The road to a championship may just now run through the Jewel City.
When the Los Angeles Sparks kicked off training camp for what will hopefully be a return to normalcy, they did so right here in Glendale, at Academy USA. The team will spend the current season training and practicing at the sports club tucked in between San Fernando Road and the railroad tracks separating the city from Atwater Village.
“Derek and I just smiled,” said Natalie White, the team’s interim president and chief operating officer, on when she and head coach Derek Fisher walked in with the team on April 25. “The first things they said was, ‘Wow, this is awesome’ and they just love the space they have there for us. We wanted to give our players the best and they deserve it.”
Bringing the Sparks here was, in a way, a conversation that actually began before the coronavirus pandemic seemingly sent nearly every corner of society into a spiral last spring. White explained that in late 2019-early 2020, the team was in talks with Academy USA to host the Jr. Sparks program — a developmental clinic for youth basketball players age 5-17 — at the facility.
And then the pandemic happened.
“It stopped those conversations, and then we had to revisit it,” White explained. “As [Fisher] and I were talking about the facilities [for this season] and what we wanted for the players, Academy came back up.”
The team has access to three basketball courts, with a weight training area at the end of the courts. This arrangement allows the team and coaching staff to remain in essentially the same space each day to work together and, importantly, remain uninterrupted.
“So, this facility is awesome,” guard Sydney Wiese said in a press conference this week. “It’s great to have. We have it all morning, so we can get here early — obviously, with COVID protocols, we got testing we got to take care of right off the bat, but then we can get here as early as 7:30 and obviously right now it’s almost 1, so we’ve been here all morning, this is our spot.
“It’s nice to have a couple of rims we can shoot at,” she continued, “we have a weight room, you have coaches and people on deck to help you out for rebounding, whatever you might need, so this area, it’s really nice. We have everything that we could ask for, so we’re really grateful to have this space for the Sparks.”
Fisher, speaking to media after the training camp opener, lauded the accommodations for the team and their setup. He said he felt the players loved the space and he felt it allowed for minimal “dead time” when everyone was there.
“It felt like it was the first day of school,” forward Chiney Ogwumike said after the inaugural practice.
“They deserve a space like this,” Fisher said that day. “We’re going to get to a point one day where the Los Angeles Sparks have a training facility that is for us, but until we get there, to have partners like Academy USA here — and how accommodating they’ve been for us to build into this space — has really been great.”
The hopefully waning days of the pandemic mean that the team is having a more relaxed season so far than it did last year. However, restrictions and an abundance of caution have precluded some of the more interactive community events and clinics the team would normally sprinkle in throughout training camp and the season, at least so far.
“The owner here is very interested in providing educational opportunities for the student athletes here,” White said. “Hopefully after June 15” — when Gov. Gavin Newsom aims to have the state essentially reopened — “we can slowly get back into the groove of live events.”
Though the Sparks are contracted here through the end of the season, White added that she and the team aim to strike a long-term partnership with Academy to remain here in Glendale, which she noted represents a fairly centralized location in the Los Angeles metro area and links into many other communities.
“It’s going to take us some more time to feel like home,” Fisher said, “but the players are really excited about this opportunity to be here at the Academy and we’re thankful for it.”