The World’s Most Famous Arena. Madison Square Garden, home of New York’s storied, if not always successful sports teams. One of those teams, the New York Liberty, opened its 14th season today versus the Chicago Sky in the great arena, and I was on hand as a women’s basketball novice to take it all in.
I’ve been to games at MSG before, some collegiate, some NBA, all men’s teams. When I was in middle school in Virginia, I once caught a Washington Mystics game, but the only thing I remembered about it was the free t-shirt I got. I’ve been surrounded by men’s basketball for so long that the bias against the WNBA had rubbed off on me, and I came to this game expecting to see a nice game of basketball, but not much more. My knowledge about the Liberty was limited to the press clippings I’d read and the other stories posted on SwishAppeal, so I knew they had just acquired three star players and were hoping to be able to ride their new all-stars into the post season. From what I could gather, there was some question as to how quickly the team would be able to find that on-court chemistry which is so vital to success. I figured I’d keep an eye out for how the team seemed to be responding to one another after such a short time playing together.
I settled into my seat 20 minutes before tip off, surprised by how the arena was filling up for a 4:00pm game on a Sunday. All around me, children chattered excitedly, and fans decked out head to toe in Liberty gear made their way to their seats in the huge building. Never a venue short on pizzazz, MSG pulled out all the stops for their beloved Liberty. Pre-game videos featured the players, an enthusiastic mascot interacted with delighted kids, loud, catchy music pumped up the crowd, and that same electricity in the air that I felt before the Knicks games I’d seen pulsated through the arena. Ok, so maybe this could be fun.
Before the game started, the three new acquisitions, Taj McWilliams-Franklin (Detroit), Nicole Powell (Sacramento) and Cappie Pondexter (Phoenix) took center court and each took a turn thanking the crowd, who responded with deafening cheers for their new players. While the women may not have settled into their new home yet, the home crowd had certainly settled on them.
The first thing I noticed that was strikingly different from the men’s games I’d seen was the lack of animosity towards the opposing team. Yes, the Chicago Sky had two of the Liberty’s players whom they had recently traded for, but not one boo was uttered during the announcement of their lineup. Good sportsmanship? Preposterous. I prepared myself for a quiet game of basketball, where I’d root silently for the team I was covering but wouldn’t expect to get too excited.
The first points for the Liberty were scored by new center Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who pulled up for a three. Guard Cappie Pondexter made her first shot, and she was followed by forward Nicole Powell who hit a long jumper. Leilani Mitchell was finding her new teammates and dishing out dimes like they had done it a few times before. It was impressive, considering Nicole had literally gotten off a plane from Europe and shown up at practice the following day, a mere two days before the game. Welcome to New York, ladies.
The quarter was pretty even between the two teams, both committing 4 turnovers, both taking outside shots. The Liberty pulled ahead by 6 halfway through the quarter, but two quick threes from Jia Perkins and Shameka Christon of the Sky brought the game back to a tie, and the teams stayed neck and neck for the rest of the period.
The biggest difference in the second quarter was the sudden inside presence. The Liberty went from zero points in the paint in the first quarter to 18 in the second quarter. Kia Vaughn provided some of that spark, coming in off the bench for 6 points in 6 minutes. Cappie, who’d kept her focus on scoring in the first quarter, dished out 4 assists in the second. As a result, the Liberty had nearly twice as many dimes in the second quarter, which I think showed a level of comfort developing on the court.
Another key shift was the pace at which the ladies played -- suddenly a run and gun offense showed up, with 7 points coming off of fast breaks. It was like watching a team get used to one another before our very eyes. With the increase in speed on the court came an increase in enthusiasm in the stands. I’ve been at big games and I’ve been to playoff games. This crowd of young kids and families matched the intensity of those games with half as many people. The difference here was that the enthusiasm came from successful execution of plays, not showboating passes or big flashy dunks.
The third quarter was where the Liberty really came to life, and they played with an energy that I think they were drawing from the crowd. I’m sure it helped that the Sky only shot 20% in the quarter, while the Liberty shot 50%. Cappie and Leilani were moving the ball well, and the team was able to capitalize on sloppy play by Chicago to score 21 points in the quarter to Chicago’s 9. When the 3rd period ended, it was at that point that I noticed I had moved to the edge of my seat and was mumbling directives to the players under my breath. Apparently I was more into the game than I thought.
Another thing I had to get used to was the brief nature of the women’s game. The 10-minute quarters flew by, and the game was coming to an end before I was ready. Lucky for me, there was plenty of drama provided in the final quarter to keep me interested. Basketball, no matter who is playing it, is a game of runs. The Liberty had theirs in the third, and the Sky came right back with a surge in the fourth. Shots that had been falling for New York were suddenly hitting iron, or missing altogether. A few passes went astray, suggesting a lapse in communication. Still, Cappie found a way to make plays, so even though the Sky climbed to within two, the Liberty never seemed to lose energy enough to lose the lead.
In the last moments of the game, with New York up only by 4, Dominique Canty hit a timely three to bring Chicago to within one point. There was immediate question as to whether or not her foot had been on the line, so the air was literally sucked out of the arena as the fans anxiously awaited the result of the official review. The call on the floor stood, and the lead stayed precariously at 1 point. Taj was fouled on the ensuing inbound, and with the cool confidence of a veteran, the oldest player in the WNBA hit both shots to seal the deal, giving her new team their first victory of the season to thunderous cheers from her new home crowd.
The team had plenty to say about the need to play well with one another even after so brief an introduction. Coach Anne Donovan didn’t seem too worried about having to come together quickly: "That’s why I love this team. As much as we’ve added new personnel, championship experience, all-star experience we haven’t added anybody that’s not a team player…that’s what’s gonna make this team special. Although we have great individual talent, that’s not what’s gonna win us a championship."
And Donovan’s new personnel, while recognizing that they still need to work out some kinks, seemed hopeful. Cappie said, when asked what she thought about the team’s chemistry, that she didn’t "think it looked too good. All eleven of us have only played together two days, and I think in time it’ll get better. Each game it will get better. We’ll be alright." Taj agreed, noting, "It’s (the chemistry) not great, it’s not where it’s gonna be in five or ten games… It’ll look better, and it’ll look worse, so it’s always a work in progress."
However they, like me, seemed excited about the opportunity to be a part of such an historical franchise in such a storied arena. In the 14 years this team has existed, it has never won it all. Cappie, when I asked how it felt to play here in Madison Square Garden, said, "I wanna give back. I wanna bring a championship here."
I felt a little bit like we were in the same position -- while Cappie’s presence in Madison Square Garden is much more vital than mine, I know we’re both excited to be starting something new, taking a new journey, hoping to come out of it all a little more accomplished than when we went in.
As I left the arena, feeling incredibly excited about this new passion for a game about which I knew so little, I saw the little girls in their Liberty jerseys, waiting outside to see their idols and cheer them on, and I couldn’t help but smile. It may be a man’s world, but this is a woman’s game. And I could definitely get into that.