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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."
Though Wicks yearns for more time with friends and family, her teammates are not ready for her talk of retirement. Floor captain Teresa Weatherspoonthe squad's only other player who's the same agehas reassigned Wicks's initials to "Super Warrior" and lauds the innumerable intangibles she contributes, both on and off the court. The newer players, too, count on Wicks as a pillar of positivity. Tari Phillips credits Wicks's constant encouragement for helping her transition to New York, and rising star Becky Hammon says that Wicks's wacky jokes are a big part of the team's famous glue. (She declined to repeat any of them, "in order to protect Sue's reputation in the media.")
For her own part, Wicks still sees a wider role for herself in the league at large: She'd like to participate in next year's round of collective bargaining. One of the most levelheaded and forthright players, she wants to see the WNBA pony up better salaries. "It's great that they're promoting us as poster-people for women's empowerment," she says, "but then you've got to live up to that principle and pay us as well as the men. Not the same dollar amountsin fact, I think a lot of men lose sight of love for the game because money is such a distraction. But the same in terms of percentage of revenues, of our revenues."
After a crunched season of back-to-back away games, Wicks would also insist that the league lease some private jets. "I can't understand it," she says. "We can't sleep, we're eating airport food, we're getting injured, and so sometimes we're playing crappy. Why do they want to put games like that on TV when they're trying to promote the sport?"
And while she doesn't see it as an area for contract negotiationsor one with much hope of change anytime soonWicks is one of the few players willing to discuss the league's squeamishness about lesbians. "I can't say how many players are gay," notes Wicks, "but it would be easier to count the straight ones." She finds it "annoying" that the league almost exclusively promotes those who are moms. "I like it when they give insight into athletes, and I think it's great when they say, 'Here's a player and her husband and baby.' But I'd love to see a couple of women profiled, too, especially if they had a great, solid relationship, just to show that in a positive light." On the other hand, Wicks is quick to add, "America probably isn't ready. Not every place is New York and San Francisco, and you can't sell people something they don't want to buy. Not to say that gay people aren't everywhere, and definitely we don't cater to those fans enough, but a lot of sports people just don't want to know."
On the court, none of that matters, says Wicks, and neither does race. "Of course there's racism in sports, as there is in the rest of society," she says. "But when you're playing, it's your character that's on the floor. Between the players, that's what counts." One newcomer did infuriate her once by calling her "a token white player," but Wicks chalks that up more to youthful trash-talking against the elders than a comment on race relations within the league.
In fact, much of the league dynamic, now that it's completing its fourth year, is of young whippersnappers jockeying to push older superstars out of the way. "They just don't have the awe and respect players my age have for those who had the dedication to play overseas, with no one seeing them, no articles in the paper, just for their own satisfaction. The young ones see Cynthia Cooper there, and all they're thinking about is knocking her out of the way." Wicks talks with more wistfulness than scorn. "It's great, of course. They have to do it." But they'll eventually also have to learn what Wicks can do so well: the little unnoticed jobs that just need doing.