Nneka Ogwumike didn’t miss a shot on the court Saturday, and she wasn’t going to miss one off it.
After making all eight of her shots from the field for 21 points in the Sparks’ dominant 99-76 win over the Phoenix Mercury in Bradenton, Fla., Ogwumike steered the conversation away from the long-awaited start of the WNBA season to the league’s dedication to social justice.
“Our movement has found its moment,” Ogwumike said. “This is who we are. … To be honest, I never thought that I would be playing basketball this year after what we have gone through. But that is incredibly trivial compared to what we are fighting for.”
During her virtual postgame news conference, the Sparks forward wore a hoodie with the words “We are Breonna Taylor” across the chest to honor a former emergency medical technician who was killed in her apartment in March when police were executing a “no-knock” warrant in relation to a narcotics raid. Before their game Saturday, players and coaches stood shoulder to shoulder during a 26-second moment of silence on the court for the 26-year-old Taylor.
When the game started, players wearing Taylor’s name on the back of their jerseys ran across a court with “Black lives matter” printed on it. During a midgame interview with ESPN, Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, returning to the court for the first time since 2018 after sitting out following the birth of her son, focused the conversation on Taylor and other victims of police brutality.
Adding Diggins-Smith, who had 14 points and six assists, to their team made the Mercury (0-1) a title contender with a healthy Diana Taurasi and 2019 scoring leader Brittney Griner. However, another offseason signing helped the Sparks (1-0) steal the show as Seimone Augustus scored 14 points on six-for-six shooting. The former Minnesota Lynx star who was limited by injuries to just 12 games last season came off the bench and scored nine consecutive points in the third quarter, helping push an 11-point Sparks lead to 20 in less than two minutes.
The Sparks outscored the Mercury 30-8 in the third quarter to blow a four-point halftime lead wide open.
“The first half, I think it just took a while to get used to playing in games again,” coach Derek Fisher said. “And we were fortunate that in the third quarter we were able to come out with the right intensity, right effort.”
Despite only three weeks together in Bradenton and a condensed training camp because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Sparks came out sharp, shooting 55.9% from the field. It’s the highest shooting percentage for the team since the Sparks shot 58.3% on July 1, 2018.
With their veteran experience from Augustus, Ogwumike and Candace Parker, who scored 13 points with seven rebounds Saturday, the Sparks weren’t surprised with the seemingly flawless start.
“This team has a very high basketball IQ, but most importantly, they’re workers, so I can play with anybody that works extremely hard,” Augustus said. “A lot of the mistakes we’ll make up for with the intensity, with the passion that we play with.”
Players say they are even more passionate as they play in honor of Taylor. After speaking with Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, this week in a webinar organized by the league and its player-run social justice council, players were reminded of their commitment to bringing recognition to Taylor’s case.
“If we’re able to bring justice to Breonna Taylor, then Breonna Taylor represents so many other names that this has happened to,” Parker said. “It’s obviously signing the petition, but it’s also holding people accountable and making sure that those officers are tried, and she’s able to have justice, and her family’s able to have justice. It’s not gonna bring her back or make it better, but it’s what’s right.”