Liberty Exhaustion – 6/11/00

Remember back in school, near the end of the semester, when you reached that emotional state where the only thing that kept you going was saying to yourself, “If only I can make it past this final exam, I can survive this”?

That is not unlike how the New York Liberty players were feeling after Friday night’s 56-77 loss to Sacramento.

“It was a horrible game,” said coach Adubato. “We just played the worst game we have ever played since I’ve been here.” Standing outside of the Liberty locker room waiting for the post game player interviews, a reporter whispered, “I don’t want to go in there.”

After the loss to the Mystics last Sunday the locker room had been electric with the player’s anguish and frustration. Five days later, after the loss to the Monarchs, the dominant feeling was profound exhaustion, both physical and emotional. “We’ve got to fight through this,” said Adubato, “and hope that when we have four days of practice right after Washington game that we’ll be able to smooth it out.”

After witnessing the loss to Sacramento, New York fans are hoping the same thing.

The Liberty has always been a team of veterans. In fact, much had been made of the age of the team – one of the oldest in the league. But the fans loved their veterans, and against all odds their veterans had taken them to two Championship finals. For the past three years the ritual introduction of the starting five has been greeted with the roar. Fans knew whom they were cheering for, and for every game it was reassuringly the same: Kym Hampton, Rebecca Lobo, Vickie Johnson and Sophia Witherspoon and Teresa Weatherspoon. The ritual changed slightly when Lobo tore her ACL in the first game last season but, even then, it was the three-year veteran Sue Wicks who stepped into the starting position. One could take comfort in knowing these women had practiced, played and traveled with each other since the 1997 inaugural season. It was that veteran experience that lifted the Liberty to its surprising appearance in the ’99 post-season.

But Lobo’s injury at the beginning of the ’99 season seems to have set off an avalanche of roster changes that has upset the balance of both the team and their fans.

By mid-season, former ABL star Crystal Robinson had played herself onto the starting line up, displacing Sophia Witherspoon. By the end of the season, bad knees were forcing Hampton into retirement. December brought the news that Lobo had re-torn her ACL and wouldn’t be available till July, if at all. The expansion draft took Witherspoon, two-year veteran Coquese Washington and rookie Michele VanGorp off the roster. When the active 2000 Liberty roster was released, there were only two of the original starters from the previous year. Half of this year’s players are new to the Liberty.

“Right now we’re not a veteran team,” warned Adubato. “It’s going to take us some time to get these people activated into our team. Especially Marina. Especially Tari. And then (Jessica) Bibby and Shea (Mahoney). We’ve got a lot of young people-new people, so it may be harder to win on the road. But, I think once we’ve go some practice under our belly, I think we have some pretty good talent.”

With the influx of new players, Adubato might have predicted a rough start for the Liberty, but perhaps not this rough. Never a strong road team, they were scheduled to play three of their first eleven games away from Madison Square Garden. Additionally, the WNBA has telescoped the season to accommodate the Sydney Olympics. For the Liberty that has translated into 7 games in 13 days since their season opener in Houston May 29th – only two of which have been in New York.

Other factors in the early season struggles include: a shortened training camp; forward Tamika Whitmore arriving in camp out of shape; the official retirement of center Kym Hampton (May 27th); the late addition of players (free agent Marina Farragut May 27th, Tari Phillips May 28th); the injury to starter Crystal Robinson (May 31st), and the waiving of Venus Lacy (June 2nd).

One wonders if the players are asking the same question fans were at the June 3rd home opener as they checked their game cards against the bodies moving on the Garden floor: “Who are you and what are you doing wearing a Liberty uniform?”

The power of a veteran team is not simply about age or playing time, but about shared experience, chemistry and attitude. And that takes time, which the schedule has not allowed.

Of his new team Adubato can only say, “We need practice, practice, practice. We don’t have good execution right now. We make mistakes whenever we try to make adjustments or changes because the two new people who are playing a lot (Phillips and Farragut) aren’t acclimated to our system. They don’t know really what we’re doing so it’s very difficult. So you have to remain simple in your sets and your defense, and as a result you’re easy to defend.”

It’s a learning process “veteran” forward Tari Phillips understands. An all-star in with the ABL’s Colorado Xplosion, she played limited minutes last season backing up Orlando’s Taj McWilliams. Picked up by the Portland Fire in the expansion draft, she returned to play one game with them before she was traded to the Liberty a day before the season opened.

“It’s a little difficult, but they have a great set of girls on this team,” said Phillips. “They’ve helped my way in. Everybody has been really receptive. I feel good. I just want to make sure my game comes along, and you know, build some kind of chemistry with everyone.”

Rookie Shea Mahoney echoed Phillips’ sentiments. “It’s a little tough because we’ve had people coming in just lately. They don’t know the plays yet – they’re working on it-but it gets a little frustrating. But that’s part of it. College, high school, anywhere, you’ve always got new players. You know, you just got to have patience. We have a lot of plays, so they’re going to have to be focused and concentrate every practice on learning the plays, on knowing where they’re supposed to be, what the looks are, what the first options are and the second options are.”

A thoughtful, soft spoken young woman out of Western Kentucky University (’99), Mahoney is a 6-foot-2 forward from McKee, Ky. She stands among the Sun Belt’s all-time leaders in rebounds, steals and blocked shots. Last year she played in Finland and, though invited to the pre-draft camp, she was neither drafted nor assigned by the League. It took a phone call from Liberty Vice President and General Manager Carol Blazejowski to get her on to Liberty 18 player roster. Since then, she’s played herself onto the team.

“I would say I was overlooked,” said Mahoney. “I think there’s a lot of teams out there… I really appreciate the Liberty for giving me the chance… but I think there’s a lot of teams out there to play for and they just overlooked me. You know the combine (during the pre-draft tryout) is a lot of one-on-one and stuff like that and that’s not really my game. I’m more of a crash the boards and team player.”

Adubato is expecting a lot of leadership from his veterans. “We’re about pride and we’re about hustle,” said Coach Adubato. “I told our new people if they just follow the example of Vickie, Spoon and Sue we’ll be fine.” So, while Mahoney’s fearlessness on the boards may catch the attention of New York fans, it is the voice of veteran Sue Wicks Mahoney hears on and off the court.

“She’s always telling me to calm down. Don’t worry about things. She’s said that a lot. She’s really good about that. I means it helps me out because I’m just starting here and she’ been in it for a few years.”

And though Kym Hampton has retired, she continues to influence second year forward Tamika Whitmore. “On the court Kym taught me so much and sometimes I find myself looking for her. But she comes to practice, and she’s always around. Like yesterday, she was there at the Garden (for the home opener). It was like she almost never left. It’s something I have to get used to during the course of the season but we stay in pretty close touch with each other. I know she’ll always be there.”

So now the Liberty veterans have to step up in a new way-not just on the court, but off. They need to integrate six new faces into the team and help them understand the Liberty style of play. And they need to “suck it up” as Adubato said, and get some wins. Unfortunately for the players and the fans, that takes time, and time is something the Liberty are terribly short on.

But Sue Wicks is not ready to panic. “We’ve got new players. The things that we did wrong are things we can correct. We have a great team. I think Tari Phillips is a great player. We have people who sat on the bench the whole game and came out with great heart. Talent will win games. But heart and determination throughout an entire season will win the championship series. I really believe that.”

As a follow up: Though only playing at 75%, Crystal Robinson returned to the line up a day after the Sacramento game to play an away game against Indiana. She played 25 minutes, went 8-12 and scored 19 points. The Liberty defeated the Fever, 70-62.

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