With women’s basketball having recently bounced waywardly through the news and rain pounding down on our quadrant of the country, seems as good a time as any to mention that my last Girl of Summer has left the building.
So to speak.
The New York Liberty the week before last traded Becky Hammon to the San Antonio Silver Stars. They’ve received some very tall, reportedly talented young woman in exchange. I’m deeply sorry they did.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Liberty and maybe even Hammon. They’re in the WNBA, the ten-year-old women’s basketball league I used to follow mostly a little, occasionally a lot. I used to follow any number of teams and sports that I don’t much keep up on anymore, but this one was kind of special. From 1997 to 2002, there was an unspoken simpatico between the Liberty and the Mets. The Liberty didn’t know about it. The Mets didn’t know about it. The only ones who knew about it were Stephanie and me.
On a lark, we went to one of their games at the Garden. It was like at first sight. What was there not to like? Liberty games were bright and vibrant, lots of good-natured folks, often with families, who couldn’t afford tickets to Knicks games or didn’t buy tickets to Mets games and probably didn’t feel comfortable coming out to most games.
We liked the prices. We liked the timeout shtick when they’d bring girls and boys onto the court to play musical chairs. We liked the t-shirts with shades of blue and orange. We liked Maddie (short for Madison) the overgrown, overstuffed doggie mascot. We liked the accessibility of it all: Don our Liberty gear (I topped mine with a Mets cap), hop on a train, watch a competitive basketball game played below the rim, cheer for a team called New York with a blank slate. The Liberty brought back for me the best of what I liked about basketball as a kid, evoking my lost passions for the Reed-Frazier Knicks (going to the Garden for and caring about a sport I once loved on a par with baseball) and the Dr. J Nets (the multitoned ball of the ABA and the sensation of being in on a thing that most people weren’t).
If we didn’t become Liberty diehards, we followed the team moderately to closely. We got to know the identities of the players. I squinted mentally and saw parallel Mets where I could. The face of the franchise was Teresa Weatherspoon, always smiling, always chatting, always finding the camera. She was Al Leiter. The other Spoon — Serving Spoon to Teresa’s T-Spoon — was Sophia Witherspoon. Sophie. Sophie wore No. 13. Overshadowed by Teresa (who was, at first, overshadowed by Rebecca Lobo whose 50 adorned the souvenir jerseys of hundreds of little suburban girls who didn’t care that she was almost always injured), Sophie became our favorite. My Fonzie. A picture exists of Stephanie and me in “dueling” 13s, lovetapping one another with the long teal foam spoons they gave out one night. SPOONS STIR UP THE GARDEN, I think they said.
Sue Wicks was the calm veteran presence…Robin Ventura for sure. Vickie Johnson moved beautifully and didn’t get much press. Had to be John Olerud. Kym Hampton was strong in the middle, not a perfect Piazza allegory, but close enough. Crystal Robinson nailed three-pointers like Rey Ordoñez stopped ground balls. Tamika Whitmore, a young, bruising, powerful player who had much to learn — I could have sworn Butch Huskey had left town.
The Liberty of the late ’90s and early ’00s could have used another slugger in the middle of their lineup. Or perhaps one more good arm. Sound familiar? The Liberty were Metlike and the Mets were Libertylike in their shared habit of coming so close that we could taste it and falling just short enough to leave us emotionally drained.
The Mets had their Braves and Yankees to overcome. The Liberty had one rolled into both, the Houston Comets. There was a time when I hated the Houston Comets. The Comets were the enemy. They had that one player who you had to respect (Cynthia Cooper = Greg Maddux), that one player you couldn’t stand to look at (Sheryl Swoopes = Chipper Jones), that one thing you couldn’t do anything about (beating the Comets = going to Turner Field). The Comets won the WNBA championship every year when the league started. They always seemed to do it at the expense of the Liberty.
It was hell. It was extra hell for those of us who had all the hell we could handle from being the Mets who failed to beat the Braves and Yankees when it most severely counted. Because we got to know the Liberty as our Girls of Summer, we couldn’t just come for the foam spoons and go home. We felt for them. We wanted them to win.
