Back when I was a wee little queenie, I didn't have much of a choice about who my favorite player was supposed to be. My name was Rebecca, my birthday was in October, and I was a brunette. By the end of the second season, I had a Lobo jersey, t-shirt, and the book she and her mom wrote. And I've always been about my team, not about players; that's why that Lobo jersey sat in the bottom of my armoire for almost ten years before I put it on as a sign of defiance and a marker to be recognized by.
Not late because of lack of respect, but because your intrepid blogger has more to say about Sue than she realized.
But looking back with the wisdom of my mumble-mumblety years, the player who most shaped who I am as a fan was Sue Wicks.
I've always been proud of being a New Yorker, and she was from New York (even if it was Long Island). She went to Rutgers; so did my dad, albeit a different campus (because the universe is ultimately circular, he went to Newark). She was funny, and she was personable, and she was fascinatingly well-traveled, and she got things done on the floor. I can't fairly say I identified with her, because I thought she was entirely too awesome to identify with, but she was sort of a little bit the person I wanted to be when I grew up.
And that was even before 2002.
But before 2002, there's going to be a digression. Even when I was a young fan, I sort of knew that when the league and the team marketed themselves to families, they didn't mean families like Keisha and Donna and their kids, or even families like me and my mother. "Family" meant a little girl (bonus points for being blonde) in a jersey, with a dad barely tolerating the game and a mom who was even less interested. "Family" didn't mean most of the people I saw at games. And heaven forbid that it include... lesbians.
Without naming names, there have always been players on the Liberty that everyone knows are gay, and players that most people could reasonably guess are gay, and players that fans patched into the gossip network know are gay. But their existence was the proverbial lavender elephant in the room, and ignoring that aspect of the league took a lot of effort.
And then in 2002, Time Out New York did an interview with Sue, and it awkwardly veered toward the question of lesbians in the WNBA. The interviewer asked if she was a lesbian. And she answered yes. No equivocation, no hedging, no avoidance of the question, just an honest answer.
That kind of honesty, that willingness to take the step beyond living her life, that decision to break a silence that was painful in how strong and long-lasting it was... to a straight ally with a lot of gay friends and family, those were qualities to be admired. I can only imagine how a young gay kid would react- after all of the homophobic messages they would have heard through the years, here was someone who was loved and admired and openly gay. That's part of what makes her an icon to the New York fan base.
Only part, though. When she spoke, Sue talked about being the all-time leader in hugs and high-fives, but something tells me she's also the all-time leader in autographs given. In all my years as a Liberty fan and a WNBA fan, I don't think I've ever seen a player as accessible as Sue Wicks, and in this league, that says a lot. Back in the day, if you happened to be at the Garden an hour and a half before the game, or if you were at any of the events, you pretty much had to be actively avoiding Sue to walk away without an autograph, or a picture, or some interaction with her. No matter how late she was to the game (and she was always late), she would stop and sign, stop and talk, stop and interact. I remember one of the few games she missed, when she was on crutches with a bad ankle, and no matter how much of a balancing act she had to essay to do it, she stopped and signed and posed for pictures.
She was a warrior, a fighter, and a scrapper on the floor. You know those thick kneepads she wore, that you can see in a lot of the pictures? She appeared without them once at the NBA Store. Her knees were a grayish purple from all the times she hit the floor. She got the little things done.
She's why I chose Rutgers when I got into college basketball (well, that, and my aforementioned father). The fact that Rutgers played a defensive style didn't hurt either. Defensive teams and defensive players molded my early definition of 'this is what I like about basketball', as did team play and a never-say-die spirit. Sound like anyone we've discussed for entirely too long in this post? I changed teams eventually, but despite all my best efforts, I still feel a little something in my heart when I see the scarlet R.
One of the great regrets I have about the WNBA is missing Sue in her prime, is not seeing who she was when she played in Spain, in Israel, in Hungary, in Japan. In the WNBA, she was a defensive player and a rebounder; I would have loved to have seen her when she was the kind of offensive player she was when she became the all-time leading scorer in Rutgers history, when she was a star who got her number retired. (If any of you non-students of history were wondering why Pondexter wore #25 in college, this is why. I still think it would have been hysterical if she had taken her college number when returning to her college stomping grounds...)
The last memory I have of Sue in a Liberty uniform is from our only home game in the 2002 Finals. It was a close game, back and forth, and in the last minute, Sue squared up for a three from the corner and drained it. (This is about as statistically likely as Leilani Mitchell going up for a dunk, just so you know.) Knowing later what I didn't know then, I wonder if she knew that this was the last chance she would have, and she was willing to do whatever it took to finally get that championship.
You know the cliché that they just don't make them like that anymore? They don't make them like Sue anymore.