Racial epithets, a star benched and a coach questioned: Inside the L.A. Sparks' chaotic finish

Editor's note: The Los Angeles Sparks fired general manager Penny Toler on Oct. 4, a day after this story was originally published. Toler had been with the team for 20 years. Coach Derek Fisher is expected to remain the Sparks coach next season.

Candace Parker looked dejected. Alana Beard hid her tears with a towel. Nneka Ogwumike sat on the bench, staring out at the game -- and the Los Angeles Sparks' season -- that was unraveling in front of them.

Three future Hall of Famers, all on the bench, as the Connecticut Sun swept the Sparks out of the WNBA semifinals. Over a week has passed since L.A.'s confounding Game 3 collapse, a 78-56 loss in which Parker played only 11 minutes and all five Sparks starters were benched by the end of the third quarter.

Afterward, Parker said she was healthy, and recommended that reporters ask Sparks coach Derek Fisher why her minutes had been so limited. Fisher explained postgame that "we've had an issue sustaining energy over 40 minutes against this team in this series," and he was "just trying to get fresh bodies in so we could continue to bang and rebound and run the floor and communicate defensively. It wasn't in any way to single [Candace] out, you know. ...

"I know it's Candace Parker, and [critics are] going to try to make it about her 11 minutes, but it was just about trying to do something different that I thought would try to help us win."

However, multiple Sparks players and league sources told ESPN they believed Fisher's decision to pull Parker was "premeditated" and influenced by a contentious speech given by general manager Penny Toler after the Sparks' listless 94-68 loss in Game 2, in which Parker was ineffective, scoring three points and attempting only three field goals in 26 minutes.

After Game 2 on Sept. 19 in Connecticut, Toler entered the Sparks' locker room and challenged the team with an obscenity-laced speech that also included several racial epithets, sources said.

Toler, who is African American, did not dispute the use of the "N-word" in that speech, but stressed that she never directed it at her players.

"By no means did I call my players the N-word," Toler told ESPN. "I'm not saying that I couldn't have used it in a context. But it wasn't directed at any of my players.

"It's unfortunate I used that word. I shouldn't. Nobody should. ... But you know, like I said, I'm not here to defend word by word by word what I said. I know some of the words that I'm being accused of are embellished. Did I give a speech that I hoped would get our team going? Yes.

"I think that this whole conversation has been taken out of context because when we lose, emotions are running high and, unfortunately and obviously, some people feel some type of way."

Several Sparks players told ESPN the speech made them feel uncomfortable and showed "total disrespect" as Toler called them "m-----f-----s" and suggested she'd replace them next year if they got swept by the Sun.

"You can't say that in 2019," one player told ESPN.

Past Sparks players interviewed by ESPN said they'd heard Toler use language like that before, so they weren't shocked to hear about the nature of her speech after Game 2. "Penny is competitive," one former player said. "But it's definitely not OK to talk like that."

Toler, who became the Sparks' general manager in 1999 and has been a part of three WNBA championships (2001, 2002, 2016), said her speech was meant to fire up the team before it flew home to Los Angeles for Game 3, and that several players afterward thanked her for doing so. She wouldn't identify who those players were.

"I've been in sports my whole life," said Toler, who scored the first basket in WNBA history in 1997 as a member of the Sparks. "It's not about losing, it's how we're losing, when I know we have a lot more to give. So I come to the locker room and I'm trying to give us obviously a spirited speech to get everybody going, 'Hey, get up and let's get going.'

"If I offended someone, I didn't mean to offend anyone. But my point is, I was saying what I was thinking. And I have the right to do that as the GM. I've been the GM for 20 years and this is the first time something like this has occurred. Clearly, some people were offended. That wasn't the message I was going for, obviously. And that clearly is not the reason we lost Game 3. And if that was the reason, what was the reason we lost the first two? I wasn't in the locker room then."

The Sparks entered the season with championship aspirations after returning Chelsea Gray, Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and trading for Ogwumike's sister, Chiney. But lengthy injuries to Parker and defensive star Alana Beard, and a 10-game suspension for a domestic violence incident for guard Riquna Williams caused inconsistency and chemistry issues. Despite all that, the Sparks finished with the third-best record in the league and seemed to be hitting their stride as they approached the playoffs, winning seven of their final nine regular-season games. A 22-12 record in their first season under Fisher was a three-game improvement over the Sparks' 2018 finish.

