- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The Los Angeles Sparks have experienced back-to-back defeats. Boo-hoo. Alana Beard, even more so than the average WNBA veteran, is not going to be fazed by such setbacks. When you've lost two seasons during the prime of your career, rebounding from losing two games doesn't seem like much of a challenge.
Beard has been in the WNBA for nine seasons but been healthy enough to play for just seven. She celebrated her 30th birthday in May. Sometimes in recent years, the thought crept in her mind that perhaps she'd need to start her life's fourth decade by submerging completely in a new career: that of the businesswoman she has long planned to be.
She is not one of those pro athletes who will wake up one day and say, "Oh, no! Now what?"
So battling back from a chronically injured left ankle that often seemed to be fighting her every step of the way wasn't a quest borne by panic about what's next. But rather by a certainty that this particular journey isn't over yet.
"Sheer force of will, having a great support system with my family and having a goal," Beard said of what motivated her return. "My mom reminded me a year ago that everything I ever told her I would do I've done. Starting out with telling her I was going to be on the honor roll in fifth grade. I told my parents they'd never have to worry about paying for my college education. And I told them I'd be back in the WNBA."
She is, and has started all season for the Sparks, averaging 10.7 points and 3.4 assists in 31.7 minutes of play. Los Angeles signed her as a free agent in February, not long after the franchise had brought in Atlanta assistant Carol Ross to be head coach.
Ross knew Beard's game from way back in college, when Ross was coach at Mississippi and Beard a player at Duke. In the WNBA, Ross had strategized on how to stop Beard while she was with Washington.
Now they are both enjoying their first season in Los Angeles. It helps that they both are fluent in the same two primary languages. The first is English, of course. The second is defense.
"When I'm talking defense, and it probably sounds to half the team like I'm speaking Russian, Alana's locked in," Ross said, chuckling. "She gets it. So that's natural with her. Nobody could walk on the court in the WNBA after two seasons away from it brimming with confidence. But I think that's where she went to for her confidence: defense first. She could learn to trust her body there."
That is an ongoing process. Beard had shredded her ankle so many times and so many ways over the years. She had to let it heal and not push too hard but also get herself back to doing the things she once did.
Her play overseas convinced the Sparks she was ready to be back in the WNBA this summer. For someone who always gained her edge by working to the point of exhaustion, Beard had to adjust to giving herself a break. When she's working, it's still full-go. But now, finally, a day off really means a day off.
The Olympic break wasn't really time "off" for any of the WNBA players who were not in London. But it did give them some recovery time, plus the opportunity to focus on individual skills. For Beard, it was a chance to work with Sparks assistant Sandy Brondello and her husband, Olaf Lange. Brondello and Lange have been involved with the WNBA for many years and excel at helping even the most veteran players hone essential fundamentals and mechanics.
"I was able to work with Sandy and Olaf on my footwork and gaining the feel for the game again," Beard said. "Sandy is great at being a shooting coach. Olaf helped me understand coming off screens better, using my space with the skills I have now.
"I was not attacking like I used to, so I had to develop other things more, like pulling up for my jump shot and shooting the 3. Footwork has been one of the most important things for me. Gaining confidence that I may step on someone's foot, but that's OK. That's been my biggest struggle, too -- just the mental part."
Indeed, when you suggest to Beard that it would be completely normal for someone on a surgically repaired ankle to have hesitation with doing certain things, she cuts right to the quick.
"It's fear. Fear of doing what I once did. I'll just put it out there," Beard said. "In the beginning, I wasn't going in the lane like I used to because I was afraid of coming down on someone's foot the wrong way. But I've gained confidence in my body and my game.
"Feeling like I can't yet do everything exactly as I used to do it -- that was tough. But at some point, your instincts begin to take over and you start to really feel the game again. I'm not anywhere close to where I want to be with that. But I'm appreciative of where I am right now. So it's continuous work, hope and belief in a positive attitude."
A change of scenery has helped, too. Beard was drafted No. 2 overall in 2004 by Washington and was a four-time All-Star for the Mystics. She averaged 16.2 points during her six seasons of action with D.C. But she was sidelined by the ankle woes in 2010, when Washington finished first in the Eastern Conference. And once again she was forced to watch in 2011, when the Mystics plummeted to last place, where they remain this season.
Realistically, Beard had enough on her plate with her own WNBA "resurrection"; she didn't need the burden of trying to revive the Mystics, too. It made sense to get about as far away as possible, and L.A. offered the opportunity.
"Waking up to sunshine every day -- it's a great feeling," said Beard, and while she was speaking literally, you could take it metaphorically, too.
"I don't think I ever took the game for granted. But this is such a no-pressure environment. I'm playing with Candace Parker, Kristi Toliver, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Nneka Ogwumike, Ebony Hoffman, Jantel Lavender -- all of these players could be franchise players on other teams. You come into practice here every day knowing you just have to do your part, and that's it. You don't have to do everything. And Coach Ross is great about really taking the pressure off the players and putting it on herself. It's been fun."
After a nine-game winning streak, the past couple of games have been less fun for the Sparks: losses at Tulsa and Chicago, two hungry teams at or near the bottom of the standings. Tuesday, the Sparks' foe is the top team in the league: defending WNBA champ Minnesota.
That will be the Sparks' third of five consecutive road games. Then they'll finish the regular season with four games in a row at home. Los Angeles already has clinched a playoff spot; what's left is where the Sparks -- now in second place at 19-8 -- finish in the West and how that propels them into the postseason.
Beard went to the playoffs three times while in Washington, losing in the conference semifinals in each trip. She didn't win an NCAA title at Duke, nor has she had even a sniff of the chance to play in the WNBA Finals. She knows this L.A. team has the potential to do that, but just as with her own comeback, she is cautiously optimistic.
"I think we still have a long ways to go in terms of becoming a championship team," Beard said. "We can become more consistent.
"Every athlete steps into their season saying they want a championship. I would love a championship. But for the first time ever, I feel like it's really in our sights. We all have to go through Minnesota, because they have it. And other teams are playing well. But it's about us -- if we come out on the court and do what we can do to the best of our ability, we have a good shot at it."
And for Beard, after the odyssey of the ankle, just having a shot is all she could ask for. She has certainly earned that much.