In late August 1999, it looked like it might happen. Stephanie and I excitedly attended our first playoff game (my first since the Knicks and Lakers in ’73). It was against the Charlotte Sting. I could hate the Sting for a couple of nights. Sports fans can do that. The hate translated to elation. The Liberty beat Charlotte on a Sunday night. Won the series on a Monday night. We were going to the championship!
Stephanie secured tickets for Game One at MSG. Of course it was against the Comets, best of three. First here, then two in Houston. Houston was favored. Houston was always favored. Wow did I hate them. I’ll bet Swoopes’ real name was Larry.
We saw the Liberty lose for the first time in our three years of rooting for them in person. We went home unhappy. We were down 0-1 and the teams were traveling to Texas. If we couldn’t beat our bitter rivals on our own turf, what were the chances we could do anything against them in their den of horrors? (Fucking Braves…I mean Comets.)
Saturday afternoon. September 4, 1999. Four o’clock start. And we’re getting slaughtered. We were down a lot at the half. The Comets were cruising to a series sweep. I bolted to catch a train to Shea, a Saturday night game with Joe versus the Rockies. Didn’t like deserting the sinking ship and leaving Stephanie to fend for herself, but the Liberty were going to be over soon enough.
Liberty games were broadcast on WWRL then but for some reason that station hadn’t picked up the finals. There was no radio. Not much to hear, I imagined. Still, I needed closure. When Joe and I arrived at Shea, I sought out a pay phone (this was my last Sprintless summer) and called Stephanie for the bad news.
“How did the Liberty do?”
Poor, delusional wife of mine, I thought. She really hasn’t grasped how sports works.
“What do you mean they won?”
“They came back.”
“What? What happened?”
What happened was a furious New York rally that left the Liberty down by two with the clock rushing down to zero. Houston’s arena management, never having read how Dewey defeated Truman, released championship confetti from the rafters. It fell all over Teresa Weatherspoon as she heaved a desperation shot from beyond mid-court. A prayer, they call it in basketball.
It went in. Teresa Weatherspoon drilled a three-pointer from what had to be 60+ feet away and the Liberty won. They extended the series.
A miracle. Amazing. And it happened at Shea, home office of miracles and amazing.
No, technically, it didn’t happen at Shea, but that’s where I learned of it, that’s where Stephanie and I shared the most delirious, most delightful, most delicious sports moment we’d gone through together since the Giants won Super Bowl XXV and we cashed in big on an office pool, even if this was over the phone and after the fact. The Liberty’s eventual series loss was neither surprising nor diminishing. We had Norwood wide right. Now we had Teresa and the shot. With any luck, as 1999 pushed ahead, we’d have some Mets moments to match them.
I returned to my seat, where Joe was dutifully filling out the lineups in his scorebook. I told him the Liberty won. It didn’t pierce his consciousness. Not that much does when Joe is focused on his scorebook, but in this case, I was the one with his head somewhere else. Nobody at Shea that night probably gave much thought to the New York Liberty, but I did. That Al Leiter pitched us to a win on the strength of a Fonzie homer made it all the better — a cross-gender, pan-ball doubleheader sweep. We stayed on the Braves’ heels and we evened our series with the Comets.
That’s right, they were both we. In my mind, T-Spoon hit a home run.
Becky Hammon? She was a rookie in ’99. She’d start playing more in 2000 and eventually, as the Libs we knew retired or were traded (something that seemed untoward, but the WNBA is a professional sports league), she became the face of the franchise. I didn’t really have a parallel Met for Becky Hammon back in the day, but I guess with the teeth she flashed and the squeals she elicited she was soon enough more or less David Wright. Except the Liberty went from good to bad on Becky’s watch and we stopped paying attention because with Vickie and Sue and Kym and Rebecca and Tamika and Crystal and Sophie and T-Spoon no longer in residence at the Garden, it just wasn’t the same.
Still, as long as Becky was handling the ball and making the plays and showing up on the next generation of Liberty fans’ backs, we had a connection to those New York Liberty we, it is not farfetched to say, loved. And as long we could connect to those Liberty, we still had an active thread that connected us to the Bobby V, Mike and Al, Robin and Rey-O, Reeder and Fonzie and Oly and Benny and so on Mets who we also loved. We had one 1999 Liberty/Met still in our midst.
Now we don’t.