New Sparks Coach Joe Bryant lands his dream job, in more ways than one [Updated]
Then he had a nightmare.
Bryant said that in his dream, the Sparks were in triple overtime against the San Antonio Silver Stars. He was jolted awake before the game ended, and ran plays through his head into the wee hours of the morning.
"I didn't sleep," he said. "That's the difference between head coach and assistant coach."
In a whirlwind move Sunday, second-year coach Jennifer Gillom was fired and Bryant was asked to scoot over a chair on the bench.
"It was a surprise," Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "I was sitting there with my mouth agape."
The coaching change came after the Sparks had fallen to fifth place in the WNBA's six-team Western Conference and had lost five games in a row -- their worst skid since 2007.
This is not the first time Bryant has taken over as head coach of the Sparks after being hired as an assistant. In 2005, Henry Bibby was fired with five games remaining in the season and Bryant was asked to replace him. Bryant went 4-1, then remained as coach through the 2006 season.
"Let's just hope this trend pans out like the first time," Sparks General Manager Penny Toler said.
Bryant coached the Sparks to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Western Conference finals in 2006. He also raised a man you may have heard of, some Lakers player named Kobe Bryant.
"His presence demands respect," Milton-Jones said. "When he talks, you want to listen and soak up everything he says because his son is the greatest to play the game."
That's not to say the players weren't sad to see Gillom go.
The players were bombarded with the news Sunday evening when they assembled in Gillom's hotel room to watch video. Instead of analyzing footage, she told them that she had been relieved of her duties.
Milton-Jones described the scene as "somber" and said some players shed tears. She described Gillom as a "genuinely sweet" person.
Gillom joined the WNBA coaching ranks in 2008 as an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx and was promoted to interim head coach in 2009. She was hired to take over the Sparks last season.
[Updated at 10:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Gillom had no head coaching experience before coming to the Sparks.]
Bryant said he hasn't quite figured out what his system will look like, but he does know his style will be light and easy-going.
"If I'm going to criticize something on the court, I do it in a humorous way," he said. "It's more like, 'What were you thinking?' than 'What the hell were you doing?' "
The players had a meeting after they left Gillom's hotel room.
Milton-Jones said the abrupt move reminded everyone that they need to play to their potential at every moment. Instead of a coaching change, she said they realized a player easily could have been traded.
"She's not the one turning the ball over," Milton-Jones said of Gillom. "Very well, the roles could've been reversed.
"It could've been me or it could've been you or you. We've got to wake up."
Photo: Joe Bryant during his 2006 tenure as coach of the Sparks. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times