After dropping a “why don’t you cover the W we’re in playoff time” email to WNYC/NPR’s show The Takeaway, they actually responded and asked for input. So, Mechelle Voepel and I woke up early to talk Championships and the W.
Archive for New York Liberty
As the WNBA moves into its thirteenth year, the growth and evolution of the league is reflected as much in the coaches patrolling the sideline as it is in the players playing the games. When the league started in 1997, there were seven female coaches and one male. Almost five years later, the numbers had all but flipped. Now, in 2009, the pendulum seems to be swinging back.
“You are seeing a shift,” agreed Patty Coyle, now in her fifth full year as head coach of the New York Liberty. “When Richie (Adubato) came into the league (1999), Ronnie Rothstein (2000), and Bill Laimbeer (2002), I thought they were great for our game. Here were guys who — with the exception of Laimbeer – had coached in the NBA for a long time. That helped shape this league, in the sense that they had coached at the pro level and there weren’t any women, at the time this league started, who had.”
“Now you see the people who were their longtime assistants — me, Julie Plank (Washington Mystics), Jenny Boucek (Sacramento Monarchs), and Jennifer Gillom (Minnesota Lynx), who was an assistant just recently — that have put in their time and now are getting a chance. I think it’s great and well deserved.”
THE RISE OF THE “NEW” GUARD
Boucek started in the WNBA as an unpaid assistant for Nancy Darsch and the Washington Mystics in 1999. She’s spent her career coaching in the WNBA because, she said, “It captured my heart.” After four years starting for Debbie Ryan’s Virginia Cavaliers, graduation in 1997 found her back on the court, this time wearing a Cleveland Rockers WNBA uniform.
“Just being part of the inaugural season and seeing the potential of this league to impact the country culturally really hit home with me as a young lady. Grown women were crying at our games,” remembered Boucek. “Little girls, who were wide-eyed, now have a different perception of themselves and their potential, their dreams and their opportunities, not just in sports. They see women getting opportunities that they only knew men to have.”
“And now we have a whole generation of guys who grew up with the WNBA that now have a completely different view of women, too,” she continued. “They grew up looking up to women, respecting women, coming to the games, putting on the jerseys, painting their faces. Now they have a different respect for women that, I pray, will affect their relationships as husbands as fathers. It’s a different generation coming up now with a different view of women.”
Gillom was also a member of the WNBA’s inaugural season, but the journey to top position in Minnesota was not as direct. The two-time All-Star ended her career in 2003 at the age of 39, then coached the girls high school team at Xavier College Preparatory (Phoenix, AZ) for four years. She joined the Lynx staff as an assistant last year, but after Don Zierden unexpectedly resigned, she was elevated to the head position days before the 2009 season opened.
“When I was playing in the WNBA I used to think that I would coach someday. I always had that thought, even as young as sixth grade,” said Gillom, “But man, I did not in my wildest dreams expect to be a head coach this fast,” she laughed. “Seriously, I thought I still had more to learn before I got to this level. I even thought that I had to put in my time at the college level in order to get to the WNBA as a head coach.” Fortunately she discovered that, when thrust into the role, “I actually I knew more than I thought I did. But, had I not been one of the elite players in the league, I don’t know, would it have happened? It’s hard to say. It makes you wonder. It makes you wonder a lot.”
In contrast to Gillom’s experience, Plank’s move into the ranks of professional basketball and up to the head coach position in Washington seemed to have been a smooth series of steps. “I had been in the college game for a long time (1984) and I was interested in having a different challenge,” explained the first-year head coach. “I’ve always been intrigued by working with the very best players and coaching at the highest level and I had great opportunities in college both at Stanford and Vanderbilt.” Then, in 1999, Plank had the chance to serve as assistant coach with Nell Fortner and go to the 2000 Olympics. “With her going to the WNBA with the Fever [in 2001], I just thought it was a natural progression to continue to coach those players who were going from the Olympics to the WNBA. I have been here ever since.”
THE “CHANGING” OF THE “OLD” GUARD
Currently head coach of the Dream, Meadors established the basketball program at Tennessee Tech, and has helped start three WNBA franchises – Charlotte (’97), Miami (’99) and Atlanta (’08). “I think that that has been my call of duty,” she quipped, “to be a starter person.”
