a “well-oiled machine.”

“We got in, we got out, we were detailed. We came in and got a sweat,” Sykes said of practice Wednesday.

Williams said he wants to see a more up-tempo offense, a more aggressive defense and a lot more help defense. He feels his duty as head coach is to understand individual and team needs and to be attentive to and communicative with each of his players.

When asked who might replace Fisher long-term as head coach, Ogwumike refused to overlook Williams.

“We have a coach who has decades of experience, and I’m totally OK with that,” Ogwumike said. “Everyone knows Fred — not just on this team, not just in this organization, around the league, around the college game. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s talking about.”

Williams had previously accepted an associate head coaching job with Auburn women’s basketball and was set to leave the Sparks for that opportunity in July. Of course, the circumstances are different now, and according to Williams, Tigers’ head coach Johnnie Harris completely understands. Williams described Harris as a close friend and relayed that the pair will reassess the situation after the Sparks’ season ends.

For now, Williams is the head coach in Los Angeles, and as he said, he’s ready to “roll up his sleeves and get it.”

Joshua Fischman is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering Angel City FC and the Los Angeles Sparks. He has covered basketball for Vantage Sports and Hoops Rumors and served as co-host of “On the NBA Beat” podcast. Joshua received his master’s in Sports Media from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @JJTheJuggernaut.

Portland Thorns reassign head coach after winless NWSL start

Head coach Mike Norris of Portland Thorns FC watches practice before a 2023 match against Orlando Pride
Mike Norris' tenure as Thorns head coach has come to an end. (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images)

The Portland Thorns are looking for a new head coach after a winless start to the NWSL season. 

The organization has reassigned head coach Mike Norris to a newly created technical director position. Assistant coach Rob Gale is set to take over as interim head coach while the club conducts a "global search" for its next head coach. 

Norris began his time at the club as an assistant coach before taking the reigns after former head coach Rhian Wilkinson abruptly resigned in 2022. Under Norris, the Thorns finished second in 2023's regular season standings, but suffered three losses in their last five games in a spell that saw them knocked out of the running for the NWSL Shield. They went on to lose their first playoff game in postseason play. 

At the start of the 2024 season, the Thorns went winless through four games for the first time in club history. 

"The results have not gone our way, and in a head coach position, the results do matter," Thorns GM Karina LeBlanc told The Athletic's Meg Linehan shortly after the Tuesday afternoon announcement. “But the results that we have, you can’t just pinpoint it on one position.”

Norris' reassignment marks the first major personnel decision made under the club’s new ownership. RAJ Sports' Lisa Bhathal Merage and Alex Bhathal, who also own the NBA's Sacramento Kings, bought the club in January from Merritt Paulson, who sold the Thorns amidst the fallout stemming from reports of misconduct within the NWSL.

Both the Bhathal family and the Thorns front office have been looking to make changes, and establishing a technical director topped the list. According to LeBlanc, Norris has what it takes to assume the position. 

"Where can we grow? Where are the gaps? How do we move forward with being the standard that people are used to with the Thorns?" LeBlanc continued. "One of [Norris’] strengths is to analyze and process, then come down to communicate what needs to happen."

Despite the dismal start, a quick turnaround could certainly be in the cards for Portland. The club currently leads the league in shots and shots on goal, as does star forward and USWNT standout Sophia Smith

"These changes will help us maximize our strengths as we continuously pursue championship-level success," LeBlanc said, voicing full support for the staffing shakeup.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

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