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Sparks GM a Fan of Ex-Lobo

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Michael Cooper has been telling Penny Toler about the Pit almost since they met.

“Do you know how many people have told me about the Pit?” says Toler, the general manager of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and a question to a “Jeopardy!” answer.

“Michael used to tell me about it. He’d say, ‘You’ve got to see this place.’ Everybody says it’s amazing.”

Toler will get her first look at the place when her Sparks play the Phoenix Mercury in an exhibition on May 28.

Toler was in her final year playing for the Sparks in 1999 when Cooper, the former Lobo standout, was Los Angeles’ assistant. When she elevated to GM the next season, Cooper was named head coach.

“He was a GM’s dream,” Toler says, “because he never saw a player he didn’t think he could coach. Some coaches will tell you they need a certain kind of player. Michael would say ‘you just bring them and I’ll coach them.’”

When Albuquerque held its last WNBA exhibition in 2004, the Sparks (with Cooper) were scheduled to play the Sacramento Monarchs (owned by the Albuquerque natives Gavin and Joe Maloof and coached by former UNM assistant John Whisenant).

But the Sparks couldn’t make it and were replaced by the Connecticut Sun in the game which drew 6,392 fans to the Pit.

Cooper, who helped the Sparks win back-to-back titles in 2001-02, is no longer with the organization and is coaching women’s college basketball at Southern Cal. But that’s hardly the only change the league has seen.

The 12-team WNBA is about to embark on its 15th season. The Sparks, Mercury and New York Liberty are the only franchises who have been in their current cities from the start.

The Monarchs have since folded. Houston and Detroit both had championship teams, but no longer have franchises.

“Everybody asks about the league taking a hit financially,” Toler says. “But who hasn’t in this particular economy? The league will be around a long time. There are so many great players in college right now.”

So many, Toler says, that if a new franchise came in, it would be able to field a good team with the leftovers.

Cities from San Francisco to Nashville have contemplated bringing in a team.

For a brief moment in 2006, even Albuquerque talked about it in conjunction with the prospect of a new downtown arena.

Toler says if anybody wants a franchise it will need fan support and a great owner.

“You need an owner who understands you might have to take your lumps for one or two years,” Toler says. “You need an owner who’s in it for the long haul. They’ll need to grow some more fans, but be patient and know that it will get there.”

But for now, cities without WNBA teams will have to settle for exhibitions.

“We thought it would be a great place to play,” Toler says of the Pit, “and that Phoenix would be a great opponent to play. It will be interesting to see how the community responds.”

Toler sayes she is excited to promote a game with five Olympic medalists. Still, none can claim what she can.

“Jeopardy!” answer: She scored the first points in WNBA history.

“Jeopardy!” question: Who is Penny Toler?