The Los Angeles Sparks’ 2019 season ended in ignominious fashion, as they were swept by the Connecticut Sun while their best player, Candace Parker, inexplicably sat on the bench for almost an entire half of a closeout game. After the loss, Parker raised an eyebrow toward her head coach Derek Fisher for his strange tactics, since he also rested the team’s top scorers, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray. Today, a report from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne sheds some light on the big mess down in L.A.
One of the primary inciting incidents in the Sparks’ meltdown was a fiery locker-room speech by team GM Penny Toler after the team got blown out in Game 2. Toler lit into the players, calling them “motherfuckers” and threatening their jobs if they wound up getting swept. Current Sparks players said they felt “total disrespect,” especially when Toler specifically called out Parker for having a bad Game 2.
At a practice after the loss, Fisher tried to bring everyone back together, but one day later, he reportedly snapped at the team’s leaders. Fisher refused to install any specific counter plays to deal with the Sun trapping Gray. Ogwumike and Parker wanted the offense to evolve and strategically prepare for their opponents, while the coach chalked it up to effort. That’s when Fisher snapped:
When Parker proposed another play, one the Sparks had run to counter point-guard traps in previous seasons, Fisher snapped and said, according to sources, “Is that why we fucking lost?” It startled the players to hear Fisher snap like that, multiple sources said, as he’d previously taken a more collegial tack with the team.
Several players said the decision to bench Parker was “premeditated” and motivated by her disagreement with Fisher over strategy. He claimed it was about rotating in “fresh bodies,” which is either bogus or simply a bad reason.
Fisher’s apparent allergy to accepting feedback from his players also annoyed the Sparks. The following anecdotes paint a picture of someone who was unprepared to coach any kind of professional basketball:
Sparks players often asked him to bring in men for them to practice against, which is common in the sport, sources said, but not a practice Fisher showed a comfort level with. There were also frequent player requests to install new offensive plays and looks — Fisher tended to preach better effort and execution instead of new strategies and plays — and several players said they didn’t feel Fisher took that feedback well, often seeming “defensive,” as one player put it, when he was challenged.
“It shouldn’t have been a big deal, “ another player said. “You argue and you’re done with it. You’re not supposed to get hurt over making adjustments. But he seemed upset by it.”
Fisher was hired to replace Brian Agler, who resigned last November after racking up a 85-51 record and winning the 2016 title. Toler said Fisher was the only coach she interviewed for the position, and when asked about his concerning playoff performance, she defended him repeatedly. Taken altogether, Shelburne’s story paints a picture to an organization that has jeopardized its own culture to hire and stump for a coach who is way over his head. A former player told ESPN, “I won’t go back there until the culture changes. It’s unprofessional.”