For the New York Liberty, Thursday’s Brooklyn showcase against the Chinese national squad is anything but an exhibition.
Last season saw seven wins attached to the New York Liberty. For that brutal outing, the WNBA squad is making zero excuses about a flimsy ownership situation contributing to a historically poor record.
In sports, excuses are never welcome. But it’d be perfectly understandable if the attempts at rationalization came from returning members of the Liberty. Their 2018 campaign, after all, was spent in locational limbo. The “New York” title remained in their moniker, but it felt hollow in the wake of an unusual transition.
The Madison Square Garden Company put the team up for sale in late 2017. While waiting for a buyer, they were more or less evicted from the iconic building bearing the company’s name. Two games were still held at MSG, but the rest of the home slate was pushed to Westchester County Center. Forced away from their vocal fanbase and the legendary city, the Liberty had to make due in their cozy new suburban settings. The end result was a brutal 7-27, by far the worst ledger in franchise history.
It’s easy to load blame on the transition to White Plains. The Liberty themselves dispelled such notions.
“It didn’t impact us. What our record reflected was us personally,” forward Tina Charles said at Tuesday’s Liberty media day proceedings. “It had nothing to do with anything. If that was the case, we would’ve been winning on the road.”
This week begins the potential redemption cycle, as the team began their training camp proceedings on Sunday. Among the participants are several new faces brought in to combat last season’s on-court shortcomings. New guard Asia Durr was the second overall pick of last month’s WNBA Draft. Members of a core responsible, at least in part. for the Eastern Conference’s record from 2015-17 were brought back through free agency. Several seasoned veterans will compete for a roster spot.
But the Liberty’s most crucial offseason addition can’t be found on the roster. In fact, it doesn’t even wear a jersey.
That newcomer is franchise stability.
The Liberty are now under the new ownership of Joseph Tsai, the minority owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. Gone were the relocation rumors. Gone were the feelings of a bleak future. A prominent professional women’s sports team has a secure role in New York City.
A majority of games are still scheduled for White Plains. But one of the first moves announced upon the Tsai purchase was a pair of visits to Barclays Center. The first showdown comes in exhibition form, as the Liberty take on the Chinese national squad (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS).
The new Brooklyn connections go far beyond Barclays. Training camp has commenced at St. Joseph’s College’s basketball facility at The Hill Center on Vanderbilt Avenue. Members of the team have moved into the area. From a personal and professional standpoint, they’ve already made Brooklyn home.
There are two things left on the agenda: an elusive championship and Brooklyn permanency.
The Queens native, Charles, knows enough about the treasures of Brooklyn. Her memories of the borough were brought to life in her Tribeca Film Festival documentary Charlie’s Records. The film centered on Charlie’s Calypso City, her father Rawlston’s record store on Fulton Street that sits a mile and a half’s walk away from Barclays.
Charlie’s Calypso City is a Brooklyn staple. Charles wants the Liberty to join that elusive group.
“We’ve been up in Westchester the entire time. Me personally, when I think New York City, I don’t think Westchester,” she said. “It’s extremely important (to play in Brooklyn). I think that’s what will make the difference between this ownership and the last ownership we had: showing value in our fans and getting us back in the city where we can be reachable for our fanbase.”
Asked if she’s hoping Barclays Center could become the Liberty’s permanent home, Charles showed no hesitation.
“That would be the only other ideal place that’s suitable for a professional women’s basketball team.”
While Charles knows Brooklyn all too well, it’s a new destination for Kia Nurse. The point guard enters her second year with the Liberty after a successful rookie campaign. The offseason has taken the Ontario native Nurse around the globe. She represented her northern homeland in the FIBA World Cup in Tenerife last fall. A stint in Australia led to a league championship.
Through Brooklyn, Nurse has the first sense of security in her professional career.
“From the moment we got here, we can feel how invested this (ownership) is in us,” Nurse said. “When someone is extremely invested in you, you want to give them everything you have on the flip side and thank them for that investment.”
For now, the Liberty will continue to control only what’s in their grasp. Thursday brings forth a game that means nothing in the WNBA standings. From this new standpoint of home, however, nothing would make the Liberty more comfortable than a victory to open the new era on the right note.
“It’ll be great for the people in Brooklyn to come and see us for the first time, for the Liberty loyal who are always around,” Nurse said. “It’ll be great to put on a show for the first one and then have them come back and see a lot more!”
Old and new will collide for 19-year old rookie Han Xu. The second round pick and first China-born draft selection since 1997 was the star attraction on media day, fielding questions from both domestic and international reporters. She looks forward to a great showdown against her former World Cup teammates.
Han has enjoyed her new American settings in Brooklyn, which she describes as “convenient”. She now faces one of the more difficult tasks on the professional basketball landscape. Tsai has hinted she could be the WNBA’s Yao Ming in terms of growing the women’s professional game to new heights. It’s a challenge not many teenagers would accept.
Han has spent most of her life showing she’s no ordinary teen. American audiences are about to find that out. She’s hoping to likewise remind her former teammates.
“I’ll learn from Yao Ming how to be better,” Han said through translator Hannah Rothkuo. “I wish to learn from Yao Ming but develop my own skills and be the best of myself.’
To the chagrin of its sophomoric critics, the WNBA is a league on the rise. The league is set to hold its All-Star festivities in Las Vegas this summer. CBS came through with a deal that will put 40 games on their sports network.
The continued trek won’t be easy. Several injured superstars are already done for the year (Breanna Stewart) or facing lengthy absences (Diana Taurasi). Continued patronage in the Capital of the World could be invaluable. There’d be no better way to open this reenergized era than with a win.
“For ownership, for Han, to be in Barclays, it’s huge,” head coach Katie Smith said. “It’s a huge statement for (ownership) to say, let’s do this, let’s do it big, too. It’ll be fun to go out there and compete.”