Beast of the East

How Will the Liberty Handle Being the Overdog?

Plus, she was snatched away from the starting lineup of pesky Liberty rivals, the Washington Mystics. "She came in full of jokes about our team, which has really helped her connect with us," says Wicks. All the same, adds center Tari Phillips, who returns this season keen "to be a wrecking ball on the court," Washington "still has a lot of horses out there. It's still gonna be a war."

Indeed, despite the prognosticators' new friendliness, there's no danger that New York will get cocky, says Phillips: "Pride, fierceness, competitiveness—those are all necessary if you want to win. But as soon as you get arrogant, you become complacent and then somebody is sneaking in backdoor passes and laying the ball up, and you just missed it. We haven't lost a bit of our work ethic. We see every team as a factor this year."

Sure, the four-time champion Houston Comets may be less invincible now that Cynthia Cooper has retired (and taken on the top coaching spot for Phoenix) and Sheryl Swoopes has gone down with an ACL injury. But L.A., which nearly swiped the Western Conference title from Houston last year, sure hasn't gotten any weaker. And besides, there's the Eastern Conference to get through, every team bolstered by a hefty college draft and new players from Europe and Australia. Cleveland, who pushed the Liberty to a decisive third game in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, brings back a group of veterans, some of whom upped their game in Europe over the winter, and should soon get back its leading scorer, Eva Nemcova, who missed the last five weeks of the 2000 season with a knee injury. They've also added Penny Taylor, the Australian League's 2000 MVP, who averaged 25.5 points per game.

Handling the situation: Vickie Johnson and the Liberty are bound for glory.
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Handling the situation: Vickie Johnson and the Liberty are bound for glory.

Adubato also expects Orlando to come on stronger as standout point guard Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson, a spunky leader of the Columbus Quest, the back-to-back champions of the ABL, seems to get faster and handle the ball better every year. And Miami, he warns, is a dangerous sleeper because of its acquisition of Australian Sandy Brondello, Russian Elena Baranova, and draft pick Ruth Riley, superstar out of Notre Dame. That gives the Sol a 6-6, 6-5, 6-5 front court, Adubato notes, backed up by the indomitable old hand Debbie Black, quite possibly the most physical guard in the league. What's more, he says, "people are going to be shooting at us this year, so we are going to have to bring our 'A' game every night."

Can they do that reliably when they're expected to win? "Expected to win what?" asks Phillips. Well, at least the Eastern Conference. "That's not all we're playing for," she says, flashing a grin. "You see? We're still the underdog."

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