USA Women’s Basketball won the gold medal in dominant fashion at the 1996 Olympics. Less than a year later in June of 1997, the first WNBA game took place. That Olympic year was crucial to the league’s establishment because Team USA proved they had the talent to make a sustainable professional league. The team’s leader was soon-to-be Los Angeles Sparks legend Lisa Leslie. She averaged 19.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in the Olympics.
Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Rebecca Lobo were all cornerstones on that Olympic roster, and in the WNBA’s inaugural season. The three stars were spread across key markets in the country- Leslie on the Sparks, Lobo with the New York Liberty, and Swoopes on the Houston Comets. They were trailblazers for the present-day players.
Sparks General Manager Rhonda Windham drafted Chinese center Zheng Haxia. Windham and Haxia played against each other in FIBA Basketball. Former NBA Star Dikembe Mutumbo discovered guard Mwadi Mabika from The Democratic Republic of the Congo before and during the 1996 Games. Mutumbo guided Mabika eventually back to the United States where Mabika signed with the Sparks in 1997. The Sparks became an international melting pot of players making history.
NBA commissioner David Stern and WNBA President Val Ackerman wanted to establish a base for basketball in the United States, and promote professional basketball as a year-round sport. The Sparks were a part of the first WNBA Game against the Liberty on June 21, 1997 at The Forum. That first game was broadcasted on NBC with 14,000 fans in attendance.
They played a 28-game schedule and by season’s end, the Houston Comets won the WNBA Championship. The Sparks went 14-14 on the season finishing second in the Western Conference. Consistency was key in that first season as Leslie led the team in scoring and rebounding averaging 15.9 points, 9.5 rebounds per game. Zheng led the team shooting 61.8% from the field for 9.3 points per game. Rookie shooting guard Tamecka Dixon averaged 11.9 points, two assists, and three rebounds per game.
Dixon’s journey to play on the Sparks coincided with the end of a dominant college career at the University of Kansas. She was named Big 12 Player of the Year and Second Team AP All American in 1997. The Sparks drafted her 14th overall in 1997.
The WNBA’s first season was about surviving and finding their footing. This season is about empowering 144 athletes as leaders in the most competitive women’s basketball league in the world. The Sparks have been #RootedInLA since day one.