By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
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"That was intense," says Sue Wicks, stepping off the court and dragging a forearm across her sweaty brow. "That girl was just hanging on my leg and I couldn't shake her at all." Though opponents have learned to play tough against the hustling 6-3 Liberty forward, best known for diving to the floor and furiously chasing loose balls, in this instance the sticking player is a first-grader standing barely higher than Wicks's kneecap. Along with teammate Tamika Whitmore, Wicks was offering pointers at a girls' sports camp last Thursday, but the 150 kids clamoring in the echoing gym seemed more interested in autographs than suggestions on solid stances. "Their biggest question," reports Wicks, "was 'Can I have a hug?' " Both players obliged warmly. Afterward, Wicks considers the significance of such programs. What does it mean that a seven-year-old girl can go to a basketball camp, even if she's not all that interested yet in the fine points of the pick-and-roll? "Probably that her parents are away on summer vacation," quips the veteran forward, displaying the wry humor that her teammates unanimously name as one of her defining traits. More seriouslywaxing philosophical is another of those traitsshe muses on the enormous changes that women's basketball has undergone in just a few quick years.
After all, at 33, Wicks has lived throughand helped makethe revolution. The daughter of a Long Island fisherman and one of eight kids, she never went to any basketball camps. Indeed, by pro standards, Wicks came late to the sport, starting in a neighborhood driveway as an eighth-grader, then quickly rising as a star at Center Moriches High Schoolonce racking up 59 points in a single game.
It was Rutgers coach Theresa Grentz (herself a pioneering player from the Immaculata dynasty of the '70s, now coaching at the University of Illinois) who spotted Wicks and offered her a scholarship-bearing spot on the Lady Knights squad. "Sue is blue-collar on the court," says Grentz. "She does whatever it takes and does not let the idea of who's going to get the credit get in the way of what needs to be done. Even in high school, she was mature, phenomenally team-oriented, and had an incredible calming effect on her teammates. I kept wondering why no one else was in that gym watching her."
Those watching her nowadaysthe fans who voted the hardest-working player in b-biz onto this year's WNBA All-Star teamare surprised to learn that the shot-blocking, pick-setting, rebound-grabbing low-post defender had been a big scorer in college, hailed at the time as the next Cheryl Miller. ("I was never really at her level," the ever modest Wicks demurs.) An all-American and winner of the Naismith trophy, she left Rutgers in 1988 as the team's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. Ten years later, Rutgers retired her jersey, No. 23chosen not for Michael Jordan (he came later) and certainly not for the psalm (not her thing) but for Wayman Tisdale. "He was a great low-post player, and I modeled my game after him," Wicks explains.
Wicks has been thinking a lot about those days lately. "I'm reflecting all the time," she says, "and that's telling me it's time to retire. Instead of looking ahead, I'm thinking about things that happened 10 years ago." Among them, her long-mysterious decision to walk away from Olympic training camp in 1988, when she had just come out of college at the top of her form. "I still can't explain it," she says. "There was no good reason. That's what's so scary." One day at the camp, for the first time in her life, she experienced the feeling of not enjoying the game. "I didn't know that I couldn't like basketball," she says. "And in one second I made the decision to walk away from everything I'd been dreaming of and working for since I had been a teenager. I didn't talk it over with anyone. I didn't wait for the feeling to go awaywhich it did in a few days. I just wasn't thinking. I was 21."
But the "big empty void" of not playing in the Olympics was soon filled in part by a stellar if trying career overseasnearly a decade in Japan, Italy, Hungary, Israel, and Spainand by becoming the Liberty's No. 1 draft pick in the WNBA's inaugural season. Her role has changed over her four years in New York. She averaged 13 minutes in the first two seasons, was thrust into the starting lineup when Rebecca Lobo went down with an ACL injury in 1999, and recently has been returned to the bench by coach Richie Adubato, who has been encouraging her to drive to the hoop more. Wicks has adjusted to the changes gracefully, with the same cheery bounce that characterizes her pointy-toed run down the court: "I'm very happy with my role. I'm probably more effective playing fewer minutes. It's not about personal glory for me, but about seeing that championship banner for the team hanging in the Gardenthat's what lasts." Holding a solid first-place lead in the Eastern Conference, the Liberty are poised to surge to the finals again this year. "I love how we're playing right now," boasts Wicks, predicting victory over either likely Western Division champ: "We can beat Houston or L.A."