Liberty: Looking forward instead of back?

This weekend at Madison Square Garden, the Liberty games had that “old-fashioned” feel to them. Mind you, in this case I’m referring to “old-fashioned” being the late ’90s-early 2000s.

The atmosphere at MSG hasn’t been as good in recent years as it used to be, back when the Liberty had several players who were fan favorites for a variety of reasons. There were the Becky Hammon worshippers, the Teresa Weatherspoon devotees, the Kym Hampton group, the Vickie Johnson backers, the Sue Wicks posse. And we don’t want to leave out those Lib fans who picked Crystal Robinson or Tamika Whitmore as their favorite, either.

There was just this cult of personality for the Liberty, and they played good basketball, too. The team had support from a pretty diverse audience, and there was a feeling that games were events in a way that wasn’t necessarily the case in most other WNBA cities. Hey, it was New York.

That didn’t evaporate when, one by one, all of the above-mentioned players left, via trades or retirement. But it understandably was hard for Lib fans not to keep looking backward and thinking that the way things used to be was so much better.

It hasn’t helped that many Liberty fans feel that GM Carol Blazejowski and the rest of the New York brass haven’t ever communicated well with them, or even cared to. Those fans now, for instance, are waiting to hear the official announcement about where the Liberty will play during the next two to three seasons as the Garden is being renovated. And the sad thing is, fans seem to actually expect that it will be handled as ham-handedly as possible for an organization that should be all about customer service and building/maintaining goodwill.

It’s almost as if Lib fans have this dark humor about every possible issue that comes up with the franchise: “OK, how will they manage to make this inexplicably difficult and be as dismissive as possible toward us, all while assuring us how much they ‘appreciate’ us?”

(There’s a reason that Lib fans write the most scathingly funny critiques of their team.)

But … maybe this season there is something that’s truly getting closer to the “old” Liberty feel. Which is not to suggest that the Liberty fans have been nothing but glum the last several years. That would be a misleading oversimplification. After all, New York made the Eastern Conference finals just two years ago, losing to Detroit. The franchise definitely has had its good moments in the past few years (although not too many last year during a 13-21 season.)

However, this Liberty team, which is fighting to make the playoffs and just grabbed (for now) the No. 4 spot in the East, has – I think _ the most talented player the franchise has ever had in Cappie Pondexter. She deserves to be on the list of 2010 MVP candidates and is the type of star player that a franchise in a place such as New York needs.

Plus, the Liberty have an old-school favorite (Taj McWilliams-Franklin), a Mighty Mite who beat the odds to become a WNBA starter (Leilani Mitchell), a kick-some-butt-off-the-bench brigade (Plenette Pierson, Kalana Greene and Essence Carson), a kind of enigmatic player who’s still beloved  (Janel McCarville), and a shooter who’s struggling but still might hit the big shot at any time (Nicole Powell.)

Whatever their gripes with the New York front office or the league office or life in general, the Lib fans always find things to love about their players. But there’s a sense that this 2010 group just might be ingratiating itself in a special way that may be like the old days.

There was so much change in the off-season, some of which continued when the season started, such as attaining Pierson in a trade. It’s taken the Liberty players some time to find themselves individually and collectively. That process is on-going.

As manic as the Eastern Conference has been this season, one has to be careful about making sweeping statements about anything. So just because the Liberty has won three in a row, it may not be time to proclaim they have “turned a corner.” Because in a week, that could look like a stupid statement.

However, there was just a neat feeling inside the Garden this past weekend. It helped that “Liberty Legend” Teresa Weatherspoon – now head coach at Louisiana Tech and an inductee into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this summer – was visiting NYC and took in Friday’s and Sunday’s games at courtside. Both times, the Liberty were trailing after three quarters, and T-Spoon got a microphone before the start of the final stanza to rev up the fans.

“Let’s do this New York style!!!!!!!!!!!” T-Spoon implored. And it seemed to help. At any rate, the Liberty came back and played well in the fourth quarter both games, getting crucial victories over the Sparks and Sun.

So while we have to acknowledge that there’s still plenty of time for things to fall apart again in 2010 for the Liberty, but it doesn’t feel like that’s going to happen. Instead it feels like some really things, while not necessarily probable, are at least possible for the Liberty.

And that in itself, especially compared to a year ago, might make even the most nostalgic Liberty fans smile.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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One Response to Liberty: Looking forward instead of back?

  1. Stacey says:

    Yup, I’m one of those season subscribers, from the very beginning (has it really been 14 years?), that is waiting to see what happens in the next few years. The one time we have been notified about the move was after the NY Times wrote about it. If the Liberty don’t provide some sort of shuttle bus service a lot of New Yorker’s won’t be making the trek to Jersey.