Cleveland Playoff Sideline – 8/21/00

There are many parallels between basketball and good drama, not the least of which is the existence of the character you “love to hate.” On the stage or on the court, this role offers a point of focus, an odd source of “negative” inspiration and in the best scenarios, an opportunity for audience participation.

For instance, the Garden faithful know they love to hate the Miami Sol’s pesky point guard Debbie Black. “She’s a psycho,” “She should be banned from the WNBA,” and “She’s the only player I boo. I just can’t help myself,” are only a few of the comments you might hear when the Sol visit New York.

But if you were to mention Cleveland Rocker small forward Mery Andrade, most Liberty fans would give you a blank stare.

That’s definitely not the same look when you mention her to the Liberty coach and players.

Stepping into the spotlight

Last season, her first year in the WNBA, Andrade came off the bench and averaged just over 11 minutes a game. But this season, in a story line that is eerily similar to the Liberty last year, she moved into the starting rotation when the Rockers leading scorer Eva Nemcova went down with a torn ACL. As a result, her minutes have more than doubled. Primarily seen a defensive force, Andrade surprised many by dramatically improving her offensive output, shooting 45% from the field and ranking 18th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage.

New York coach Richie Adubato acknowledged that the physical and emotional intensity Andrade brings to the game makes Cleveland a tougher, more dangerous opponent.

Andrade is also, says Adubato, a little more creative during opposing team’s foul shots than the rulebook allows.

During the last regular season match up between the Rockers and the Liberty, Andrade leapt into the lane in an attempt to block the Liberty shooter’s foul shot. It was a tactic she repeated in Thursday night’s playoff game. When Adubato’s complaints to the game’s officiating crew fell on deaf ears, he contacted the league. The league, in turn, told him to talk to alert the evening’s referees.

“What she gets away with is incredible,” said Adubato.

An intriguing sub-plot

Liberty forward Crystal Robinson couldn’t agree with Adubato more, especially when it concerns physical contact away from the ball.

Where Andrade is concerned, Robinson considers the contact not simply part of the game, but a physical danger. After getting what she considered was one too many forearms to the throat, Robinson had a brief, but pithy, conversation with an official, the gist of which was “If you don’t do something to stop her, I will.”

Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, Robinson’s language was a little too colorful, and she drew a technical foul for her efforts.

But last night it seemed Robinson and Adubato’s comments brought Andrade some unwelcome attention.

The star treatment?

In Thursday’s game Andrade picked up two personal fouls. She also managed to draw several. Primarily, claim Liberty players, because of her acting skills. Andrade, they say, has mastered the art of the “flop,” the ability to turn a slight touch into a dramatic collapse to floor, earning the opposing player a charging foul.

Tonight, though, it seemed a different story was to be played out.

Andrade picked up a total of five fouls, her first being two minutes into the game. Liberty forward Tari Phillips drove down the sideline and Andrade moved into her path. Both went sprawling as the whistle blew. The look of fierce pleasure on Phillips’ face when she saw the referee signal Andrade’s number to the scorers bench gave notice the battle was joined. The tone was set, and everyone on the floor understood the theme for the night: reclaim the court.

You say tomato, I say tomahto

This season there has been an on going discussion about the physical play of the WNBA games, and the Liberty are often labeled one of those “physical teams.” Ironically enough, though, after Thursday night’s game, it was the Rocker’s who laid claim to that title. In fact, in the Liberty locker room a post-game quote from Rocker Merlakia Jones hung on the wall:

“We did play New York’s game. They’re used to bullying people around.”

Tonight, Liberty point guard Teresa Weatherspoon had her own post-game response, making no apologies for the Liberty’s style of play.

“What we read is that we bully people around. I’ve never taken anybody’s lunch money; I don’t bully anybody around. And the name of the game is that you are gonna get hit, you’re gonna get popped. So what, so be it. My nose is broken, and I’m out here and I’ll take the chance of getting hit again. That’s what the game is all about.”

Liberty forward Vickie Johnson echoed Weatherspoon’s statements, acknowledging the style of play between the two teams as “very physical” but refusing to back down.

“Cleveland’s team is physical and we are very physical. The thing we want to do is send a message that they are in Madison Square Garden, they are in our home and that they want to talk about physical, let’s talk about physical. We can be very physical and that’s what we want to do; come out and send a message today was physical but tomorrow is going to be even more physical.”

And so, the stage is set and the actors are in place.

Monday night, the final act of this drama will be played out. And while the spinning orange and white ball may be the center of attention, it would be wise to pay attention to what is going on in the wings.

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