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The Price of Liberty
"We have a great half-court team right now," said coach Richie Adubato, introducing his Liberty squad for 2000 at the team's opening practice on May 3. That's about how it looked at the preseason scrimmage against the Phoenix Mercury on Saturday night at the Garden, when the Liberty pooped out after a domineering first quarter and lost 79-69. The Liberty vets set off enough sparks to welcome back the 15,647 fans: Crystal Robinson hit a flashy flying layup on a stolen-ball pass from Vickie Johnson; Teresa Weatherspoon commandeered the floor with such cool she seemed hotter than ever; Sue Wicks scrabbled for rebounds as if she were still playing last season's final against Houston. But the Liberty's famous cohesion has clearly not yet set as the squad tries out three young draft picks and five free agentsat least until the official season opening on May 29, when each team will pare down to 11.
Height was the widely acknowledged theme of April's WNBA draft this year. In the first pick the Cleveland Rockers nabbed 19-year-old, 6-4 Belgian Ann Wauters, though they'd only seen her play on tape, and the Ohio press is already salivating about seeing her dunk.
That kind of focus irritates the Liberty's Johnson, who spent the winter playing in Israel until a shoulder injury forced her to come home early. "The cliché is true and it's a bonus: We're more about teamwork andfundamentals."
The overseas stints of much of the league's returning roster is a pointed reminder of what isn't the theme of the season: Money. The contract negotiated by the Player's Association last year built in a 5 percent increase for this season. "What raise?" was the way Wicks put it, quickly adding, "We're all happy to play. That's the bottom line." But there were tense moments as the contract-signing deadline drew near last month and some players didn't want to settle for the minimum vet salary of $32,500. Four-time Olympian Teresa Edwards declined (again), and Jennifer Azzi bought in only at the last minute, after announcing that she wouldn't play (and was quickly transferred from the Detroit Shock to Utah and then broke her hand in a preseason scrimmage against Portland). "I support holding the line on salaries right now," said Liberty GM Carol Blazejowski at the opening practice. "I see how far we've come and it's a good deal for three months of play. Players aren't in this league to make money. If that's the intent, they better go somewhere else."
Death of the Devils
Dropping three in a row to Philadelphia, the Devils entered this week staring straight into the dark abyss of Stanley Cup elimination. Barring a miraculous rebound, they'll quickly succumb to their annual spring fever.
The seeds of this collapse were evident in their early-round victories over Florida and Toronto, who provided no real challenge and made the Devs look better than they actually are. Scott Stevens, whose bone-cracking checks had some ready to award him the Conn Smythe playoff MVP trophy after two rounds, faded into the physical fresco as the Flyers first matched, then surpassed, the Devils' toughness. When the series beckoned for a leader, it was not Stevens but Flyer John LeClair who emerged.
But the biggest mysteryapart from why so many seats remained unoccupied at the Meadowlandswas: What the hell happened to Martin Brodeur? The foundation upon which this team was constructed, the Devil keeper has surrendered marshmallow goals at key moments, fumbled long drives with his catching glove, and displayed rotten stickwork at the very moment veteran observers prepared to crown him the best puck-handling goalie in history. And though he copped to his poor play after Game 3, his self-delusion after Game 4 (remarking he had "kept my team in the game for a while," when in fact his poor clearing attempts led to two Flyers goals) was somewhat shocking.
Since mid February, Brodeur's game has plummeted like the NASDAQ. He always plays around 70 games; perhaps he's overworked come playoff time. Lou Lamoriello or whoever is running Jersey next year would be wise to invest in a backup capable of more than Chris Terreri's 12 games.
The Devils revealed other weaknesses. Their centers couldn't win faceoffs. Their forwards stopped crashing the net. Reliable defenders gave away the puck. John Madden's injury robbed them of depth. On the top line, Jason Arnott seemed to lose his hard shot (a hidden injury?) and Petr Sykora wilted in the heavy going. Latecomers Vladimir Malakovwho can play like Eddie Shore and Pauly Shore on the same shiftand Alexander Mogilny appeared so far from involved at times that one press-box guy began calling them "the cosmonauts." But these and others were not overnight developments. Since taking over, coach Larry Robinson quietly cautioned that the Devs suffered bouts of amnesia and had trouble overcoming adversity. He earned headlines for his 10-minute post-Game 4 dressing-room tirade, but one wonders: What took him so long?
Contributors: Alisa Solomon, Stu Hackel, Neil Demause, Billy Altman
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman