At 25, Liberty Celebrate ‘Magical Moment’ in Women’s Basketball

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Margaret Martinez did her best, but she knew she needed to work on her game. Her 8-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, had fallen in love with the Liberty rookie Didi Richards’ defense and her hairstyle — two peppy Afro puffs. When Martinez couldn’t get Mackenzie’s puffs quite right, she reached out to Richards on social media.

“Do you have any tips on how I can improve?” Martinez asked on Twitter, attaching a photo of Mackenzie, in a Richards jersey, with matching puffs.

Richards tweeted back some tips on the technique — water, gel and edge control — and added, “give it two swoops and BOOM!”

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Boom. Connection made. Martinez, who grew up loving the early Liberty teams, and her daughter will be watching when the Liberty celebrate their 25th anniversary by honoring the team’s pioneers during three home games this week. For all the achievements of those early teams, including three trips to the W.N.B.A. finals in the league’s first four years, perhaps the most lasting legacy of the 1997 team is the connection its players had with fans, even in the dinosaur days before social media.

“We had a magical moment in time and the people in the stands were part of it, especially women and young fans,” said Sue Wicks, who led the team in floor burns and autographs signed.

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 the Nets’ owner Joe Tsai in 2019.) The only core players who will be missing from the inaugural group: Vickie Johnson, the Dallas Wings’ head coach, and Sophia Witherspoon, an assistant for the United States’ Under 16 girls’ national team.

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“It was a sisterhood,” Johnson said.

Before 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 final regular-season home game.

“We would hold hands and she would give us chill bumps every time she was singing,” Weatherspoon said.

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After playing professionally overseas for a dozen years, Hampton came home for the league’s launch and scored the Liberty’s first basket in the W.N.B.A’s inaugural game on June 21, 1997, a Liberty win.

During the last quarter century, the league has struggled to find its place in mainstream sports, grown in terms of talent, and succeeded in the “if you can see her, you can be her” department. “We knew the league had the potential to allow little girls, like my daughter, to aspire to be a professional basketball player,” Hampton said.

Hampton has spent the past few weeks on the A.A.U. basketball circuit, crisscrossing the country with her daughter, A’riel Jackson, a highly recruited guard from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn.

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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 crazy stuff. So she’s got a lot of history there,” Hampton said with a laugh.

Hampton, Wicks and Weatherspoon were all in their 30s when the W.N.B.A kicked off, an age when they had more basketball behind them than ahead of them. What if their careers had ended in obscurity in some small gym in Russia or Hungary instead of in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden?

Wicks remembered facing Weatherspoon, known as Spoon, in a dank gym in Italy in 1988. Weatherspoon was all muscles and energy. “The uniform they gave her was like a high school uniform, tight in every spot and she was slapping the floor, playing defense, sliding down the court, overmatching players,” Wicks said. “She was just this force, this exuberant personality.”

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Wicks remembered thinking then: “She needs a bigger stage. It was as if she was this A-list movie star in this small indie film 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, delivered when the game was on the line and leapt 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 N.B.A.’s New Orleans Pelicans — and resident Zion Williams whisperer. Now a whole new generation is discovering Spoon. A Pelicans video in which she told a story about her return home from winning a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

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In the clip, Spoon reenacted how she banged on the door of a former coach after midnight upon her return home from the Seoul Games. “The coach that told me as an eighth-grader that I would never be great, I took that medal off my neck and he opened the door and I said BANG!” she said, thrusting her right palm and imaginary medal toward the camera lens. She added: “You cannot allow one person to tell you who you are and what you cannot become.”

To those who know them best, what the core members of the 1997 Liberty team have become isn’t surprising. A collection of coaches. A jazz singer. A high-profile ESPN analyst. And … an oyster farmer.

On the East End of Long Island, Wicks treads the same waters as generations before her did. “The Wicks family worked on the water,” she said. “My dad was a bayman, my grandfather was a boat builder, my great-grandfather a captain, my great-great grandfather a rumrunner.”

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Wicks has always been a study in contrast — a dreamer and a pragmatist, soft-spoken and assertive, light on her feet but the heavy under the basket. Two plus decades ago, she questioned why teams were flying commercial, given that travel delays affected performance; it’s still an issue for this year’s team, which endured multiple delays on a return flight from Indianapolis. She also questioned why W.N.B.A. marketing focused on the personal lives of only the straight players in the league.

Wicks managed to be before her time and of her time. When she was asked matter-of-factly by a magazine reporter in 2002 if she was gay, she answered just as directly and became the first openly gay active professional basketball player.

“You never hear about a player coming out anymore like it’s a confession about this terrible thing. Now it’s a celebration of love, that they’re getting married. And I’m like, wow, they really turned the tables,” Wicks said. “It’s like I’m not coming out, but I will announce my child is being born with my partner. That is fantastic. I wish that was the perspective then.”

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After retiring from the Liberty, Wicks coached college basketball, including a stint at Rutgers, her alma mater, and founded a fitness company before finding her way back to the water. Her commute to work is now a walk across the street to her dock on the bay. Wearing overall waders and violet-colored Crocs on a recent day, she steered her 24-foot boat through the salty Moriches Bay air to the floating cages of her oyster farm, Violet Cove Oysters. Wicks and her two crew members hand-selected every oyster and left the bay with 2,500 to deliver to two restaurants and a wholesaler.

Wicks finds the poetry in wading through waist-high waters on a frigid February morning or in turning the cages on a July afternoon scorcher. After months of chemotherapy for breast cancer, she is not completely herself but is happy to be back in the same sea grass she grew up in.

“At 54, I probably shouldn’t be breaking my back,” Wicks said. “But there’s something about the value of labor, something very honest. Why do this? I felt the same about basketball and loved it just as much. Like playing basketball when you’re in your flow space, there is a meditative quality to doing this. You hear a bird, smell the salt, there’s this symphony going on around you and you pick up your head and look then go back to it. It’s a constant reminder to breathe it all in.”

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