The air-conditioning at Basketball City could hardly keep up with the Liberty on Thursday as coach Richie Adubato ran the squad through four and a half hours of offensive drills, pressing drills, defensive drills, and basics. “We did everything out there today,” said never faltering forward Crystal Robinson as she loped off the court as drenched and funky as if she’d just been dunked in the Hudson. No one was complaining, though. Thursday’s practice—and the sessions to come on Friday and Saturday—were just what the team had been waiting for after a brutal couple of weeks that left them at 3-5. “Today was our training camp,” said Adubato as he sent the women to the showers.
With a brief two-week preseason, the roster in constant flux as new players have been acquired and old ones have been benched with injuries, and a game and travel schedule that has left the team with little time to even launder their uniforms, this season’s Liberty has yet to acquire its most famous attribute: gel. Consider how much the lineup has changed since Rebecca Lobo, Sophia Witherspoon, and Kym Hampton started every game—and had their photos plastered on every fan-tchotchke.
Stalwarts Teresa Weatherspoon, Vickie Johnson, and Sue Wicks notwithstanding, it’s a new Liberty now—or it’s on its way to being one. In addition to Robinson (hobbled lately by a sprained ankle) and, more recently, Tari Phillips filling out the starting team, the Liberty has begun to rely much more on Becky Hammon, who usually gets more than 15 minutes of playing time—and scores nearly as many points. Meanwhile, four completely new faces—Marina Ferragut, Desiree Francis, Shea Mahoney, and Olga Firsova—are looking for a chance to play.
Weatherspoon sincerely offers what has been the team’s mantra since the first tip-off in ’97: “We’re all about effort and heart and we are one when we are on the court. The Liberty’s personality doesn’t change, even if some of the faces do.” Yet even she, the team’s perpetually fired-up, look-on-the-sunny-side emotional leader, acknowledges that “it takes time to learn Richie’s system, and the new players hadn’t had any.”
Perhaps the practices started to pay off on Sunday, when the Liberty coasted past the Miami Sol, 58-52. Still, despite the luxury of three practice days in a row, Adubato expressed frustration at not being able to work on and integrate his most important new player, Phillips, because of her fractured left toe. So while the rest of the team dashed up and down the court, Phillips waddled along the sidelines, shackled in a physical-therapy contraption, or simply sat watching with her foot on ice. Adubato traded Carolyn Jones-Young to Seattle for the 6-1 former ABL all-star, who came on board as center in place of Kym Hampton. Hampton left a huge emotional hole when she retired for good on May 26. (“Kym is yang to Spoon’s yin,” said Wicks. “We’ve been out of balance since she left.”)
Phillips, who limped through a 3-for-11 shooting night against Miami, had nothing but praise for the ways she’s been welcomed, and the vets laud her athleticism. But there’s little evidence of any instant bonding, though it might have been reasonable to expect some since Phillips and Robinson played together on the Colorado Xplosion of the defunct ABL. Apparently they weren’t the best of friends. “Yeah, we played in Denver, so I somewhat know Crystal’s game” was all Phillips had to say of their year together, while Robinson’s only comment on the arrival of her old teammate was “It’s good to have Tari Phillips here. We needed a center.”
On the court so far, Phillips has often seemed to be out there as an individual. If the ball comes her way, you can bet it’s going up. On the other hand, when the Liberty comes unglued, as in its woeful 77-56 showing against Sacramento on June 9, Phillips manages to stay intact. She poured in 25 points in that sorry excuse for a game. And in the heartbreaker four days later, in which bitter rival Washington nabbed a 57-56 victory on a 17-foot jumper by Chamique Holdsclaw with 10.8 seconds left, Phillips contributed 12 crucial rebounds.
After that game, Adubato quipped, “We needed a traffic cop out there to direct the players,” and that’s pretty much how he ran practice on Thursday, shouting “space, space” as athletes bunched up on defense or shifted out of position on offense. For players like Wicks, such adjustments are “a gift: you tend to play what’s easy instead of what’s right when you don’t practice.”
But fine-tuning is not enough. Even the best of the vets need to be tested in practice, and the influx of much younger recruits this year has opened a wide experiential gap that leaves the older women hungry. With the league’s expansion to 16 teams this year, and last year’s windfall from the ABL long exhausted, the WNBA draft this time around yielded more players just out of college than ever before. “We’ve got a lot of younger players,” said Robinson, “and they have got to realize what level we’re at and not just be happy to be here. They’ve got to come to work every day.” Adds Johnson, “In practice, the young players have to challenge us more.”
It hardly looks like Johnson needs any more challenges. She often leads in rebounds, scoring, and assists, and she’s typically the one to end up with a loose ball. Adubato calls her “my most complete player,” likening her to Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper, his star players when he coached the Dallas Mavericks.
By all accounts, Johnson is playing a bigger emotional role this year, too, trying, as she says, to “keep everybody up on a positive attitude.” Commentators have often remarked on the team’s tendency to joke together, but so far this year, there hasn’t been much joshing in the locker room. “We don’t have time to clown around,” says Wicks. “Things will lighten up after we win some games.” Or, maybe, vice versa.