By Albert Samaha
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The Liberty were wrapping up a practice session last week with a half-hour scrimmage, and coach Richie Adubato was loping down the court just behind each play, offering generic words of encouragement: "Nice cut." "Good hustle." But one of his terse phrases, which echoed through the team's Island Garden practice facility every time they executed a play but missed the shot, best describes the general state of the Liberty as the third WNBA season tips off on Thursday: " 'Almost' doesn't count."
The team is coming off a dreary 18-12 record in '98, a season in which they failed to make the playoffs as they had done in the league's first go-round. "Last year was disappointing for us," said guard Coquese Washington after the practice session, which focused on offensive screens and defensive presses the Liberty's compensatory strategy for their lack of explosive one-on-one talent. "But we've got even greater defensive intensity this year, and now we're ready to create offense from that defense. You're going to see a higher level of play this year. And that goes for the league as a whole."
Washington tosses off the point like one of her sure no-look passes. It sounds boilerplate, but in fact, it's the key issue of the new season now that the WNBA is no longer a novelty. The megabuck marketing blitzes of the last two years have successfully drummed up enthusiasm for the very fact that the U.S. has professional women's basketball. Indeed, more and more, the idea of women's hoops is normalized. For the long haul, only the athleticism of the players and the execution in the games will sustain support for the league.
The WNBA's absorption of some 35 players from the ABL will certainly help deliver on that promise. The two-time defending champion Houston Comets, for instance, added Jennifer Rizzoti to an already star-studded roster that features Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes. Rizzoti, a point guard, isn't as speedy as Houston floor general Kim Perrot (out battling cancer), but she passes brilliantly and can shoot from outside. Dawn Staley was drafted by Charlotte, just the ball handler Andrea Stinson, the Sting's go-to scorer, needs. WNBA fans will finally discover power forward Yolanda Griffith this year as she teams up in Sacramento with Ruthie Bolton-Holyfield. We'll also see the drive-and-dish stylings of Edna Campbell in Phoenix. And then there's Jennifer Azzi, the tremendous combo guard, who's set to rev up Detroit.
And for the Liberty? "We didn't need an overhaul like Sacramento or Utah," Washington said. "We just needed fine-tuning." (Never mind the early rumors that management would have traded away the entire starting lineup to snag Chamique Holdsclaw from Washington.) So they went for better shooting inside and outside. So far, though, the draftees seem to clone the weaknesses of the more experienced players. Crystal Robinson, a strong perimeter shooter who hit 50 percent from the floor for the ABL's Colorado Xplosion last year, averaging 14.9 points per game, resembles Sophia Witherspoon in needing the security of a screen to hit the three pointer. At 6-6, rookie Michelle Van Gorp is meant to shore up the low post. Blond and chirpy, the Duke grad is as media friendly as Rebecca Lobo. And like Lobo, she's gawky, but even less comfortable taking hits. Center Tamika Whitmore on the other hand, who averaged 26.3 points per game at college in Memphis last year, loves to shove her way around the paint. But she has yet to show any of the rebounding skills the team needs. None of these newcomers is likely to crack the starting lineup early on; instead they add depth and youth to the bench.
Actually, it's the Liberty vets themselves who are getting the fine-tuning. Point guard Teresa Weatherspoon, two-time defensive player of the year, has been drilling her shots and was knocking down jumpers at practice. Forward Vickie Johnson, who racked up 22 points in a preseason win over Houston, was still hot last week. The biggest surprise at practice was forward Alicia Thompson, who was breezily hitting outside shots.
The players attribute what Witherspoon called "greater aggression and more confidence in taking risks" to the one overhaul the Liberty did make: Adubato. You have to wonder what kind of outrage fans would be calling in to sports-radio shows if Adubato had just been named head coach of a men's team, after his less than stellar win-loss record with the Pistons, Mavericks, and Magic over his 19 years in the NBA. Is shifting a third-rate men's coach into the WNBA a sexist sign of things to come? Liberty players flatly rejected such a reading. "Nobody keeps you in the NBA because you have a nice smile," said forward Sue Wicks. "There's no such thing as a third-rate coach in that league. We're already learning so much from Richie. I'm thrilled to death with him." It's not that he's reinventing basketball, Wicks added, but he's demanding and detailed, and that, she said, is both pushing the players and helping them improve in specific little ways. "After setting a screen and a player peels off, he'll tell me to pop back out instead of just standing there. It's one of those things you know but forget to do, and he's making sure we don't keep forgetting them," she explained.