That, as well as being an assistant with several of the league’s teams, has given Meadors plenty of opportunity to see how coaching has changed at the professional level. “When we first started this league, we were all college coaches and we ran the college plays,” she explained. “None of us do that anymore. We’re all running sets. We’re always trying to get the ball to the people that we know that can hit the shot.”
“It’s more sophisticated,” added Dunn who, after a long career in the college ranks, has been coaching professionals since 1997. “In college you’re going to defend the two-man game maybe two ways. We’re going to defend it six ways. We’re going to have a counter to every play that we have. We don’t have two offenses, we have 15. It’s like the difference between Basketball 101 and Basketball 505. These players are sophisticated, smart and intelligent, so they grow their knowledge of the game. It’s just more. Much more.”
The WNBA’s compact schedule is also incredibly demanding on coaches. “Where the college games are played over a six-month period, we are putting them in a four-month period,” explained Plank. “In college you have a six-week training camp and here it’s a three-week period. In terms of the scouting of teams, you play two games a week in college. In the pros, we may play 3 or 4. It’s that same pressure to prepare, only speeded up. You need to be very organized. You have to be able to go from one thing to another quickly. You have to be very concise and precise in your planning. And I don’t want to say it isn’t teaching, because it’s very much teaching. But it’s also more strategy and tweaking. What you do game to game, how you’re going to adjust and how you are going to change things.”
“With Richie, when I first came into this league I thought, as a college coach, I had a pretty good grasp of the game,” said Coyle. “With his knowledge and just his whole way of doing things, what I learned was I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. That really opened my eyes. I think when I was back in college, not that I was ‘stagnant,’ but I was stagnant. Or maybe I’ve matured and opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a lot of different ways to do things. I look back to a year ago and I’m a different coach. Five years ago? Forget about it. Coming into this league? It’s like night and day. My coaching style, being around people that I’ve been around, it’s just constantly evolving and for the better, in my opinion. For the better.”
“I know that there are college coaches that would love the challenge of coaching in the WNBA,” noted Dunn. “Who would love the challenge of coaching the very best players. You know, those plays that you run? They work a lot better when talented players execute them. Trust me,” she laughed. “But, not only are you leaving one style of the game to move up to another one, but taking the risk of doing it with limited security. In the WNBA, you win or you leave. You win or you get fired. You get better or you get fired. That’s just the way it is. In college, you play hard, you go to class, you go 0-and-3, you’re not going to be fired. In the pros you might. Men or women, that just the way it is.”
PLAYER TO PLAYER DISCONNECT
Something that has surprised Boucek is how unfamiliar many of the newly drafted college players are with the league’s players. “I have a few that were fans growing up and they love talking about old players that played in college or the WNBA,” said Boucek. “But most of them have never even heard of stars that have been through this league. They don’t know them. And it never even occurred to them that they should know them.”
Her solution? “We have named our post moves after older [female] post players. One of our moves is Katrina [McClain] and one of them is Lucy Harris. I make them Google the names of the players and learn their women’s basketball history.”
“They have great players to look up to,” she added. “You don’t make it to the top 11 players on 13 teams and not be elite in every way. Not just talent. You have got to have great character, great perseverance, great work ethic. These are incredible women. They are great role models for college kids, for high school kids. They play hard, they play the right way. There’s no margin of error. If they don’t, they are not going to stay in the league.”
“I don’t know where the disconnect is, but it could only help the college game if college players were watching these players.”
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
“I think initially people wondered if a women’s professional league would last,” said Dunn. “Now everyone at all levels — family friends, college coaches, high school coaches, everybody that has any interest in women’s basketball — has seen the positive impact that the women’s professional game has had on our sport.” That, of course, won’t guarantee the continued existence of the league – a league that has lost it marquee franchise in the Houston Comets and reduced rosters to 11 to address the current economic challenges.
“I think everybody that is in there now, we all have passion for the game and we have passion for the WNBA,” said Meadors. “That’s why we’re trying to make sure that it’s still around 20 years from now. I know the WNBA is going through some growing pains just like the NBA did when they first started. I think it’s just a matter of staying after it, staying the course and keep trying to make a better.”
But, added Dunn, “I sometimes don’t think that the college coaches realize how fortunate they are to have a women’s professional league and how that motivates young girls, motivates high school players, motivates their players to continue to continue to get better, to continue to strive for the next level.” Those same coaches, she’s noticed, are recognizing the cachet of having a player enter the WNBA. “Let’s take a Kristi Cirone at Illinois State,” she posited. “How did that impact that team and that league, that she was striving for the next level? Megan Frazee at Liberty. How did it affect her team, her conference?”
“That brings you additional media attention, gives value to your program, and you use it in your recruiting,” noted Dunn. “I walk into your locker room and there’s a huge photo of the player that got drafted. Now my question to you is, ‘What are you doing to make sure we’re around 10 years from now?’ We are helping you. You must help us. You must support us. You must invest in our future.”
“I want them to come to the games,” said Dunn. “I want them to buy season tickets. I want them to talk about the women’s professional game anytime they can. Talk about the positive impact it’s having on our game. Share that with corporate sponsors. The last thing we need is a college coach saying, ‘Well I can’t stand the WNBA. I don’t go to the games.’ How does that help? I would never say that about a college game because I love women’s basketball.”
“They stand to lose enormously if this league doesn’t make it. If I were them, I would be doing everything within my power to make sure we make it. And you can quote me on that.”
Rebecca Lobo remembers when she believed she controlled her career – where it would go and when it would end. “Now I understand,” says the New York Liberty’s 6’4″ center, “that’s not always the case.”
In her first two years in the WNBA, Lobo averaged 31 minutes, 12 points and 7 rebounds a game. But in the 1999 season opener she tore her ACL. Twenty-four months and a second ACL tear later, Lobo finally returned to the Liberty’s active roster. In high spirits at the 2001 Media Day, she laughingly demanded 38 minutes and a starting position – though a returning core of forwards, including All-Star Tari Phillips, made it unlikely.
The reality has been harsh: 71 minutes in 13 games.
“I’ve had to adjust my goals as the season has gone along,” Lobo admits. “Instead of saying ‘I want to help this team in 20 minutes a game,’ now it’s, ‘Whenever I’m called on, I have to be ready.'”
However disappointing, Lobo adjusts because she identifies herself as a team player, a role vastly different from the “marquee player” label others have attached to her since the league’s inception. For Lobo, teammate Phillips illustrates the difference perfectly.
“Tari can take anyone one-on-one and score 40 points,” explains Lobo. “I’m not that kind of player. I need someone to set me a pick and get me open so I can get my shot. I need to get some loose balls. It’s not the same kind of game.”
She knows there are people who question her talent, but she’s simply tuned them out. “If it meant sometimes during the season I wouldn’t go near a Sports section,” Lobo grins, “that’s what I had to do.” The appreciation of her teammates and coaches is enough. “When you can come into the locker room, and have [Teresa Weatherspoon] Spoon or Crystal [Robinson] say, ‘That was a big rebound,’ those are the things you play for.”
Ironically enough, while her injuries have stolen time, they’ve also given her a gift.
“I’ve gotten back to the childlike feeling I had when I played basketball for all the right reasons — for just the love of the game. I can, even for a couple of minutes, appreciate the noise the crowd. In the past, it would be ‘Just focus on the game.’ Now it’s, ‘Take a second and realize how cool this is.'”
Entering the WNBA, Lobo felt she had a lot to prove. She still feels the same, if for very different reasons. When will she get the chance? “I don’t know,” she answers, “but I’m going to get it. And when I do, it’s going to be wonderful.”
When New York Liberty coach Richie Adubato asked point guard Andrea Nagy if she’d be willing to exchange her starting position with the Washington Mystics and come to New York to back up all-star Teresa Weatherspoon, she didn’t hesitate.
“For a chance at a WNBA Championship ring?” thought Nagy. In a New York minute.
But, considering the fierce rivalry between Washington and New York, Nagy may have wondered if her new teammates would accept her as quickly. Any doubts were put to rest when, at the end of the first practice, the players huddled at center court to give their ritual “LIBERTY!” Weatherspoon looked her in the eye and said, “Nagy, make sure you’re not saying Mystics!”
