“This championship was so much harder to win. We had to find different ways to win. We’ve held our own, we’ve been strong and it’s just an amazing feeling.”
That’s what Lisa Leslie said when the Los Angeles Sparks won their second-straight WNBA title in 2002.
But back then, one could be excused for thinking repeating as champions of the basketball world wasn’t all that difficult. The Houston Comets launched the WNBA by winning four-straight titles (1997-2000). In the NBA, the Sparks’ LA counterparts, the Lakers, just had won their second of an eventual three-straight titles (2000-02), while the two three-peats achieved by the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s remained top of mind for basketball fans.
Yet, in the 21 years since the Spark’s second-straight title triumph, the WNBA has not seen a repeat champion.
The Las Vegas Aces, who are threatening the all-time regular-season winning percentage established by those Comets in 1998, stand a strong candidate to break the drought, although the challenge of the league’s first 40-game season recently has exposed some cracks in the Aces’ armor.
So how did the Sparks do it in 2002? And are there any parallels with the 2023 Aces?
More than just back-to-back ambitions
After winning their first WNBA championship in 2001, the Sparks, like this season’s Aces, came out the following season intent upon taking things to another level.
At training camp, head coach Michael Cooper set an audacious goal for his team—going undefeated. Leslie, who captured the WNBA’s triple crown—All-Star MVP, regular-season MVP and Finals MVP—as the 28-4 Sparks won the 2001 championship, endorsed her coach’s goal. She’d spent the previous offseason not resting on her laurels, but training with Cooper and other developmental coaches to expand her offensive repertoire and fortify her defensive instincts.
The scenario sounds similar to sentiments in Vegas this season, where newly-minted Hall of Famer Becky Hammon refuses to accept anything less than excellence from her team and reigning MVP A’ja Wilson continues to elevate her play on both ends of the floor.
The Sparks’ undefeated ambition would be foiled in the fourth game of season when the Charlotte Sting, who lost to the Sparks in the 2001 WNBA Finals, defeated the defending champs behind 19 points and nine assists from Dawn Staley.
At the 2002 All-Star break, the 14-2 Sparks remained resolute in their intention to approach all-time greatness, with Leslie telling reporters:
We lost four games last year and won the championship so I think it was a good goal to have. To go undefeated was a goal, but it doesn’t interfere with the main one, which is to win a championship. We wanted to get off to a great start, which we have, and finish up like last year. The playoffs are when you have to take care of business.
In his recent coverage of the Aces, Edwin Garcia’s analysis has echoed Leslie words, as he has argued that a second-straight title—not another Commissioner’s Cup Championship or the best regular-season winning percentage in WNBA history—must be the main motivation for the Aces.
Star power and championship purpose
Like the Aces of 2023, the Sparks were blessed with an abundance of star power as they played what the Washington Post described as “high-octane, entertaining and successful basketball.” As Mara McHugh, head coach of the Sacramento Monarchs put it, “There’s a lot of star power over there. They can put five big-time scorers on the court and the same time…They can hurt you in so many places.”
In the starting lineup, Leslie was flanked by forwards DeLisha Milton (now Milton-Jones) and Mwadi Mabika, with Tamecka Dixon and Nikki Teasley manning the backcourt. When Candace Parker is healthy, the Aces’ starting lineup includes four No. 1 draft picks—Parker, Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young—and 2022 Finals MVP Chelsea Gray. Sports Illustrated described the 2002 Sparks as, “Friendly and engaging off the court, they are flinty and aggressive on it, an 11-woman squad of smiling assassins,” a description that also could apply to the Aces.
Yet, during the second half of the season, the Sparks’ bid for an epic sprint to a second-straight championships hit several speed bumps. LA dropped their first game after the All-Star break and would lose four more times over the season’s final 15 games, including falling in back-to-back games to the Miami Sol, who were boosted by 16 points, two assists and four steals from current New York Liberty head coach (and Aces’ foe) Sandy Brondello, and Seattle Storm, when a rookie Sue Bird posted a double-double of 17 points and 10 assists. (The Sparks’ loss to the Sol also featured Leslie’s famous first dunk in WNBA history.)
Nonetheless, the Sparks would finish the season with the WNBA’s best record at 25-7, edging out the still-dangerous Comets and Sheryl Swoopes, who would win 2002 MVP honors over Leslie. Leslie publicly shrugged off not winning a second-straight MVP, insisting her sights solely were set on another championship when she told the New York Times, “That’s the championship trophy. That’s my No. 1 goal always. I have gold medals, and I’ve won the MVP. I just want to win as much as I can till my time is over.”
Aces fans, of course, believe that Wilson should come out on top in this season’s closely-contested MVP race, likely agreeing with what Cooper said about Leslie:
She’s doing a lot of things to make individuals around her better. Being MVP doesn’t mean you have to score 30 points a night. She does it with her leadership, passing, blocking shots. She’s able to control games by rebounding, both offensively and defensively. To me, that’s what an MVP is.
Sweeping their way to a second-straight
As the Aces hope to realize, the Sparks exhibited a renewed focus when the playoffs began. They swept both the Storm and Utah Starzz two games to none in the Western Conference Semifinals and Finals. In the Finals, they met the New York Liberty, who, 21 years later, are still looking for that elusive first title as they stand as the foremost challengers to the Aces’ repeat bid.
The Sparks took Game One, which was played in New York, 71-63, as Becky Hammon’s team-high 18 points off the bench was not enough for the Liberty to steal a victory. Mwadi Mabika led LA with 20 points and eight boards, while Leslie scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Nikki Teasley tossed 11 assists.
Teasley would prove even more pivotal in Game Two, held back in LA.
Leading by two points as the time ticked under a minute, the Sparks were on the precipice of a second-straight title, and an undefeated postseason. Then, a turnover followed by 2-point jumper from Tari Phillips tied the game.
Enough time remained for the Sparks to target Leslie for the game-winning bucket. Except the Liberty surrounded the superstar center, with guard Teresa Weatherspoon backing of Teasely, who was dribbling the ball on the right wing, to put another body in front of Leslie. Left wide open, Teasely, just a rookie who had missed her four previous 3-point attempts, let it fire from behind the arc with 2.4 seconds on the clock, draining the title-clinching trey.
69-66 LA. The 2-0 sweep of the Liberty was sealed, an undefeated postseason was accomplished and, most importantly, the second-straight title was secure. Leslie, with 17 points and seven rebounds in Game Two, again earned the Finals MVP.
In the intervening years, the reverence for the 2002 Los Angeles Sparks should have increased, elevated in WNBA history because of the inability of a number of talented teams in Seattle, Phoenix and Minnesota to match the feat.
Will the Aces join the Sparks atop the WNBA’s back-to-back mountain?