While Sparks players were publicly supportive of Fisher during the season and many felt he could grow into a successful head coach in the league, there was a growing sense behind the scenes that he still had a lot to learn about the women's game. Sparks players often asked him to bring in men for them to practice against, which is common in the sport, sources said, but not a practice Fisher showed a comfort level with. There were also frequent player requests to install new offensive plays and looks -- Fisher tended to preach better effort and execution instead of new strategies and plays -- and several players said they didn't feel Fisher took that feedback well, often seeming "defensive," as one player put it, when he was challenged.

"It shouldn't have been a big deal, " another player said. "You argue and you're done with it. You're not supposed to get hurt over making adjustments. But he seemed upset by it."

Despite those issues, Fisher's relationship with Parker seemed to be on stable footing during the season. Parker appeared at his introductory news conference on Dec. 7 when Toler gushed that Fisher was the only coach she'd interviewed or considered for the job. Parker consistently praised Fisher during the season for his poise and championship experience.

In an interview with ESPN before the playoffs, Fisher said he'd known Parker long before he took the Sparks job, having worked with her at TNT and NBA TV. He'd also played against her brother, Anthony, in the NBA. He described Parker before the playoffs as being "in a really good place" and that it was "good for all players to see the level of humility that it takes in order to be great."

"Great players like her, those type of players need to know that you know the game. They don't want to feel like they know more than you do," Fisher said of Parker. "I think my relationship with Kobe [Bryant] is helping me, and having coached Carmelo [Anthony] for a year and a half, is helping me connect more to what it's like to be in their shoes. They're already hard on themselves. The world is already criticizing them and judging them at every step. The most important thing for me to do is build a relationship that can last over time, so that when we are talking about the game, and I do need to be critical in a constructive way, the player knows it's coming from a genuine place of love and support and concern."

Throughout the regular season, Fisher seemed to take a hands-off approach with Parker as she worked her way back from injury, according to several Sparks players. She'd also noticeably slimmed down in the middle of the year, deciding the muscle she'd added in the offseason was slowing her down. After missing 12 games because of hamstring and ankle injuries during the regular season, Parker seemed to be hitting her stride as the playoffs approached. She was twice named WNBA player of the week after her return, including the final week of the regular season when she averaged 17.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists in three victories. In a second-round playoff blowout of the defending champion Seattle Storm, Parker put up 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists.

In Game 1 against the Sun, Parker was the Sparks' best player with 24 points and 10 rebounds, and shot 10-of-14 from the field. But in Game 2, the Sparks' third game in five days, Parker's energy seemed off and she was largely ineffective. She had three points on only three field goal attempts (all 3-pointers) in 25 minutes, and sources said Toler mentioned Parker's poor play in her obscenity-laced speech to the team.

Fisher addressed Toler's speech with the team before the Sparks' next practice, saying, in one player's words, "I'm sorry you had to hear that" and explaining that "emotions are running high."

At the subsequent practice, the day before Game 3, several players said Fisher got into a debate with Nneka Ogwumike and Parker over plays the team could try to install and run when the Sun trapped point guard Gray. Ogwumike proposed one play with which the team previously had success, stressing the need to install counters in the Sparks' offense. Fisher listened but bristled at how the team had been outrebounded by 22 in Game 2. He argued effort and execution were why the Sparks lost, not strategy.

When Parker proposed another play, one the Sparks had run to counter point-guard traps in previous seasons, Fisher snapped and said, according to sources, "Is that why we f---ing lost?" It startled the players to hear Fisher snap like that, multiple sources said, as he'd previously taken a more collegial tack with the team.

In Game 3, Parker's energy seemed better early on, as she was aggressive getting into the paint and playmaking for her teammates. It wasn't completely out of the ordinary for Fisher to sub her out after only seven minutes. But sitting her for the entire second quarter was a marked difference from Fisher's normal substitution pattern with her, and the way he'd managed her all season.

Parker was the only Sparks player with a positive plus-minus rating at the time she was benched in the first quarter. Initially, her replacement, Chiney Ogwumike, led the Sparks on a 5-0 run. [Editor's note: Chiney Ogwumike also serves as an in-studio analyst for ESPN.] But instead of subbing Parker back in for her normal second-quarter minutes, Fisher then tried Maria Vadeeva and Kalani Brown, neither of whom played in Game 1 nor averaged more than 13.5 minutes this past season.

