Preseason Preview – Section 90 – 5/20/00

Saturday the 20th, 13,647 fans braved torrential rain to see the New York Liberty play their only home preseason game against Cheryl Miller’s Phoenix Mercury. Many Liberty fans arrived hoping some key questions about the upcoming season would be answered: Would Kym Hampton return at center? Would ex-ABLer Carolyn Jones Young ever set foot on the Garden hardwood? How much extra weight was Tamika Whitmore carrying? Will Rebecca Lobo be back? How would the loss of Sophia Witherspoon and Coquese Washington affect the chemistry this extraordinarily close knit team? And could the mercurial Brazilian Allessandra Santos De Oliveira ever fit in to the New York line up?

Well, after the 79-69 loss, fans got some answers but not, perhaps, the ones they wanted.

Void in the Center

At the end of last season, it was generally accepted that the Liberty would have to find a replacement for 3-year starter Kym Hampton, who was retiring because of bad knees. Possible candidates included veteran Venus Lacy, C/F Sue Wicks (who had played so well last year in the wake of forward Rebecca Lobo’s torn ACL), draftee Olga Firsova, (Kansas State ’00), and former Washington Mystics’ Alessandra Santos De Oliveira. But Hampton thrilled Liberty fans earlier this spring by announcing she was going to try a fourth season. She had also warned that she would not be 100%, hinting her play would probably be off the bench, not as a starter.

“I had the knee surgery,” Hampton said in April, “and I want you guys to know that once they went inside there they realized the cartilage is worn, and a little arthritis has set in there. And it’s going to hurt. It’s not going to be a hundred percent or anything. We’re going to just bring it and just let the chips fall where they may. That’s all we can tell you.”

That warning may prove prophetic: Kym did not dress for Saturday’s game. In fact, she hasn’t been able to practice all week because her knee is so swollen. Anyone who watched Kym play through pain last year knows she doesn’t lack courage, so this may be a case where the spirit is willing but the body is not. Liberty Coach Richie Adubato is now in the unenviable position of not only reconsidering Hampton’s spot on the roster, but of integrating a brand new center into his offensive plays. True, he has been pleasantly surprised by the play of Venus Lacy, but a player of Hampton’s experience and impact is not easily replaced, especially in a center-poor league. After the game, Adubato spoke of how important Hampton is to the Liberty:

“She’s important because of what she brings to the team. She’s a scorer inside. She’s a veteran player. She’s terrific for the chemistry of the team. She helps the younger players try and learn their positions. But her knee has been swelling up badly. She hasn’t been able to practice this week. And that’s something we’ll have to determine very shortly because in another week we have to cut down. Our cuts are going to be very difficult. But, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

A Coach’s Headache

There’s nothing Adubato can do about speeding Rebecca Lobo’s recovery from a torn ACL, either. Having torn her ACL again in December, Lobo is working furiously to return to the court by July. If Lobo’s will and attitude figure in to the mix anywhere, she will make it. Ex-ABL guard Carolyn Jones Young, recovering from a torn ACL and the birth of her daughter, has yet to play a game for the Liberty, but practiced for the first time without pain. Tamika Whitmore, last year’s standout rookie forward, showed up to camp significantly overweight. Coach Adubato has been quite honest about his disappointment with Whitmore:

“She was one of the best rookies of the WNBA. But now she’s a shadow of what she was last year and we have two options here: try and play her into shape, try and get her game experience. She lost six pounds each week, so I think she’s down to 220 but she’s still got a long way to go before she can help us. And that’s what we’re hoping for, that she can continue to lose that kind of weight. And then maybe by the 10th of June she’ll be the Tamika that we know.”

What adds extra pressure to the situation is the fine play of free agent Shea Mahoney. A 6’2″ forward from Western Kentucky (’99), Shea’s play during camp and in games is making people take notice. In Saturday’s game she only played 9 minutes, yet scored 7pts and picked up 3 rebounds. Adubato is finding it harder and harder to justify limiting Shea’s minutes in order to play Whitmore into shape. Another newcomer, Jessica Bibby, a draftee from Australia, has also impressed Adubato with her play at point guard. “We believe she’s very, very talented. She’s extremely quick, she can shoot the ball well. She’s done well every time we’ve played her. She’s going to contribute. She’s going to help our team.”

Familiar Faces Return

Kind words indeed, but it may make Liberty fans wonder where guard Becky Hammon stands. Hammon played a pivotal role in the team’s comeback against the Comets during last year’s Championships, and her daring drives to the hoop and her deadly threes from the corner have made her a fan favorite. There is no doubt that veteran Vickie Johnson’s job is secure-she scored 24pts on 10/12 shooting, and has added a three pointer to her arsenal. Crystal Robinson seemed out of sync offensively, and at times venting her frustration in careless fouls. Adubato seemed to thing that was more a question of Robinson not rushing her shots, as well as the team doing a better job setting plays for her. Teresa Weatherspoon was as fierce as ever on defense, and concentrated on steering her new teammates through the plays. Sue Wicks continued her fine work from last year, scoring 4pts, grabbing five rebounds and dishing one assist in the first eight minutes of the game.

Those who watched the game Saturday may have left with some legitimate “on court” worries, though it is important to remember that is was a preseason game. Winning was not the point, giving new players playing time was, and that can sometimes cause a team to look disjointed or out of rhythm. Perhaps, then, another big question to ask would be how all the personnel changes have affected the chemistry of the team. Strong team chemistry–both on and off the court– has been a hallmark of the New York Liberty and one of the most its most endearing features. When asked if the team was still adjusting to the loss of Sophia Witherspoon and Coquese Washington, players who’d been with the team since its inception, Adubato answered:

“I don’t think that’s really the problem at all. I think the big problem is that we’re adjusting to Kym (Hampton) being out of the center position, where she solidified the center. So we’re searching for that position. And we’re looking at three people to take that position. That’s one thing.

The second thing is that we have a lot of new faces here. We have a lot of new people. We have terrific chemistry. The people that we got in, plus the people that are here are all getting along great. But right now, we’re trying to find out who can do what in what positions.

Unfortunately in this league, this year they moved training camp up, so we lost at least a week and a half, which would give us more time to evaluate and analyze. So we’ve got to do it kind of quickly. Which isn’t fair to some of the people like Desiree (Francis – 6’1″ Iowa St. ’00) and like Shea and like Jessie Bibby because we’re limited. We’ve got to try and win some games and get our rotation as soon as possible. The main thing is to solve the center problem, decide what we’re going to do at the four, decide what our rotations are going to be all about.”

Of course, that all has to get done by 3pm Monday, May 29th when the Liberty open the season on the Houston Comets’ home court. I’m guessing that the players aren’t the only ones who will be running double sessions these next few days.


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