The best-of-five series against the Minnesota Lynx is tied, 1-1, entering Game 3 in Los Angeles on Friday.
If the Sparks win their second straight title, Beard’s first stop will not be Disneyland, but to the waters off Venice.
“Once you catch your first wave, you want to try it again,” she said. “Sometimes it takes 10 times to catch another wave, but you keep trying and trying and trying. But it’s also exhausting. Everything is just body weight. You’re fighting against the water, but once you get up, it’s like the best feeling in the world. It’s like a sense of accomplishment you feel.”
Beard has never had trouble bouncing back after getting knocked down. But her limits were tested in 2010 and 2011, when she missed two full seasons with ankle and foot injuries.
Already a four-time All-Star, Beard was told by doctors that she might never play again.
“I didn’t know how to stop,” she said. “It was kind of an obsession with the game, wanting to get better. I wasn’t where I wanted to be as a player so I kept going. Nothing stopped. I was just doing a workout with my coaches in the off-season and went for a sprint and felt a sharp, sharp pain and knew it was something.
“It taught me that the game is only a small part of my life. It took that to understand that. There were times where I couldn’t go hang with my family because I wanted to work out; times I pushed my body to its limits when I didn’t have to; times when I overthought the game just a little too much.”
Beard returned in 2012, signing as a free agent with the Sparks after six seasons with the Washington Mystics. She became more aware of her body’s signals and refined her diet, avoiding carbohydrates.
Defense had always been a priority in Beard’s career, and in Los Angeles she became the maestro of the Sparks’ reinvention as a defense-first team, a characteristic further defined when Brian Agler became coach before the 2015 season.
Forwards and centers have traditionally dominated the W.N.B.A.’s defensive player of the year award. An overreliance on statistics and the lack of defensive stats tailored to guards makes it harder for players like Beard to be recognized for awards, Agler said.
But Beard’s effect on the Sparks has been hard to ignore.
“She brings out things that people don’t know that they can do just by watching her do what she does,” Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said. “Then defensively, I can see it not just from us, but from other people, that they know what they’re about to get and they’re not looking forward to it.”
Beard has an innate sense of presence within the rectangular confines of a basketball court. Not only does she cause chaos blocking shots and swiping for steals, but she finishes the sequence. Rarely does the ball go out of bounds after Beard causes a turnover; she corrals the ball while always being cognizant to keep her feet within the boundaries, like a wide receiver staying inbounds by his tiptoes.
“That’s what the great players do,” Agler said. “They complete the play. They make the play. It’s not just a deflection. It’s not just tapping the ball. She’ll tap it and go get it on the floor. She’ll block it and recover it. It’s been a great pleasure to coach her and watch her and see how her influence defensively has helped bring the best out of everybody defensively on our team.”
As much as Agler has relished watching Beard stimulate the Sparks, he tries to place limits on her favorite extracurricular activity.
When Agler first learned Beard was surfing, he sent her an article about how, during the 1996 season, Chicago Bulls center Luc Longley separated his shoulder surfing near where Beard was hanging ten.
“He was like, ‘I’m not telling you what to do,’ ” Beard said, mimicking Agler’s Midwestern accent, “ ‘but take it as you wish.’ ”
Agler acknowledged that he was trying to send a subtle message, but that Beard’s surfing buddies are “laid-back, humble, good guys.”
Beard said: “One reason I like doing this, no one takes out their phone when having coffee. Jay has a Blackberry from like 2004. I’m in love with that type of stuff. He drives a school bus with all these surfboards on it. I’m sure in their own life they’re probably big time, but you would never know it. That’s what I love about it. They figured out months later I played. Anytime I walk up now, it’s, ‘Hey, Big Time,’ and then I start sweating and stuff. I don’t like that attention, and they know that.”