In one instant in early July, when the Liberty were scraping along with a 7-9 record, forward Sue Wicks became utterly certain that New York would be vying for the championship at season’s end. The moment came after a 66-65 loss in Cleveland, in which Wicks had messed up a crucial play by missing a pass from Teresa Weatherspoon. “I just wanted to die,” Wicks recalls. “I had blown the game and made Spoon look bad. But then Spoon came over and instead of saying, ‘You should have caught that!’ she said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re gonna get another one.’ That’s when I knew we’d be in the finals. The trust among us was there.”
Sure enough, from that very day, the Liberty turned their game around, finishing the regular season 20-12. Then they bounded past Washington and Cleveland in the Eastern Conference playoffs before bowing to Houston’s championship four-peat on Saturday in a ferocious contest of dazzling defense from both sides. “If you couldn’t like that game,” Comets coach Van Chancellor told the press afterwards, “you need to be checking your pulse, buddy.”
It wasn’t exactly a surprise that the squad featuring Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson would crank it up for the finals and sweep Sacramento, L.A., and New York. Cooper, after all, is the consummate clutch player. Though she went 5 for 18 until the final minute on Saturday, with 21.5 seconds remaining, she calmly sank a 22-foot, game-tying three-pointer to push the game into OT, and then added two buckets to the final 79-73 triumph.
New York, on the other hand, though it had met Houston in the finals in ’97 and ’99—thus the “unfinished business” slogan that pumped through the Garden all month—had to work much harder just to face them again. Their midseason surge came as explosive 6-1 center Tari Phillips started to gel with her new team and as 5-6 guard Becky Hammon began to hit some big threes, and drive past towering defenders like an infuriating bee. The league named Phillips its Most Improved Player, acknowledging her 13.8 points and 8 rebounds per. But as a former ABL All-Star, Phillips didn’t so much improve her own game as enjoy the Most Improved Situation this year; coach Richie Adubato simply had the good sense to put her in the starting lineup, instead of letting her log lots of bench time, as Orlando had done in ’99.
But the Liberty’s upturn may have as much to do with its underdog status early on. For playoff games, the locker room was adorned with trash talk from opponents and critical commentators. Indeed, maybe the Comets, always cool as limes, closed down the Liberty not only by outclassing them on the court, but also by remaining polite. In pregame interviews, they offered nothing but respect—no bulletin-board quotes.
Still, the sense of having to earn every victory reflects a broader ethic underlying much of the league through its first four seasons, one that Liberty leaders hold close to the heart. That women have been the underdogs in the male preserve of professional sports is obvious enough, but as the league becomes younger and younger, and the veterans begin to peel off, some of them are beginning to wonder whether the novices’ sense of entitlement will change the spirit of the game. While the older players had to go abroad to make a professional career for themselves, now agents swarm the NCAA finals and the hottest college stars graduate with endorsement contracts.
In any case, if the league continues to thrive, 2000 will be looked back upon as a transitional year in which a new generation began to supplant the old. While ’99’s draft went deep with the vets of the defunct ABL, this year’s was the first to rely mostly on players just out of college, and that, of course, is where the future lies. Cooper, 37, announced her retirement in the middle of a season in which teammate Swoopes, 29, emerged as the Comets’ first option, and in one of Weatherspoon’s postgame rants, she fulminated about Rockers rookie Ann Wauters, age 19. “For a youngster to walk in my face . . . staring me down and walking at me like that . . .” Youngster is clearly the operative word here.
Of course it’s only natural that younger athletes usurp their forebears—and often exceed their greatness. “The play is only going to get better,” says Liberty GM Carol Blazejowski. “The young players coming up are exceptional. I remember when everybody thought that nobody would ever be better than Julius Erving. Then came Jordan. It’s the way of sports.”
The difference, though, is that as the WNBA succeeds, what may be forgotten is the history of the struggle to get it off the ground in the first place. Younger players, as Wicks puts it, don’t have a sense of what it meant “to play just out of your own passion and not even expect to see anything in the newspaper.” Not that that’s necessarily a good thing—Wicks herself was irked to note that USA Today was all over the Ewing trade that didn’t happen, but had nary a word about the Liberty’s Eastern Conference victory the same day. Giving women that sense of entitlement, says Crystal Robinson, “is what we built this league for.”
Weatherspoon, 34, seems about as ready to hang up her high-tops as Kobe Bryant, but Rockers point guard Suzie McConnell-Serio, 34, played her last WNBA game last week. Liberty center Kym Hampton, 37, is already cheering from the stands, and Wicks, 33, has publicly said that she’s ready to leave the league in pursuit of a “more balanced life.”
Wicks has said, though, that she’s contemplating some more seasons overseas with summertimes off, if only because she loves living in Europe. But if the WNBA doesn’t jack up salaries in the coming years (they currently average $55,000 per year, and the next contract negotiation is still a year and a half away), the league just may become the professional training ground for out-of-college rookies who rack up some summer experience here and then give their prime to higher-paying leagues in Italy or Turkey or Israel.
If the WNBA does start to meet demands for some kind of equality for women (if not in strict dollar amounts, then in percentage of their own revenues), then the questions of purpose and values that have come up with every major development in women’s sports—the passage of Title IX, the absorption of women’s collegiate sports into the NCAA, the megamarketing of the WNBA devouring the mom-and-pop approach of the ABL—will certainly surge up again.
In the meantime, says Cooper, the four-time championship MVP, the older players have “left the younger generation with some examples of how to be,” both on the court and off. How long will that legacy last? “Until they start making $2- or $3 million dollars,” says Cooper. “When money talks, everything else will walk.”