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With Magic as boss, Sparks chase WNBA title

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — There’s a new boss of the Los Angeles Sparks, and he answers to Magic.

Former Lakers great Magic Johnson stepped in to buy the franchise earlier this year, ensuring a future for the WNBA in the nation’s second-largest market. By rescuing the team after its previous owners decided to end their involvement, Johnson gave Candace Parker a chance to chase the only major title to elude the reigning league MVP in her career.

She has won two Olympic gold medals, two NCAA championships at Tennessee and a title with her Russian pro team during the offseason. The Sparks last won the WNBA championship in 2002.

In a preseason survey of the league’s 12 general managers, Parker was named on 50 percent of the ballots to once again earn the league’s MVP award. She won MVP honors at last year’s All-Star game. All-Star forward Nneka Ogwumike was chosen as the league’s most athletic player with 50 percent of the vote.

Last season, the Sparks were 24-10 and lost to Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals under coach Carol Ross.

Parker averaged 17.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists to lead the team. She’ll be surrounded by experienced starters, including Ogwumike, who averaged 14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds last season.

Johnson owns the team with most of the same group that controls the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Sparks play six of their first nine games on the road. After Friday’s opener at Seattle, they host Phoenix on Sunday at Staples Center.

Here are five things to watch for when the Sparks start the season:

MAGIC’S INFLUENCE: The team is already benefiting from his presence with increased exposure off the court. Johnson hosted the Sparks at a recent Dodgers game. Parker and Ogwumike tossed out the first pitch and Lindsey Harding announced the starting lineup. Johnson has told WNBA President Laurel Ritchie that he plans to be an active owner. Johnson has displayed a golden touch when it comes to his business properties, and with the Sparks being tied to basketball, they figure to receive a boost.

GUARD RANKS: The Sparks signed free agent Candice Wiggins last month, bolstering them at the guard position. She has averaged double-figure scoring in four of her six WNBA seasons and helped Minnesota win the 2011 championship. Wiggins figures to come off the bench, with Harding, Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard giving the Sparks a three-guard starting rotation. All-Star Toliver averaged 14.1 points, third-highest on the team last season.

COACHING STAFF: Ross added veterans Gail Goestenkors and Gary Kloppenburg to her staff during the offseason. Goestenkors brings over 25 years of experience to the team, including head coaching stints at Texas and Duke, where she coached Beard and Harding. Kloppenburg has over 20 years’ experience, both as a head coach and assistant in various leagues including the WNBA, NBA and collegiate ranks.

ADDED DEPTH: Ross will have a deep bench to utilize when trying to get rest for her starters and keep their legs fresh. The backups include newcomer Armintie Harrington, a seven-year veteran; Farhiya Abdi of Sweden; Sandrine Gruda of France; and Jantel Lavender. The Sparks have the ability to throw different combinations of size and speed at opponents.

GETTING TO THE TITLE GAME: The Sparks won WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002. They’ve made the playoffs in five of the past six seasons, but are still seeking their first championship since Lisa Leslie starred for the team. Parker will be eager to atone for getting knocked out in the opening round last year.