In early 2014, Magic Johnson rescued the Los Angeles Sparks from oblivion—or at least from moving out of town—and a WNBA charter franchise had been preserved.
As a leading partner in the Los Angeles Dodgers ownership group, the former Lakers legend offered more than his name and money to a team that had won two WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002, but none since.
On Thursday, following a riveting WNBA Finals, Johnson was front and central in the euphoria, celebrating L.A.’s 77–76 win over Minnesota and in particular, clutching Candace Parker in a long embrace after her 28-point, 12-rebound performance in Game 5 that clinched for her series MVP honors.
Thanks to a putback by league MVP Nneka Ogwumike with 3.1 seconds to play, the Sparks were WNBA champions again, and the league’s 20th season concluded in memorable fashion.
A two-time NCAA champion at Tennessee, Parker finally had a pro title. Following a sorrowful summer that included being left off the U.S. Olympic team and the death of Pat Summitt, Parker was broken up with emotion as she dedicated the victory to her late college coach.
“This is for Pat,” Parker said more than once, tears streaming down her face.
Parker, a two-time league MVP, also was omitted from all-WNBA teams for the first time since 2011. While the champagne flowed, none of that mattered for the moment, as Johnson said: “She’ll forget about the Olympics and the All-WNBA team, ’cause what you play for is championships.”
Ogwumike also passed over for Rio, found the energy to make that a reality for the Sparks, during the frenzied waning moments of the final game of an epic series. Maya Moore’s jumper gave the Lynx a 76–75 lead. After a missed L.A. shot on the other end, Ogwumike grabbed the offensive rebound over Lynx center Sylvia Fowles and dropped in the follow.
Minnesota, which burned its last timeout to challenge a missed shot clock violation against the Sparks earlier in the fourth quarter, could manage only an errant half-court heave by Lindsay Whalen as time expired.
The Lynx’ attempt to become the first repeat winner since the Sparks and match the Houston Comets’ four titles in the first four years of the WNBA had been foiled.
To wonder if this compelling series, which averaged healthy ratings (roughly 500,000 viewers on ESPN’s main outlets) may signal a turning point in for the WNBA, it is necessary to revisit Johnson’s last-hour reprieve of the Sparks.
Johnson’s highly visible, emotional investment in women’s basketball has some familial roots. His sister, Evelyn Johnson, was an outstanding high school and college player in her own right, leading South Carolina to an AIAW Final Four appearance in 1981.
The Sparks’ previous owner, Paula Madison, a former journalist and NBC executive, surprised WNBA officials after laying off the entire front office staff and saying she wanted out.
Other original franchises had come and gone, and what had been initially envisioned as a women’s league in every NBA city was perilously close to losing another cornerstone, especially since the Golden State Warriors had expressed interest in running a WNBA team.
Two years after his Guggenheim Baseball Management partners acquired the Dodgers, Johnson prevented the Sparks from joining that list of WNBA no-mores (the Comets, Cleveland Rockers, Charlotte Sting and Sacramento Monarch) or relocateds (the Utah Starzz becoming the San Antonio Stars).
Most of the front office staff was restored, and Brian Agler, who coached the Seattle Storm to a WNBA title and the Columbus Quest to two crowns in the American Basketball League, was hired.
Ogwumike, a Stanford All-American, was drafted in 2014, and a backcourt of role players was fitted together. They came up big in clutch moments in Game 5: a 3-point basket by Kristi Toliver as the shot clock expired in the fourth quarter; huge buckets in the final period by Chelsea Gray; and the smothering defense of veteran Alana Beard.
After the Lynx spoiled L.A.’s title aspirations Sunday at the Staples Center, Johnson left the National League Championship Series to fly to Minneapolis.
As they celebrated a title, Parker couldn’t thank Johnson enough for believing in her, and in the Sparks.
The shot in the arm that Johnson has given the league, by extension, may prove to be a whole lot more invaluable.