Comets Playoff Sideline: Still Hungry After All These Years – 8/28/00

Playoff home court advantage.

It’s what teams fight for during the regular season, because when you’re striving for a championship there’s nothing like the lift home cooking will give you.

But because of the WNBA playoff format the higher seed — the favored team — must play their first game away in front of a hostile crowd. In essence, it gives the underdog a leg up.

And so, standing in Madison Square Garden last Thursday evening for the first game of this Championship series between the Houston Comets and the New York Liberty, you could feel the energy coursing through the crowd of 19,600 plus. Yes, they were noisy. Yes, they were enthusiastic. But there also was a hungry edge to the cheers that rattled the Garden that night.

This was a savvy crowd. They knew these two teams had met in the Championships twice before, and each time the Liberty had walked away empty. If the Liberty wanted a shot at dethroning the three-time champion Comets, they would have to win this home game. The crowd knew it. The players knew it. They had to win. And that knowledge underscored the evening with a ribbon of desperation.

But after a hard fought game, in front of a hostile crowd, the Comets emerged victorious. In the locker room and in the stands, the feeling of disappointment afterwards was so intense it was almost a physical pang.

Coming Back to the Table for a Fourth Helping

How unlike the feelings running through the sea of red clad Houston Comets supporters filling the Compac Center Saturday afternoon.

Before the game, the two sides of the arena yelled back and forth, “We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how about you!” When the organ led them in a chant of “Let’s go Comets,” they quickly hijacked it and began to shout “Beat New York!” While signs last year said 3 for 10, in honor of Kim Perrot, their point guard lost to cancer, this year the signs read “4 for 14,” in honor of Cynthia Cooper’s retirement. And when the Comets went on an early run that put them ahead 12-2, you could almost feel the crowd say, “Here we go!”

This was a supremely satisfied and confident crowd. And for good reason. Their Comets have made a habit of winning games. And they’ve made a special habit of winning WNBA championship games, stepping up to the table three times, and walking away a winner each time. There seemed no doubt that history would repeat itself.

Uncooperative Guests

But the New York Liberty were hungry, too, and drew on themselves as a team to build their own confidence. Their backs against the wall, they fought the Comets and their crowd with their own individual emotion.

The usually calm and collected veteran Sue Wicks drew a technical foul for her display of outrage at a referee’s call.

Last year’s “Mistress of Threes,” Crystal Robinson, rediscovered her devastating shooting touch.

The fiery Teresa Weatherspoon took time to calm her team down.

Tamika Whitmore drained a free throw and touched her lips gently with a finger, as if to say, “Shhhhh” to the crowd.

Tari Phillips, the team’s leading scorer, held to three points in the first half, came out more focused in the second half and ended up with 20.

“When you play your heart out there on the court,” said Phillips, “and you give it all you can, and you hope you try and minimize your mistakes. That’s all you can do. That’s all the coaches and your teammates can ask you to do. And I think that all the players did that tonight.”

But in end their all was not enough.

It’s Our House, It’s Our Party

The crowd and the Comets roared back at each Liberty challenge until finally Cynthia Cooper did what she has done three times before. She stepped up to lead her team to a fourth Championship in spectacular fashion, the finishing touch a 3-pointer that tied the game with seconds to go. It snatched victory out of the mouths of the Liberty and sent the game into overtime, where the Houston Comets emerged victorious, once again.

The team, coaches and 16,285 fans joined in a raucous post victory celebration. Cooper, the series Most Valuable Player, pumped her four fingers into the air shouting “Four! Four! Four!” to the crowd. Sheryl Swoopes, the league’s MVP, grabbed her three-year-old son Jordan and carried him on her shoulders, his small arms lifted high in celebration. Tina Thompson, this year’s All-Star game MVP, hugged everyone she could get her arms around. Red, white and blue confetti fell onto the court and music pounded through the arena.

It was a familiar picture and a fitting end to Cynthia Cooper’s extraordinary career. She showed she still had the heart and hunger of a champion. “I’m savoring the moment,” said Cooper after the win. “I’ve had some great years with the Comets, great years in the WNBA. I never imagined that we would come here and enjoy the type of success that we are enjoying right now and the history we’re making, not only in women’s professional basketball, but in professional sports. It’s a great time to be a Houston Comet, and I want to savor every moment.”

On the Outside Looking In

Beneath the stands, the Liberty players sat fielding questions from the press as the sound of Comet’s celebration echoed through the cement halls and drifted into the visitor’s locker room.

For Sue Wicks, who played in what is most likely the final game of her WNBA career, the experience was painfully familiar.

“It’s really hard for us to come here a third time and listen to this again. It’s not like we had just had one great season and here we are. This is the culmination of four years, of four summers of a lot of dreams and a lot of hard work. We really did achieve a lot of things (this season). But once you get to this point, all you want to do is win. And in this moment, you don’t feel extremely proud. I think you just feel a little devastated at this loss.”

Missing out on a ring for the third time may not be an incentive enough for Wicks to return next season for another shot at the title, it doesn’t mean her spirit doesn’t ache at the thought. “It’s kind of hard to walk away with such an empty feeling. It’s like walking away from a dinner table when you’re not full.”

But like Cooper, Wicks has put in her time laying the foundations of the WNBA. Thousands of fans scream COOOOOOP in Houston and SUUUUEEEE in New York. Perhaps it’s time, says Wicks, to step aside and see what the younger players can do.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Comet back up point guard Coquese Washington, a member of last year’s Liberty team, will now wear a 2000 Championship ring. Winning a ring this season has introduced her to a different kind of hunger. “To finish the season winning a championship,” say Washington,” is the best. Now I see why people get greedy and want another one.”

As for the WNBA fans? They will have to wait until next season to see who gets an invitation to the Championship dinner.

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