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Saturday, June 5, 2010
Updated: June 6, 4:46 PM ET
Sparks suffer burnout in outdoor loss

By Dan Arritt
Special to

Seattle Storm and the Los Angeles Sparks
Fans and players had to deal with remnants of a nearby fire during Sparks-Storm outdoor game.

CARSON, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Sparks played the first outdoor game in franchise history Saturday night at the Home Depot Center's tennis facility, a variation of their schedule designed to showcase the team and its "Get Outside and Play LA" initiative.

Maybe next time.

A night of promoting health through outdoor exercise was permeated with the odor of burnt rubber as a result of a nearby scrap yard fire, and the Sparks started the game against the visiting Seattle Storm as if their tires were half inflated.

They made a run in the final minutes but were ultimately turned back by the sharp shooting of Seattle point guard Sue Bird and lost 79-75.

"Once the game started, we were already down 10 or 12, but we kind of got into the flow of the game and adjusted to the environment," said Sparks forward Tina Thompson, who scored 17 points. "Environment or not, we have to start the game the way it was supposed to be started."

The Sparks (1-6) were heavy-legged from playing in Phoenix the night before, where they missed two last-second shots and lost 90-89. Throw in the stench that settled inside the 8,000-seat tennis stadium for much of the game and it wasn't the best night for the Sparks to add to their fan base.

"When we were shooting warm-ups, it was kind of grossing me out," Thompson said. "I'm very sensitive to smells."

Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm
Sparks players Tina Thompson, left, and DeLisha Milton-Jones met the Storm's Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, right, before Saturday's game at the Home Depot Center.

The blaze at the auto scrap yard about six miles south of the Home Depot Center was reported at about 11:30 a.m., but firefighters were confronted with water shortages and difficult access and the fire was still sending up a large plume of black smoke about 90 minutes later.

The blaze was finally put under control around 1:40 p.m., but the arrival of a thick marine layer seemed to push the smoke north and into the path of the two-thirds full tennis stadium.

After the game, several players said they were unaware of the fire, but they were aware of the odor.

"We kept smelling smoke," DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "If you would rub the floor it was like soot, a light layer of soot on the floor."

The outdoor game was planned two months ago, but coincided with a performance by R&B artists Maxwell and Jill Scott at Staples Center, where the Sparks normally play their home games.

Candace Parker, who finished with a team-high 24 points and eight rebounds, said she was looking forward to returning to Staples Center.

"Do we want to do this again? No. We want to play Seattle in Staples," she said. "It's inside, it's home, it's where we're used to playing."

The Sparks were also dealing with the absence of point guard Ticha Penicheiro, who sprained her ankle in the loss to Phoenix. She was replaced in the starting lineup by second-year player Kristi Toliver, who scored 15 points.

The Storm (7-1) took a 15-point lead in the opening quarter and never trailed. The Sparks twice cut the deficit to six late in the second quarter on assists from Parker, but Seattle took back its double-digit lead in the third, despite foul trouble by its leading scorer, Lauren Jackson, who had 17 points and nine rebounds.

The Sparks rallied in the fourth and came as close as three points on a basket by Thompson, but she missed the ensuing free throw and Bird sank a 3-pointer at the other end to put an end to the run.

"It did see some mental toughness out of this team," said Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom. "We could have buried ourselves in the first quarter when they took that huge lead on us, but this team, coming off a back-to-back, I thought fought really hard."

Bird scored 22 points to lead the Storm.