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Friday, June 8, 2001
Updated: June 10, 4:04 AM ET
Cooper has lit a fire under the Sparks

By Michelle Smith
Special to ESPN.com

The Los Angeles Lakers lost their first game in 67 days Wednesday night and it was a run that most people who think they know a lot about sports would consider remarkable.

Well, try this. The Los Angeles Sparks haven't lost a game in about 300 days. Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that the WNBA offseason lasts nine months and with the Sparks having started this season with a 5-0 record, they haven't lost since last August.

The Sparks are unbeaten in the early days of this WNBA season, having already notched three road wins, including a big opening-day victory against Houston at the Compaq Center, and a home-opening win Tuesday night against Cleveland at the Staples Center.

Los Angeles has been considered a favorite for the title for the past two years, yet somehow it's tough to be convinced that this is a dynasty in the making, despite obvious talent such as Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton.

Why are we still so surprised at the Sparks' dominance? Is it because the team has proven it can't draft. Last season, first-round pick Nicole Kubik was cut before opening-day. This year's first-round pick, Purdue's Camille Cooper, was dealt on Tuesday to the New York Liberty, having never played a minute for L.A.

Is it because the Sparks have no experienced point guard, having handed the job over to Tamecka Dixon in the early days of this season, only to have Dixon struggle in every facet of the game?

Is it because, after the best regular-season in the WNBA last year (28-4), Los Angeles couldn't up-end Houston to win a title?

Sparks coach Michael Cooper knows what he's doing. He's got his team playing strong defense every night. He's making Leslie happy and his team better by giving one of the world's best post players a chance to show her stuff on the perimeter.

He's stacking his lineup with size in the frontcourt to compensate for the team's lack of punch or depth in the backcourt.

He's got them playing like a champion from the first day of the season. But it's the last day that counts.

Cooper returns to Houston
The most compelling matchup of the WNBA season so far is going to be Saturday's nationally television game between Phoenix and Houston, in which Cynthia Cooper will coach against the team she led to four WNBA titles.

Frankly, this game may pack a more competitive than emotional punch. Houston is playing well to start the season, while the Mercury has been up and down with injuries and the suspension of their best player, Brandy Reed.

Reed is not yet back with the team, but this may be the weekend that Mercury management makes a more one way or the other. It would be a tough trade to make considering Reed's talent, but she does them no good if can't play nice long enough to stay on the roster.

It's a lot to handle for a first-year head coach.

Houston might make all of us doubters look bad. The Comets lost the season-opener at Los Angeles, but have since won three in a row all on the road. It's early, of course. But maybe it's too early to dismiss Houston as a dynasty that's done.

News and notes
  • Minnesota's Katie Smith became the league's first Player of the Week for 2001. Smith averaged 26.5 points a game last week and became the 26th player in the league to reach the 1,000-point plateau.

  • The league has another new broadcasting face. The week after ESPN made Nancy Lieberman-Cline its lead WNBA analyst, NBC has hired Olympic track gold medalist Marion Jones to be a sideline reporter for its WNBA broadcasts. Jones, you will remember, played some pretty darn good ball for North Carolina in the early 1990s, hitting the game-winning shot in the 1994 NCAA Championship game against Texas Tech.

    Jones has said that she would like to play in the WNBA before her athletic career is over. Don't doubt that she could.

  • All-Star balloting begins on June 9, which would normally seem premature considering that most teams in the league have barely played a handful of games. But since the All-Star game is now only about five weeks away, there's no time like the present. Pick up your ballots at a game or vote online at WNBA.com.

  • The Sacramento Monarchs took an all-night bus ride following Monday night's victory in New York to Washington for Tuesday's game, which ended up as a two-point loss. That just shouldn't happen. You can bet the player's union is taking notes on that topic in preparation for next year's re-opening of the collective bargaining agreement.

  • Following Tuesday night's loss to the Comets at the Delta Center, Utah is 1-15 against Houston, having lost 13 in a row.

    Michelle Smith of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.