Sunday, May 3, 2009
The 1997 Liberty before their semifinal game against the Mercury.
1997 New York Liberty
W/L: 17-11, second in the Eastern Conference
Pythagorean W/L: 17-11
Points Scored Per Game: 68.3
Points Allowed Per Game: 65.9
PG: Teresa Weatherspoon
SG: Sophia Witherspoon
SF: Vickie Johnson
PF: Kym Hampton
C: Rebecca Lobo
Last of the 1997 Liberty to leave: Vickie Johnson would remain with the Liberty until the end of the 2005 season.
Last survivor: Johnson, who landed in 2006 with the San Antonio Silver Stars and is still playing there.
As the New York Liberty was one of the very first teams to choose a player, they decided to pick Rebecca Lobo, a center out of Connecticut. New York would choose a name and logo for their team in February 1997, which brought a smile to Lobo's face. Rebecca Lobo stated that her coach at Connecticut, Geno Auriemma, complained that Lobo played the "Statue of Liberty" defense - "one arm up, and I didn't move". Offensive players, in Geno's mind, would just drive around an immobile Lobo to the basket.
Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski wanted to build a team of veterans, figuring that experience and defensive strength would be the key to dominating in a league with only three weeks of practice before the first game. Nancy Darsch was hired to be the Libs first coach. Supposedly, the first Liberty roster had 48 years of experience playing professionally overseas. Half of the players on the first Liberty team were over 30 years old. Blazejowski's choice of an experienced roster might have also had to do with the fact that Lobo struggled when playing on the US National Team in 1996.
The Liberty played in the very first game of the WNBA, against the Los Angeles Sparks. That game was played in Los Angeles, and the Liberty won that game on the road. The won the first three games on the road, and then came back to Madison Square Garden to a crowd of 17,780 to win their first home game against the Phoenix Mercury 65-57.
All in all, the Liberty gelled quickly. They won their first seven regular season games and 10 of their first 12 to take the lead in the Eastern Conference. It seemed that New York would simply dominate the WNBA all the way to the championship. There was a lot of pressure on Rebecca Lobo to be great that first year, and Teresa Weatherspoon became the leader of the franchise with her excellent play and charismatic personality.
Unfortunately, the lead began to fall apart. Despite their first three road games, the Liberty's early schedule was tilted towards home games. With their experience, the Liberty marched out to an early lead but the other WNBA teams soon came together and the Liberty would lose 7 of 9 at the end, with five of those losses being road losses. The Liberty had had the good fortune to play most of their games against the Comets early in the year when the Liberty was the more cohesive team but when the Comets arrived at Madison Square Garden on August 17th, things were much different: the Liberty lost 70-55 in a game where they shot 32.3 percent against visiting Houston.
They would lose first place and lose home field advantage, and never get it back. To add to the swoon, the Utah Starzz would snap a six-game losing streak against the Liberty on August 20th.
Despite all of that, the Liberty still finished one game behind the Comets and had the second best record in the WNBA. They would go to the playoffs (in 1997, the playoffs were single-game eliminations) and face the Western Conference champion Phoenix Mercury in the first game of the semi-finals. With each conference champion getting home-field advantage, New York would have to go on the road.
Kym Hampton scored a double-double against the Mercury in that single elimination game in Phoenix, springboarding the Liberty into the championship game with a 59-41 win at America West Arena. It was the lowest-scoring game of the WNBA that year, with Phoenix's Michelle Timms going 1-for-11 in shooting. Hampton and Lobo dominated play on the inside, the Liberty started the game 6-0 and they never looked back.
Against Houston, however, it was a different story. Lobo found Tammy Jackson and Tina Thompson more formidable than Jennifer Gillom, and Houston managed to stymie Lobo near the boards - Lobo would score nine rebounds but only one offensive board. New York was down only by four points at halftime, 28-24, but had no answer for the duo of Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson. Over a nine minute-period during the second half, the Liberty scored only four points, and the hopes of a 1997 championship would die in Houston.
Interesting facts: Prior to their first season, the New York franchise purchased all of the indicia of a failed basketball league called the Liberty Basketball Association, to avoid lawsuits.
From an article by Lisa Olson about that August Houston-New York game: " Mostly, though, this was the Cynthia Cooper Show. Playing on a bum knee and a weak ankle, and with the knowledge that her mother has cancer, Cooper had a game-high 17 points and did everything she could to get under Weatherspoon's skin. Toward the end of the game, when it was clear the Liberty had relinquished their first-place hold to the Comets, Weatherspoon was hit with a technical when she "removed" Cooper's hand from her body."