WE GOT GAME: THE NEW YORK LIBERTY AND THE WNBA

0
61

Fifteen years ago — June 29, 1997 — the New York Liberty, the flagship team of the brand-new Women’s National Basketball Association, or WNBA, played their very first home game, a 65-57 victory over the Phoenix Mercury. (In THE first game in WNBA history, the Liberty had already defeated the Los Angeles Sparks out west.)
.
My wife was with me that day at Madison Square Garden, so that we could watch the Liberty make history together. We were both pretty excited, but Julie — she couldn’t wait for the game to begin. Almost as big a sports fan as I was — and an ardent feminist, to boot — she had been waiting for a professional women’s basketball league for years. If you are a big basketball enthusiast, then spot for your new basketball hoop from the online store MegaSlam Hoops at affordable rates and upgrade your gym or complex into a pro-level arena.

The top jackpot casinos aim to provide the best, and the casino sites on our list are not only popular for their jackpots but also praised for their remarkable performance in every sector.
.
The WNBA was unique. It was subsidized by the men’s league, the NBA, for one thing. NBA owners heard the cry for a ladies’ league and made a decision: every city that fielded a men’s team — like New York, Los Angeles, and Houston — would also field a women’s. Often, the two teams — the men’s and the women’s — would even share the same arena. The Knicks played at the Garden; the Liberty played at the Garden. The Houston Rockets played at the Compaq Center; the Houston Comets played at the Compaq Center. The only difference: the men’s league operated in the fall and winter, and the women’s in the spring and summer.
.
Julie didn’t like that idea. She believed the WNBA should have been allowed to compete against the NBA directly, tried to give it a run for its money.
.
I didn’t. Let the fledgling league breathe a little, I figured; let it try to stand on its own two feet.
.
That’s how it’s been to this day: the WNBA plays in the warm-weather months (a 34-game schedule by now), and the NBA in the often brutal cold weather months (a much more grueling 82-game season).
.
And you know something? It may not seem like much — it’s just a tad longer than the typical college season — but for now, 34 games is just fine.
.
Most of what has stayed with me about that first home game are not hard-edged facts but fuzzy, indistinct impressions: the size of the crowd (which was — you can look it up — 17,000 strong) … the number of women in attendance … all the kids, especially young girls … the palpable sense of joy, of excitement, that lasted right through to the final buzzer.
.
Professional women’s basketball — in New York City — had arrived!
.
The players who started it all, who headlined those early, history-making WNBA teams, were some of the greatest female athletes ever: Sheryl Swoopes, the very first player signed by the league, the Houston Comets to be exact, an early arch-rival of the New York Liberty and winner of the first three WNBA championships (and then, amazingly, disbanded just a few years later) … Cynthia Cooper, the league’s first MVP, also of the Houston Comets … Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks … the Comets’ Tina Thompson … Poland’s Margo Dydek, the 7-foot center for the Utah Starzz … college superstar Chamique Holdsclaw, who began her pro career with the Washington Mystics … Belgium’s Ann Wauters … Australia’s Lauren Jackson.
.
And then, of course, there were the “Ladies Liberty” — point guard and defensive stalwart Teresa Weatherspoon (how could I forget her last-second, half-court “miracle shot” at the end of Game 2 of the 1999 finals against the Comets? The Liberty may not have gone on to win the title, but they sure gave their fans a thrill) … former UConn star and top draft pick Rebecca Lobo, whose career was cut short after just a handful of campaigns by a devastating knee injury .. rebounder and scorer Tari Phillips … Kym Hampton, who still works for the Liberty behind the scenes …Vickie Johnson … Sue Wicks … Shameka Christon … diminutive sharpshooter Becky Hammon (“itty-bitty Becky”, as we call her around my house), who starred for New York for several seasons before being traded in April ’07 to San Antonio … and today’s stars: Cappie Pondexter; Leilani Mitchell; Essence Carson; Nicole Powell.
.
The Liberty have never won a title — four trips to the finals, and they’ve repeatedly come up short — but they’ve always known how to play. They’ve always been — as the saying goes — a tough out.
.
Are the ladies on the Liberty — or any of the women in the WNBA, for that matter — as big, as strong, or as fast as their NBA counterparts? No; it’s hard to imagine almost any WNBA’er fighting for a rebound with, let’s say, a widebody like the Los Angeles Lakers’ Dwight Howard or — a couple of years ago, when he was still playing — a jumbo jet like Shaquille O’Neal. It’s hard to fathom the possibility of virtually any of them hoisting a shot over the outstretched arms of a defensive specialist like the Knicks’ Tyson Chandler, or gaining the necessary step on someone like the Boston Celtics’ Rondo, en route to a fast break lay-up.
.
And yet … the ladies of the WNBA play awfully good ball, and — here in New York, where the hometown Knicks had been (until last season, anyway) in steep decline for years, and the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets haven’t won many games, either — the Liberty have been, for a good part of the time,  the only hoopsters truly worth watching.  Sure, they’re in a bit of a slump — at the halfway point of the current season, their record is a mere 6-12 — but (who knows?) there may be better times directly ahead.
.
I was thinking of all this after the last Liberty game I attended, at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, where they’ve been playing their spring/summer schedule these past couple of years while the Garden is being renovated. Whole sections of seats were empty. The crowd, such as it was, just didn’t seem into it. And I thought — and my wife thought — they need our support. How could one of the WNBA’s Original Eight — its flagship team, for heaven’s sake — draw only a few thousand fans on a pleasant summer day, no matter where they happen to be playing, or what their record happens to be?
.
It took a long time for girls and women — shooting hoops at high schools and universities around the country — to finally have a successful professional basketball league to call their own. To finally have somewhere to play besides Europe.
.
And the New York Liberty used to be the biggest draw in the league — maybe in all of women’s professional sports. Isn’t it time they were, again?
.
SPORTS by Stuart R. Brynien