Beast of the East

How Will the Liberty Handle Being the Overdog?

Nobody is dissing them in the press. Opponents aren't making any nasty cracks about them. None of the players have been tied up overseas throughout training camp. No one is seriously injured, out of shape, or out of sorts. Indeed, as they prepare for the May 31 tip-off of their fifth WNBA season, the Liberty are, for the first time, coming out of the blocks completely ready to play—and heralded as the team to beat in the East.

"Everyone is in tip-top condition, full of energy and enthusiasm," says coach Richie Adubato after one of the grueling four-hour practice sessions he's been running the women through since May 2. Forward Tamika Whitmore came into camp svelte and swift after spending the off-season playing in Israel; sweet-shooting Crystal Robinson spent the winter shaking the ankle injury that had hobbled her from the beginning of last season, as well as her disappointment at being removed from the starting lineup; blue-collar team-leader Sue Wicks is back with verve despite August thoughts of retirement; 6-4 marquee player Rebecca Lobo, feeling ferocious and hungry, has been practicing full-tilt after two seasons benched with knee injuries; and fervent floor-captain Teresa Weatherspoon is, well, still Teresa Weatherspoon, but even more so.

But can this scrappy squad that thrives on underdog status survive a good start? Can a team for whom insults are like kerosene that keeps them fired up ignite under a barrage of positive predictions and flattering forecasts? Can their comfort with Adubato's system be real if it's instantaneous rather than a long, uneven gelling process? In the last two years, after all, the Liberty started slowly and accelerated into conference titles. A few weeks into last season, New York had racked up a sorry 3-5 record, and some of those losses were just plain ugly—sloppy execution, confused plays, and shooting percentages that sunk lower than the drinking age in most states. Yet having to claw their way to the Finals and prove their mettle seemed to help the team find its emotional core. Meanwhile, they grew into Adubato's panoply of plays like a kid finally getting control of her big sister's hand-me-down bicycle, seeming to handle it all the better for having been through the struggle.

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.

"Nothing is really different emotionally," says Adubato. "It's just that it's taken two years for everybody else to believe in us, to believe what we always knew." Besides, adds Wicks, referring to the Liberty's OT loss to Houston in the decisive game of the 2000 Finals, "We have a lot of disappointment about last year. That is plenty of fuel for us."

If the pre-season was any indication, becoming a favorite for the first time has not dampened anybody's ardor. The Liberty pounded the Washington Mystics, 70-60, in Hartford on Thursday. The week before, in New York's only exhibition game at the Garden, the Liberty overcame a 13-point second-half deficit to snag a 101-95 OT victory against the Los Angeles Sparks. In a new show of aggressive offense, Weatherspoon poured in 21 points, six of them in the OT. Robinson produced under pressure, hitting a three-pointer with 1:37 left in regulation to tie the score.

Adubato is hardly complaining that his team competed in its exhibition games with play-off intensity. But he shrugs at the box scores, saying he has concentrated on these games' fundamental function as trials for new players. The Hartford game was his last chance before the final roster deadline of May 27 to get a look at new faces like Stacey Ford, a 6-2 power forward, and Hajdana Radunovic, a 6-4 Croatian who, says Adubato, simply "knows how to play." Adubato is still searching for more height and power under the basket. While he says he'll be looking for Lobo to come off the bench to ratchet up the rebounds once she's shaken off some cobwebs, he is not done building the front court. At press time, Adubato was still torn about which two players still on the training-camp roster would have to be cut. "It's been a very competitive camp," he said. "Even the vets have had to show a lot of determination."

The secure newcomers are speedy shooting guard Grace Daley, 5-6, and old-hand point guard Andrea Nagy, 5-7, both acquired in off-season trades. Each brings some much-needed depth to the Liberty, Adubato explains. Emphasizing Daley's youth and explosiveness, he praises her "great acceleration" and the contributions she'll bring as the Liberty aim to press more aggressively this season. Of course, he adds, "she is behind a veteran group of guards—Becky Hammon, Vickie Johnson, and Crystal Robinson—so it will be tough for her to get minutes. But I think we will make some time for her, especially in pressing situations."

As for Nagy, Adubato says, "she gives us a legitimate backup point guard for Spoon. Last year we had to play Spoon 33 or 34 minutes a game and sometimes by the end she was too tired to execute. We could always swing VJ [Johnson] and Becky [Hammon] together in the backcourt to give Spoon a break, but that was always meant to be temporary. With Nagy we've got some real insurance. She's a veteran who can shoot the ball and run the team."

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.

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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