The Sparks were outscored 10-2 in Vadeeva's three-minute stint and trailed by eight at halftime.

Fisher then put Parker back in to start the second half, but pulled the Sparks' two-time MVP after only four minutes (L.A. trailed 51-36), leaving her and the team's other four starters to watch the end of the game from the bench.

Sources said Fisher did not speak to Parker or explain his thinking on shortening her playing time, or benching the starters, during the game.

"There was no justification for his coaching," one player said.

Several players interpreted the moves as a reaction to both the tone set by Toler after Game 2 and the disagreement with Ogwumike and Parker at practice the day before.

"It didn't make any sense except that Penny had just ripped everyone and put pressure on Fish," a current player said.

When asked about the altered personnel patterns, Toler told ESPN, "I watched Derek close throughout the year. I felt like there were games where something wasn't clicking with the starters, he would put people out there. So I thought he was putting them out there, with the hope that they can make a run and then the starters could come back in and finish it up and win the game for us.

"I think once he put them out there, and that didn't manifest, and we went down by even more. I just think him knowing that the injuries and all that nagging injuries that we had, well, he just said let them finish it out. That's what I have to assume."

Asked about the punitive appearance of the decisions, Toler said, "No way in my mind, nowhere in my mind I ever thought that Derek was punishing anyone. He's not that type of guy."

One longtime teammate of Parker's told ESPN she believed it was fine for Fisher to pull Parker if he questioned her effort, but not in an elimination game.

"If you're trying to send a message, that's fine. Do it all season if her effort isn't there, not the last game," the teammate said. "You can't do that in an elimination game. She's still Candace Parker, one of the greatest of all time."

Parker, who signed a multiyear contract extension with Los Angeles in 2017, is expected to play for the Sparks next season. In early September, the 33-year-old signed a multiyear extension with Turner Sports and will continue contributing as an NBA analyst on TNT and NBA TV. She has declined comment beyond her postgame remarks following the L.A. loss.

Fisher, who has also declined to elaborate on his postgame comments, appears set to return next season -- despite the Sparks' history of change in the role. The Sparks have had 10 coaching changes involving nine different coaches in Toler's 20 years as GM (Michael Cooper and Joe Bryant each had two stints with the team). Toler herself coached the last 12 games of the 2014 season after she fired Carol Ross, who had been the WNBA's coach of the year in 2012.

Sparks managing partner and governor Eric Holoman told ESPN he feels "good about Derek as our coach next season, excited to see what our core players will do, and confident that we will have a winning culture in and out of the locker room."

Holoman added, "As an organization we are all unhappy with the way the season ended. The Sparks have won more games than any other WNBA team so any season short of a championship is a disappointment. [A record of] 22-12 and third place outright is an accomplishment given future Hall of Famer Candace Parker missed 12 games, two-time defensive player of the year Alana Beard missed 18 games, Maria Vadeeva missed 19 games and Riquna Williams missed 10 games due to suspension. It was [Aug. 22] before we had a full roster ready to play."

Holoman says he became aware of Toler's speech the day after she made it.

"There have been zero complaints to me from the players. I've spoken with a few and none have expressed that they were offended nor threatened by her comments," Holoman said. "Penny is a longtime vet and is passionate about winning and effort, and is prone to spirited language. That notwithstanding, there are limits and we take the culture we want to create very seriously."

Some around the team have expressed discomfort with the current environment. [Editor's note: No current or former players agreed to be identified in on-the-record comments for this story].

"I won't go back there until the culture changes," a former player said. "It's unprofessional."

Toler added in a statement she emailed to ESPN: "In my 20 years as General Manager of the Los Angeles Sparks, my mission has been to help the Sparks grow as a franchise and compete at the highest levels, while creating a supportive culture for our athletes. Like any executive, coach or player in professional sports, I am extremely passionate about our organization and have at times used spirited language to motivate the team.

"However, no one is above criticism or feedback and I am committed to ensuring my words consistently reflect the Sparks values of a productive and positive working environment moving forward. I will take this as a learning opportunity and grow from this and make sure that not only myself, but my staff, team and the entire organization is cognizant of the language we use in the locker room."

ESPN's Holly Rowe and Mechelle Voepel contributed to this report.

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