When Detroit Shock Coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline wants to talk to forward Elena Tornikidou of Russia and guard Claudia Maria das Neves of Brazil, she turns to translator Katerina Mazeva Brown for help.
"We couldn't communicate without Katerina," Lieberman-Cline said. Tornikidou speaks Russian and Spanish, while Neves speaks Portuguese and Spanish. Neither player speaks nor understands much English, but they know how to play pro basketball.
So Lieberman-Cline uses Brown to translate what she needs them to do on the court during games and practices. Brown, who grew up in Bulgaria and played on a pro basketball team there, translates in Russian to Tornikidou and Tornikidou then uses her Spanish to talk to Neves.
"It actually goes like this: `Katerina, I need for you to tell Elena to tell Claudia' . . . ," Lieberman-Cline said.
Brown travels with the team, sits on the bench near Tornikidou and joins team huddles during games. "I just try to make sure they understand," Brown said.
Two other WNBA teams, the Houston Comets and the Washington Mystics, use translators, but in a more limited role. The Mystics have a summer intern who speaks Portuguese and helps Coach Nancy Darsch communicate with Brazilian center Alessandra Santos de Oliveira at practices and home games when needed.
Houston Coach Van Chancellor said he relies on a Houston resident who volunteered to translate for Bulgarian center Polina Tzekova, the team's first-round draft pick this season. The translator, who is Bulgarian, attends practices and home games.
"If you want a private conversation with [Tzekova], it's important to have [the translator]," Chancellor said. "She's struggling right now and I need [the translator] to help me."
There are 35 foreign players from 10 countries playing in the league this season, WNBA spokesman Mark Pray said. Most are fluent in English. Some teams that have foreign players who don't speak or understand English well have other players who serve as translators for their teammates. For example, Utah Starzz center Margo Dydek translates in Polish for her teammate, rookie guard Krystyna Lara.
On the Road
WNBA President Val Ackerman isn't letting any grass grow under her feet during the league's third season. She has attended games in Orlando, Houston, New York and Washington.
"I have seen a noticeable difference in the play," Ackerman said. "I think it is still early on for the season. Some kinks need to get worked out. . . . But I see the beginnings of what I think is going to be a good assimilation of the new players and the older players coming back now as core veteran groups with good chemistry. . . . Both teams have had a chance to win in every game I have seen, which I think is very important for us in the league, the notion that every team seems to be competitive."
In between games, she has traveled to Seattle, Portland and Miami to help NBA team officials promote their WNBA expansion franchises that are scheduled to start play in 2000. Each of the expansion cities has to secure deposits for 5,500 season tickets by Oct. 15.
"I'm on a bit of a road show," Ackerman said on a recent stop at MCI Center. "I want to try to energize the local effort."
Breaking From the Pack
Three-time Olympic gold medalist Teresa Edwards was one of the founding players of the defunct American Basketball League. But when the league folded last year, she did not join many of her fellow ABL players in signing with the WNBA. "Mainly because the contract structure was not beneficial to me," she said recently.
Edwards said that, after more than 10 years of professional basketball, "I don't think I had to prove anything because my game is definitely up to par."
When the ABL folded last December, Edwards was first in scoring (21 points per game), fourth in assists (5.6) and third in steals (2.9).
All former ABL players were offered one-year contracts by the WNBA at the rookie salary level, which meant they could earn from $25,000 to $50,000, substantially less than marquee players made in the ABL.
"It was unacceptable to me to accept whatever was put on the table at this time in my career," Edwards said. "I think I have given much more to the game and earned the right to, at least, be able to negotiate a contract. That wasn't an option."
Edwards, 34, said she is considering playing overseas in the fall.
Looking for a Spark
Los Angeles Sparks General Manager Rhonda Windham, who spent seven years with the Lakers organization before becoming GM of the WNBA team in 1997, was fired last week after the Sparks began the season 3-4. President Johnny Buss will serve as GM until a replacement is named.
In firing Windham, Buss said he was disappointed in the performance of the team, which didn't reach the playoffs the past two seasons.
"I had agreed to a game plan for our 1999 season which has strayed too far off course, and feel that it is necessary to take action before we reach a point from which we may not recover," Buss said in announcing the move.
Currently, the Sparks are 7-4.
Heather Burge, whose twin sister, Heidi, played last season for the Washington Mystics, is a reserve center for the Sacramento Monarchs in her first WNBA season. Burge, who has played in four games, is averaging 1.8 points and one rebound a game.
Heather and Heidi, both 6-5, starred at the University of Virginia from 1989 to '93, but Heather's pro career nearly ended in 1993 when she fell through a glass door in France. She severed a tendon just above her right ankle and underwent a year of rehabilitation. Before joining the WNBA this season, she played for pro teams in France, Hungary, Australia, Spain and Honduras. Burge said this year is the first time that she finally felt healthy enough to play in the WNBA after her season abroad ended.