Nagy laughs at the memory and revels in the welcome she’s received. For her, the trade is ancient, if somewhat painful, history. At Washington, she remembers feeling that not just the fans, but the organization felt she was the mistake in the Mystics – that she was the reason they couldn’t achieve. And while the Mystics have struggled this season, Nagy won’t second-guess the trade. “They felt like they had to make a change. I got into a better situation.”
A two-year starter in Washington, Nagy has no problem calling herself ‘second string.’ As she sees it, the “only reason I’m going to go in is to give (Weatherspoon) a break so she can rest up and play better.” Early in the season, Nagy has already made an impact. Last season, Weatherspoon averaged almost 36 minutes a game. Currently she averages 28.8.
Nagy also expects to reap the benefits of playing against Weatherspoon every day in practice. But, she reflects, equally important, is that “this is the first time I really have a good relationship with the other point guard. Before I felt like the other point guards on the bench, ‘Ok, I can’t wait until she messes up so I can go in.’ I don’t feel that. I support her, no matter what, and she supports me we when I go in. I cherish that.”
Clearly, the talent on the Liberty and the possibility of a Championship ring drew Nagy to New York. But she seems to have discovered something equally precious in the process. “Our team, ” she muses, “is probably one of the best teams I’ve been on in terms of how much we care about each other”
A free agent this off-season, Crystal Robinson was clear on what brought her back to the New York Liberty. “I re-signed because we’ve been so close. My whole career has been about being the second best,” explained the 5’10” guard. “In college I went to the [NAIA] Nationals three years in a row and lost by one point three years in a row. I did it three times in New York. I owe it to my teammates to try again.”
Of course, Robinson expects her returning teammates to be primed for redemption, especially after missing the post-season for the first time since 1998. “If you can’t come in there and be motivated to regain the face we lost, I really don’t know how much of a fire I can light under you. We were completely embarrassed last year. The only thing I’ve been thinking about is getting better.”
Known for her lightening quick 3-pointers and tenacious defense, Robinson says playing beside Liberty teammate Vickie Johnson in Italy this off-season has helped her both offensively and defensively. “I think people are going to be shocked. I’ve gotten much better and handling the ball. I’ll be able to initiate the break a lot more this year.”
That ball handling skill will come in handy, especially since Teresa Weatherspoon, Liberty icon and 7-year starting point guard, chose to sign with the Los Angeles Sparks. “That’s going to be the strangest thing about the season,” admitted Robinson, “not having Spoon there. Not only as a player, but because we all became very close.” But Robinson’s perspective on Weatherspoon’s decision is clear. “We all need to understand that this is a business. Spoon had to do what she had to do for her. She had to look at this as a business, because I know nobody loves New York more than Spoon.”
That being said, there’s no doubt Weatherspoon’s departure leaves an enormous void. “Just filling Spoon’s leadership role is going to be a task in itself,” said Robinson. “A lot of people are going to have to step into a role that they really haven’t done before.” But, continued Robinson, “I know the people we have — we’re professional athletes. We’re always looking for a challenge and one is presented before us now. It’s going to be a fun season for everyone.”
Boston: WNBA Draft 2006
If Liberty fans suddenly have a love/hate relationship with the University of Georgia, it’s understandable. At this year’s WNBA draft, New York made Georgia guard Sherrill Baker their first-round pick. A few days later they got the news that veteran forward La’Keshia Frett had decided to retire and pursue an assistant coaching career. Where? Georgia, of course, her alma mater. Fans will have an entire season to decide who got the best of that trade.
Sherrill Baker: Some will say the New York Liberty got a “steal” with their choice because the 5’7″ Baker is known for her thievery on the court. Her 149 steals this season broke both the Georgia and SEC single-season records, and she finished her career with a total of 426 steals. Baker’s extraordinary quickness will bring some needed defensive skill and fast break opportunities to the Liberty. While Baker averaged just under 13 points a game for her career, between her junior and senior year she developed a deadly mid-range jump shot and upped her average to 18.7 ppg her final year. She’ll need to add some three-point range to make herself a truly effective WNBA shooting guard.
