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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Basketball

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Last cheesy Liberty title, I promise.

This past Sunday marked my sixth and final game covering the New York Liberty as a blogger for SwishAppeal. At the end of the month, I will be moving back down to Northern Virginia, where I will begin my coverage of the Washington Mystics, my hometown team. Six games may not seem like much for those of you who have been following the sport of women’s basketball since it began over a decade ago, but I learned so much during my brief time with the Liberty that it feels like I’ve been doing this for much longer. My very first piece was about my surprise at the excitement and enthusiasm present in the WNBA, and how eager I was to follow the sport more closely. I distinctly remember how amused I was by the fans at my first game; they were just as rabid, if not more so, than the fans I’d encountered following men’s basketball. My final Liberty piece will be about the fans as well, but this time, I will count myself among them.

If anyone has read my other posts, they know I like to rant a bit about how I think the Liberty should play their game. Part of that stems from the fact that I can see the way they play when they are successful, so I get confused when they abandon that style of basketball. The other reason I rant is because I’m rooting for the Liberty. I want them to win, and not just because the locker room is really uncomfortable after a loss. People ask me why I get so into basketball and my response is always the same: my mantra is go hard, or go home. I am an intense person by nature, which is probably why I could never play sports, and why I’ve always loved watching them.

 

During the first five games, I attentively took notes during each quarter, marking down big plays so I could go back to them later and piece together some sort of recap. I tried to come into each match-up with some sort of story line worked out in my head, mostly so I knew what to pay attention to since the game can be overwhelming to take in all at once. I decided for this game that I was going to watch the action and write on the game thread, and that was it. I was going to let myself be absorbed by the drama and be a fan, even though I had to keep my composure while sitting in the press box. Apparently I picked a good game to end on, because it had all the drama of a WNBA final. At least in the last quarter. The first three were mediocre at best. While in previous games, the Liberty seemed only able to churn out three decent quarters of basketball, in this contest they really only had one. Fortunately for all of us, it was the final quarter, and what a quarter it was.

The Liberty, who started the fourth period down 39-45, began with an 11-2 run. A couple of steals and some fast-break layups later (see? It DOES work!), the game was tied at 50 with just under three minutes to play. If you read the recap of the game, you’ll know that Cappie Pondexter had herself quite a night. She had 9 of her 30 points in the fourth, including the jumpshot that put the Liberty up for good. Every play that brought the ladies closer to victory brought more and more fans to their feet, and when the final buzzer rang, signifying the win, Madison Square Garden was rocking with somewhere around 9,000 ecstatic fans, myself included. Well, I was feeling ecstatic, but of course I maintained my composure.

As I made my way down the stands to the locker room, I had my one question that I planned to ask all the players written down on a pad of paper (I learned, Q!) It was the same question I had asked Coach Donovan before the game: what would you want the fans to know about this team that they wouldn’t be able to know just by watching the games? The answers I got from those that were willing to answer (some of the players are just quiet ladies) were all pretty much along the same lines. This is a team full of hard workers, and women who care immensely about the game. They appreciate the fans, and they want to win it for the people who come support them.

What impresses Coach Donovan so much is, "how hard they work, how professional they are, how ready they come to work every day, and how committed they are to winning. You know, I think people show up and watch us play, maybe watch us lose a game and they don’t know how much this team takes that to heart and how much it bothers us. So I think that’s what I would want the public to know; is just how committed this group is to winning and how much confidence I have in them." Nicole Powell agreed, saying, "I just think we’ve got a great group of women here that are willing to do whatever it takes to win. And every day we’re putting in the work to try to make that happen, whether it’s on the court, bonding, video, in the weight room; everybody in here is committed to doing whatever it takes."

Along the same lines of Coach Donovan’s point about the players being affected by every loss, Janel McCarville told me, "We’re people just like everybody else. On the court we’re players, but off the court we’re people. Even on the court, we have feelings; certain things that are said and things that happen affect us. It’s not like we’re out there just going through the motions. Things really break down for us, and it might not look good at all times, but we still are not trying to look the way we look at times." So while it’s ok for us, as fans, to rant and rave about how we think they should be playing, I suppose it’s important to remember that they are the ones getting paid to play, and they are the ones who have to suffer through every loss with the weight of it on their shoulders.

Before coming to the 8-9 Liberty, Cappie Pondexter had been at the top. During her three years in Phoenix, she helped them win two championships. To then come to a team that currently sits among the bottom teams in the East must be a difficult transition. When I asked her the question, she answered, "Honestly, we work really hard in practice. You know, we practice a lot. I’ve been on two different teams and from experiencing those two teams, we practice really, really hard. And I want the fans to know that even though our work hasn’t shown for it, we’re definitely working hard. And hopefully the second half it’ll turn around." Taj McWilliams-Frankin’s thoughts on how to turn the season around as the playoffs approach? "We’re trying to play as hard as we can out there for New York Liberty fans. Keep ‘em coming in the building," she said.

Both Nicole Powell and Leilani Mitchell expressed their gratitude for those New York Liberty fans. I’ve only been to one game in another city and I don’t really remember it, so I don’t know how New Yorkers stacked up against other fans, but I continued to be impressed by how supportive the crowd got when the game was on the line night after night. Leilani said, "We love having [the fans] here. It makes a huge difference. Obviously the end of the game, they get excited, you know, it really gives us that extra boost. Just continue to come, cheer loud, we love you." And Nicole, with a huge grin on her face, told me, "I hope [the fans] know that we love them, we need them, we count on them."

As I left the locker room, accidentally having overstayed the allotted time for the press, I realized that my hands were shaking. It was the perfect manifestation of my experience as a new basketball blogger: the badge hanging around my neck means that I have access to the players, and somehow that makes me more than just a casual basketball observer. And yet, I’m still so new to the whole thing, and really, I’m just a fan with a golden ticket to explore the inner workings of the teams I love to cheer for. I’m sure that with time, the butterflies and the giddiness will wear off, and interviewing basketball players will become old hat. But for now, I’m going to revel in the fact that I’ve been granted access to the people I admire, and I plan on learning as much as I can and soaking everything in for as long as possible. And don’t worry; though I’ll be writing about the Mystics, and no doubt becoming just as invested in their success, I will always hold a special place in my heart for the Liberty, and I’ll cheer for them no matter where I end up.