Center of our Hearts – 6/25/00

Kym Hampton, starting center for the New York Liberty for the past three years, had a going away party at Madison Square Garden, and 14,700 people showed up to see her off. Hampton was retiring, and today was the fan’s chance to say “thank you.”

Oh, true, there was the small matter of a game against the Los Angeles Sparks, but the word throughout the Garden was “Kym.” Everywhere you looked, there were signs in honor and love of Kym. Her jersey, #34, was the clothing of choice.

But, as one fan explained, not for long: “After today,” said Jackie Wall, “the jersey that I have on, I will retire. I have (Kym’s) signature on the back. It will go in a frame in my home and it will be honored.”

The Garden was as full of memories as it was fans, and everyone was willing to share theirs of Hampton.

Mary Artale remembers sharing a return flight home with the Liberty. They had lost the last game of the ’98 season to Detroit, and along with it their chance at the playoffs. “It was like being locked in a big, giant, tin coffin,” said Artale, But at the airport in New York Hampton thanked her for their support, both at the Detroit game and throughout the season. “She was just so gracious,” says Artale. “So many lovely memories. Such a nice lady.”

Next to her, fellow season ticket holder Sally Wahrmann chimes in, “I always liked it when she nailed Lisa Leslie.” She laughs. “When Lisa played against her, Lisa never had a good game. Check the stats.”

Lourdes Berlingeri, known to Garden regulars as the “Hat Lady” for the extravagant headgear she devises from Liberty giveaway items, claims that every time she sees Kym is her “favorite Kym moment.” But when forced to choose, she recalls last year’s trip to Cleveland to watch the Liberty play the Rockers. Berlingeri had brought her winning banner from the Garden’s “Banner Contest Night” showing all the players as superwomen, and hung it in the Gund Arena. During team warm ups, says Berlingeri, Kym spotted the banner and gathered the other players around her. “Then she and Teresa (Weatherspoon) started running around the court like they were superheroes. In Cleveland.” She laughs at the image. “And we were the only New York nuts there. That was awesome.”

Opposite from where the Hat Lady sits is Section 112, known for their enormous and inventive signs in support of the Liberty players. Shirley Orlans recalls an especially large sign that read “Kym Owns the Rym.” “Wait till you see it,” she remembers telling Hampton before the game. “Don’t you know the next time we saw her – she never forgets people – she says, ‘There’s my 112 people. Come here. Come right over. I love my new sign.'” Orlans is caught in the memory. “She is so sweet.”

Sweet off the court, but on the court there was no one grittier.

Garden fans knew that Hampton played with crippling knee pain throughout last season, but what sticks in Orlans mind is the second game of the Eastern Conference play-offs against the Charlotte Sting. Already down one game, the Liberty faced elimination. Hampton stepped up, scoring key baskets in waning minutes of the game to secure the win. “She played one of her best games,’ remembers Orlans, “and she was in such pain. Every time, when we took our binoculars and watched her as she sat down, she was in such pain. We were all just screaming for her, loving her that night. I mean, she literally gave up everything she had that night. And what more can we ask? What more can you ask of a player?”

After the Garden guests have left

The game against the Sparks is over. The Liberty had lost at home again, something that was becoming frustratingly familiar. In the locker room, second year player Becky Hammon was fielding the obligatory post-game questioning by reporters.

Suddenly, from behind the reporters, a voice singing, “Baby cakes,” cuts through the questions. The reporters pause and Hammon, serious and professional in her suit, looks up. She sees Kym Hampton smiling at her, and Hammon’s face lights up. “What’s up, babe?” she asks. Hampton simply sings her answer. “Baby cakes. You’ve got the sweetest little jumper. Baby cakes.” She then disappears back into the crowded locker room.

Hammon looks after the retreating Hampton. “That’s why we miss her.” A moment passes, and then the questions begin again.

Later, after almost everyone is gone, Teresa Weatherspoon takes a final few questions about Kym. A little frustrated, she scolds he reporters. “You all are just looking at it from a basketball standpoint.”

“Kym Hampton is a wonderful person. Forget basketball. She’s a great person. Like just today, when she came in after the game and she looked at us and she says, ‘Hey, this is a turning point for you guys. Keep your heads up.’ That’s all we need to hear from Kym. We miss that every day. In the locker room. Every day out on the court. We miss that.”

In spite of the loss, both personal and professional, Weatherspoon accepts and honors the finality of Hampton’s retirement.

“Look at the things that she did for this team. The pain that she went through to play for us, to give us everything that she had. Days we’d walk in and you’d see her in there crying – she can’t move, but she still came in here and gave us everything that she had.”

“I remember that. I appreciate that. I respect that.”

And while reporters might be slow understand, it is certainly a memory both Liberty players and fans will cherish for a long time.

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