A Turning Point – 8/14/00

New York Liberty center Tari Phillips sang the national anthem before tonight’s playoff game against the Washington Mystics. As her teammates gathered around her, recently retired Liberty center Kym Hampton watched from the sidelines.

Fans who have never attended a Liberty game at the Garden – specifically a final regular season Liberty home game – would find little of significance in this image. But those fans that have been there know that for the past four years Hampton has sung the national anthem before every home closer.

And now it appears the retirement of the 37-year-old Hampton at the beginning of this season will, in all likelihood, be matched by 33-year-old Sue Wicks at its end.

And so this night, as Phillips sang and fans roared their approval with every soaring phrase, the anthem seemed to signal the passing of the torch from the Liberty team of the past to the Liberty team of the future. Once dubbed one of the oldest teams in the league, it could be argued that during this season the Liberty has evolved, if not into one of leagues’ youngest, certainly one of its more junior, blending veteran and young talent into a potent post season force.

The Kids Are All Right

There is no doubt point guard Teresa Weatherspoon is not only the emotional leader of the team, but its chief playmaker, as tonight’s 10 assists and four steals can attest. At 34, she now finds herself the senior member of a starting line up that’s beginning to develop it’s own identity. In fact, it seemed fitting that at the post game press conference after the Liberty handily defeated the Mystics 74-56,coach Richie Adubato should be flanked by Becky Hammon, a second year player and Tari Phillips, who joined the team two and a half months ago.

The games’ Player of the Game, Hammon is only 23 and busily assimilating all the benefits of Weatherspoon’s years of professional experience. Phillips, who today was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player, is 30 and has joyously settled into the Liberty family. Her low-key ego, quirky personality, and fierce play on both ends of the court quickly endearing her to her coach, teammates and fans.

Forward Vickie Johnson, 28, is often identified as one of the most underrated players in the league, though perhaps under-publicized might be more accurate. In seasons past, she has been content to let her game speak for itself, shutting down opponents’ top players with her defense and quietly leading the Liberty in scoring. This year she has begun to open herself up to be a more vocal team leader, opening her door to new players who need help off the court, and often taking on ball handling responsibilities on the court.

Tamika Whitmore, 23, was a powerful offensive force last year. This season she has discovered a finesse and body control that’s made her more of a threat. Even more importantly, Whitmore is picking up Sue Wicks’ good defensive habits, establishing her position better under the basket and avoiding the reach in and blocking fouls that plagued her last season.

No Pain, No Gain

The evolution has not always been smooth, and certainly not been effortless or without pain. Starters at the beginning of the season and now coming off the bench, veterans Sue Wicks and Crystal Robinson, 26, have accepted their changing roles with grace, despite the blow to their egos. And players on what is often called the “low end of the bench” — Marina Ferragut, Jessica Bibby, Shea Mahoney, Desire Francis, and Olga Firsova (average age 23) — have consistently pushed and challenged the starters in every practice.

Tempers have been tested, egos have been pricked, and spirits and faith have been challenged. In fact, early July found some reporters were anticipating an empty August schedule for themselves and the Liberty.

But against all odds the Liberty team and staff have maintained an even keel through this time of change and transition. It’s kept them steady through the rough times, and sent them flying into the post season.

And now, with “Unfinished Business” as their motto, they’re sailing into the Eastern Conference Championship Finals.

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