Margaret Martinez did her best, but she knew she had to work her game. Her 8-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, had fallen in love with the defense of rookie Liberty Didi Richards and her hairstyle – two Afro puffs full of by train. When Martinez couldn’t fully understand Mackenzie’s puffs, she reached out to Richards on social media.
“Do you have any advice on how I can improve myself?” Martinez asked on Twitter, attaching a photo of Mackenzie, in a Richards swimsuit, with matching puffs.
Richards tweeted back some advice on technique – water, frost and edge control – and added: “give it two hits and BOOM!”
Boom. Connection established. Martinez, who grew up loving Liberty first teams, and his daughter will watch when the Liberties celebrate their 25th anniversary by honoring the team’s pioneers in three home games this week. For all the accomplishments of those early teams, including three trips to the WNBA Finals in the league’s first four years, perhaps the 1997 team’s most enduring legacy is the bond its players had. with fans, even in the dinosaur era before social media.
“We had a magical moment in time and the people in the stands were a part of it, especially the women and the young fans,” said Sue Wicks, who led the team on burns to the ground and signed autographs.
Wicks will be back in front of that crowd, as will Kym Hampton, Rebecca Lobo and Teresa Weatherspoon, albeit at Barclays Center instead of Madison Square Garden. (The team was sold to Nets owner Joe Tsai in 2019.) The only base players who will be missing from the inaugural squad: Vickie Johnson, head coach of the Dallas Wings, and Sophia Witherspoon, a United States assistant United. National Women’s Under-16 Team.
“It was a brotherhood,” Johnson said.
Ahead of Wednesday’s game against Phoenix, Hampton, an accomplished singer, will perform the national anthem. During her three years with the Liberty, she sang the anthem before the last home game of the regular season.
“We were holding hands and she gave us chills every time she sang,” Weatherspoon said.
After playing professionally abroad for a dozen years, Hampton returned home for the league launch and scored the Liberty’s first basket in the inaugural WNBA game on June 21, 1997, a victory of Liberty.
Over the past quarter century, the league has struggled to find its place in mainstream sports, grown in talent, and succeeded in the “if you can see it, you can be it” department. “We knew the league had the potential to allow little girls like my daughter to aspire to be professional basketball players,” said Hampton.
Hampton has spent the last few weeks on the AAU basketball circuit, crisscrossing the country with his daughter, A’riel Jackson, a highly recruited guard from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn.
Jackson attended her first Liberty game when she was 2 days old. “Her little umbilical cord fell off at the end of the game, which is a crazy thing. So she has a lot of history there, ”Hampton said with a laugh.
Hampton, Wicks and Weatherspoon were all in their thirties when the WNBA started, an age when they had more basketball behind them than in front of them. What if their careers ended in darkness in a small gymnasium in Russia or Hungary rather than in front of a noisy Madison Square Garden?
Wicks remembered facing Weatherspoon, known as Spoon, in a wet gym in Italy in 1988. Weatherspoon was all muscle and energy. “The uniform they gave her was like a high school uniform, tight in every spot and she was hitting the ground, playing defense, slipping on the pitch, outperforming the players,” Wicks said. “She was just that strength, that exuberant personality.”
Wicks then remembered thinking, “She needs a bigger stage.” It was like she was that leading movie star in this little indie flick, but not just in the background. She was stealing every scene, making you think, ‘What is she doing in this movie?'”
New York City was a perfect fit for Weatherspoon, a point guard from Pineland, Texas. (Population: 850) She spoke like a preacher, spoke when the game was on, and jumped onto the scorer’s table to celebrate with the crowd.
Weatherspoon’s passion hasn’t changed now that she’s 55 and an assistant coach for the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA – and resident whisperer of Zion Williams. Now a whole new generation is discovering Spoon. A pelicans video in which she told a story about returning home after winning a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics has been seen over 1.5 million times.
In the clip, Spoon re-enacted how she knocked on a former coach’s door after midnight upon her return from the Seoul Games. “The coach who told me in eighth that I would never be great, I took that medal off my neck and he opened the door and I said BANG!” she said, pushing her right palm and her imaginary medal towards the camera lens. She added, “You cannot allow someone to tell you who you are and what you cannot become. “
For those who know them best, what happened to the core members of the Liberty team in 1997 is not surprising. A collection of trainers. A jazz singer. A senior ESPN analyst. And… an oyster farmer.
At the eastern end of Long Island, Wicks plies the same waters as previous generations. “The Wicks family worked on the water,” she said. “My dad was a bayman, my grandfather was a boatbuilder, my great-grandfather a captain, my great-great-grandfather a rum racer. “
Wicks has always been a study of contrast – a dreamer and pragmatist, with a soft, assertive voice, light on her feet but heavy under the basket. Over twenty years ago, she wondered why crews flew commercial, given that travel delays affected performance; it’s still a problem for this year’s team, who suffered multiple delays on a return flight from Indianapolis. She also asked why WNBA marketing focused on the personal lives of the only straight players in the league.
Wicks has managed to be ahead of his time and his time. When a magazine reporter asked her neutrally in 2002 if she was gay, she responded just as directly and became the first openly gay professional basketball player.
“You never hear from a player again like it’s an admission about this terrible thing. Now it’s a celebration of love, that they are getting married. And I’m like, wow , they’ve really turned it around, “Wicks said.” It’s like I’m not dating, but I will announce that my child is going to be born with my partner. It’s fantastic. I wish it was there. perspective at that time.
After retiring from Liberty, Wicks coached college basketball, including a stint at Rutgers, his alma mater, and founded a fitness business before returning to the water. His commute to work is now a walk across the street to his dock on the bay. Wearing purple-colored waders and crocs one recent day, she steered her 24-foot boat through the salty air of Moriches Bay to the floating cages of her oyster farm, Violet Cove Oysters. Wicks and his two crew members hand-picked each oyster and left the bay with 2,500 to deliver to two restaurants and a wholesaler.
Wicks finds poetry by wading through waist-deep water on a freezing February morning or turning the cages over on a July afternoon. After months of chemotherapy for breast cancer, she is not completely herself but is happy to find the same sea weed in which she grew up.
“At 54, I probably shouldn’t break my back,” Wicks said. “But there is something in the value of hard work, something very honest. Why do this? I felt the same about basketball and loved it just as much. Like playing basketball when you are in your flow space, there is a meditative quality to doing this. You hear a bird, smell the salt, there’s this symphony going around you and you lift your head and look and then go back. It’s a constant reminder to breathe everything.