Brooke Queenan: With their second pick, the Liberty selected Boston College forward Brooke Queenan. In the Eagle’s first season as a member of the ACC, Queenan averaged close to 15 points and 8 rebounds per game, earning her all-ACC honors. A strong, hard-nosed player, her chances to make the team are good, especially with Frett’s retirement. In a conference known for its physical play, she will have to avoid the foul-bug, but can add some much needed grit to a front line looking for an identity.
Christelle N’Garsanet: Entering the draft needing help in every position, the Liberty used their third pick to select center Christelle N’Garsanet. Missouri’s leading rebounder (8.6) and second leading scorer with 13.1 ppg, the 6’3″ N’garsanet will have to fight for a spot, but the off-season attrition could work in her favor. It’s unclear how her skills, in particular her footwork, will match up against other WNBA posts, but under assistant coach Marianne Stanley’s tutelage this Ivory Coast product could turn into a very useful player off the bench.
Ah, spring cleaning. It’s a wonderful thing. Out with the old and unused. A chance to revel in newly discovered space, to consider the future with eager anticipation and innocent optimism.
Of course, that’s only true when you have control of the cleaning. It pretty much stinks when you realize your mom’s come in and thrown out your favorite shirt and your best pair of jeans. That’s sort of what happened to the New York Liberty this past off-season. Free agency and the upcoming World Championships have stripped the team of four of their five starters. Gone are guard Vickie Johnson, small forward Crystal Robinson, and centers Elena Baranova and Ann Wauters.
There is no underestimating the impact of these losses. Johnson, the only remaining player from the Liberty’s inaugural season in 1997, was the quiet leader and steadying influence of the team. The third leading scorer, she also was second on the team in assists. Robinson, though plagued by injuries the past few years, spent the last seven years earning a reputation for timely threes and ferocious defense on players who often outsized her. Baranova led the team in rebounding and kept the opposition honest by shooting .388 from beyond the arc. The young, and ever improving Wauters, earned herself a trip to last year’s all-star game by averaging 13.7 ppg, 6.57 boards and shooting 54% from the field.
In some ways, as the Liberty and the WNBA enter their tenth season – a record for a women’s professional league – it might be said the team has returned to where it started: a recognizable star surrounded by a bunch of players who no one is particularly sure about. In ’97 the “name” was Rebecca Lobo. Now the marquee player is the feisty point guard Becky Hammon. Hammon led the team in points, assists and steals, but now she’ll have to work with a new cast of characters. It’s unclear who will survive training camp, or if there are any steals or surprises in this year’s draft, but one could project the following opening day line up:
Second year guard Loree Moore shakes off an unimpressive rookie year and steps into the point guard position. This frees up Hammon to return to her most effective position of shooting guard. Shameka Christon, now in her third year with the team, raises her game on both ends of the court and seamlessly takes over for Robinson at the three. At power forward would be the steady 7-year veteran La’Keshia Frett, and mid-season pick-up Cathrine Kraayeveld, who wowed fans with her bone-shaking picks and three-point range, moves in as center.
General Manager Carol Blazejowski has promised fans “younger, faster, more athletic players that will grow in our system and be successful for the long term.” Kelly Schumacher, acquired from the Indiana Fever, and free agent Barb Farris bring additional size and experience in to the paint (they’re 28 and 29, respectively), but the Liberty will have to look to training camp invitees for youth. Iciss Tillis, a 6′ 5″ post player out of Duke, as well as Connecticut guard Ashley Battle are intriguing prospects. Battle is known as a high-energy defensive disrupter, but can fall short on offense. While Tillis can shoot the three, she’ll have to shed the reputation of being soft in the block if she’s to make the team, much less an impact. Finally, having the twelfth pick in this year’s draft means the Liberty will have to pay close attention the women’s NCAA tournament and hope that no other team spots a keeper before it their time to choose.
There’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season, but fans may take comfort in one small fact: They’ll no longer be able to complain that coach Patty Coyle doesn’t play her bench, for the simple reason that all her bench players have been upgraded to starters. Of course, this bunch of no-names could do worse than emulate the team from 1997. That group made it all the way to the WNBA Championship game.