For the past four years, my family has bought season tickets to see the New York Liberty women’s basketball team. We were hooked in the end of the 2010 season, when the Liberty made it to the WNBA playoffs behind guard Cappie Pondexter, and 14,000 fans chanted “MVP, MVP” in Madison Square Garden even as the hated Atlanta Dream beat them in heartbreaking fashion.
What followed was exile followed by decline. The Dolans of Cablevision, who own MSG, the Rangers, Knicks and Liberty, decided to renovate the arena during WNBA season for three years. So the family bought our tickets and schlepped out to Newark, where we watched the team get older and more injured and eventually dropped out of contention.
Dolan even hired the (formerly) hated Bill Laimbeer of the 1980s and 90s Detroit Pistons “Nasty Boys” to coach the team, and…it just didn’t work. Even a return to MSG last season with a new star—Center Tina Charles—to work with the ever-intense Cappie, saw a tired and fractured club. They didn’t make the playoffs, and then, in typical New York basketball fashion, didn’t win the ping-pong ball draft lottery to get a top-two draft pick.
And then they did an extraordinarily odd and unaccountable thing: They hired Laimbeer’s former teammate and ex Knicks coach Isiah Thomas to be President of the Liberty and part owner. While that was a head-scratching decision to begin with on merit—Thomas’s reign with the Knicks was risible—it was his departure amidst a sexual harassment scandal that made his Liberty hiring so tin-eared. The Liberty has an executive in waiting in Teresa Weatherspoon—T-Spoon, a former Liberty Star, has been in the front office for years now. She is of the team, and beloved by the fans. Instead they hired a man to run the team whose tenure with the Knicks was so poisonous that there were pages of depositions that described his disrespect for the women who worked for him. On opening night there were 20 people in “Liberate the Liberty” t-shirts picketing outside the Garden calling for his ouster. How could this possibly work?
We decided in the end to keep our season tickets. We love the games. The players, as I’ve said in this space many times, are extraordinary role models for both our daughters and our son; and the fan base is much more relaxed and diverse that the fan base of the Knicks or Rangers. And tickets are around a third as pricey. And the game, as years have passed and more and more players come from big-time women’s college basketball programs, has gotten better and better.
So tonight was our first game of the season. Over the past off-season, in a sad but probably strategically advantageous move, the Liberty traded away Cappie and several other core players. It was a new bunch, and they had been blown out of their preseason games. Our expectations, I will tell you, were low.
And then the Liberty went out and blew out the Indiana Fever. Tina Charles was outstanding. But what gave us hope, what made us want to come back not just because we are fans and that’s what you do, is that the young players, drafted out of Cal Berkley (Brittany Boyd) and U Conn (Kiah Stokes), were extraordinarily strong, gifted, and energetic. There is depth and talent, and it was without Epiphany Prince, the star on the other side of the Cappie Pondexter trade. The players were bouncing down the court, rather than wheezing. And the Garden was rocking more than it did through the entire wretched Knicks season (there is a reasonable chance that the Liberty, in a 34 game season, will win more games this year than the Knicks did over 82 games this year).
I know this isn’t a publishing column. But on the other hand, it’s about passion and entertainment and family and the business of leisure. There are similar challenges in marketing the WNBA to trying to sell mysteries or middle grade fantasies. And in the same way that I want my column to make people read books, I want them to watch women’s basketball. I’ve got the season tickets—if you want to come with me (and I know you! Yes, that’s important too…) let me know. I’ll buy the beer.