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Liz Cambage, Sparks keep it light entering season with high expectations

(Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

TORRANCE, Calif. — With a mischievous grin on her face, new Los Angeles Sparks point guard Chennedy Carter pulled up a chair among the media and prepared to mess with her teammates Te’a Cooper and Arella Guirantes.

Called on to ask a question, Carter got down to business.

“How you doin’? My name is Hollywood, Hollywood Carter,” Carter introduced herself with the straightest face she could muster. “What are you guys looking most forward to about this season?”

The question was a softball, but it wasn’t meant to be hard-hitting. Carter was having fun, and her lightheartedness was contagious, eliciting laughter from Cooper and Guirantes. And when Carter took her place at the podium in the following Q&A session, Cooper razzed her back.

Coming off a disappointing 12-20 season, in which they missed the playoffs for just the third time in the past 22 seasons and the first time since 2011, the Sparks could understandably feel extra pressure. The expectations are even higher this season after the team landed superstar Liz Cambage from the Las Vegas Aces in free agency and added Carter, Katie Lou Samuelson and Jordin Canada to the mix. Four of the team’s players — Nneka Ogwumike, Cambage, Kristie Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike — have combined for 15 WNBA All-Star Game selections. The roster has won a total of six WNBA championships and features two first overall draft picks, two second overall selections and seven players taken in the top four spots of their respective drafts. The Sparks, too, boast six combined career All-Defensive First Team selections.

And yet, despite all the talent and accompanying expectations, the vibe among players and head coach/general manager Derek Fisher at media day on Wednesday was light. The Sparks know what’s at stake this summer, but they’re taking a levelheaded approach.

“It’s time for us to show more so than talk and tell,” Fisher said. “We hear noise from the outside, we’ll continue to hear more of it, but we’re really just going to focus on who we are and becoming the best version of ourselves. We believe that with this group, if we can get anywhere close to the potential that the group holds, the results will take care of themselves.”

Fisher emphasized patience when it comes to reacting to the results of a team dependent on several newcomers.

“It’s not easy to just put 12 players together and just go out there and win every night at the professional level or at any level,” said Fisher, who played 18 seasons in the NBA before moving into coaching and taking over the Sparks job in 2019.

“We have to be realistic about some of the time that it will take to find the rhythm and the timing for how we can create success with this version of our team. With all that said, we expect a lot from ourselves. We have to be open to being so fully present in each moment that we’re not holding ourselves to some arbitrary expectation. It’s really about what we’re doing right now to get better … If it takes us a little bit more time, so be it.”

Through the first two weeks of training camp, the Sparks have tried to keep things loose, influenced in part by two new goofballs on the team, Carter and Cambage. Cooper, a third-year guard, has known Carter since their days rooming together at Team USA trials.

“She just played the whole time,” Cooper said. “We just laughed all night long. She’s still the same jokester.”

“Chennedy’s a kid,” Nneka Ogwumike added. “She’s a kid, and she brings that energy. Sometimes it’s great to have that type of energy, especially when you have certain returners that were holding really big minutes last year through the challenges that we experienced. … Her nickname is ‘Hollywood,’ which is so funny because everyone’s asking me if she’s from here and I’m like ‘No, she’s not.’ That’s just the lightness that she brings.”

Four-time WNBA All-Star and 2018 scoring champion Cambage also displayed her proclivity for play during media day. She joked that Brittney Sykes should focus on dunking in a game (the defensive specialist regularly blocks the 6-foot-8 Cambage’s shot in practice), superstitiously refused to disclose any of her pinky promises that have yet to materialize and dropped the occasional curse word before apologizing each time.

Another key figure keeping everyone light is the team’s head coach, whom Sykes described as “a funny dude on the low.”

“If you get him to yourself on the side, he’s got some jokes,” the 2021 WNBA All-Defensive First Teamer said of Fisher. “He’s actually got some jokes in his back pocket.”

Jokes aside, Cambage, like her coach, preached patience.

“The most important thing, at the start of this season, is that we’re focusing on our chemistry and getting it together,” she said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. We’re not going to be the team tomorrow. It’s going to take time. Just as long as we got the chemistry right and we’re vibing at the end of the season, that’s all that’s important.”

Despite a realistic attitude, Cambage herself expects huge success from her new team this season.

“Crowd’s gonna be lit. Building’s gonna be lit. Women’s basketball is going to be lit. It’s going to be the most wild summer the WNBA’s ever seen. That’s how I think this summer’s going to go,” the 30-year-old center declared. “And we’re going to have a ring at the end of 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.