A basketball legend before and after the WNBA, New York Liberty legend Teresa Weatherspoon spoke about her Hall of Fame call to ESNY.
It’s unusually ironic that a player known primarily for her defense is the one responsible for hoisting “The Shot”. Teresa Weatherspoon was never one to conform to the norms of basketball society.
A basketball journey that featured a lengthy stay in New York followed up by visits overseas is about to add a historic landmark. Weatherspoon, the accoladed point guard who originated in Pineland, Texas, is set to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her primary exploits came through seven seasons with the New York Liberty.
Prior to the Liberty’s penultimate home game of the regular season earlier this week, Weatherspoon spoke with ESNY about her latest honor. After years of denying opportunities to opponents on the court, she thought the tables had turned when she got the call from Springfield.
“Man, I thought that was a joke. Someone was really pranking me here!” Weatherspoon said of her initial reaction. Once she got the confirmation, the NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist took the time to reflect.
“It’s just been an emotional roller coaster ride for me right now. I’m trying to reflect back on my life and understand why and how this is happening to me. I’m truly humbled and grateful for this opportunity to be in the Hall with some amazing people.”
A quick glance at Weatherspoon’s overflowing resume would eliminate any mystery toward her Springfield invite.
An original New Yorker upon the team and WNBA’s formation in 1997, Weatherspoon dominates the early chapters of the league’s history books. Her points tallies were pedestrian, but she built a sterling reputation as the league’s most impenetrable defender.
Her basketball story actually began long before the WNBA’s introduction. From the start, it was clear Weatherspoon was a fighter, and wasn’t going to back down from anything. The first signs of her basketball quest began at Louisiana Tech University and carried on to Italy, France, and Russia.
In that span, Weatherspoon made her presence felt on an entire basketball level. She led the 1988 Lady Techsters to the NCAA Championship against Auburn. Squared up against fellow future original WNBA participant Ruthie Bolton, Weatherspoon held her to no second-half points and forced six turnovers. The Techsters won the 56-54, two decades before Weatherspoon returned to be the head coach before the Liberty came calling back.
Forced overseas before the WNBA’s birth, Weatherspoon began her international exploits with a gold medal in 1988’s Olympics in Seoul. Six consecutive Italian All-Star nominations awaited after she donned the gold.
It didn’t compare to her days in Manhattan, but Weatherspoon nonetheless looked back on her basketball barnstorming fondly as her hoops journey culminates.
“My career was really jumping off at Louisiana Tech. I had some great years there, amazing year,” she said. “I learned the game, I learned a lot from head coach Leon Barmore, the approach, how you had to handle yourself on a daily basis if you wanted to be great.”
Weatherspoon believes the lessons from Barmore and the Lady Techsters set her up to become an international sensation, which she described as “a totally different path”.
“If you wanted to take it, there’s work that was involved,” she said. “Playing on an Olympic team was the ultimate at the time. But playing overseas, I have nothing but great things to say about it. It gave me an opportunity to continue to play the game, to still be ready when the WNBA called.”
Professional American exploits were finally granted in 1997 upon the WNBA and the Liberty’s founding. A city that worshipped the roundball finally had a women’s team to call their own when Weatherspoon took the court alongside other original legends like Rebecca Lobo and Kym Hampton. Weatherspoon quickly endeared herself to New York’s raucous fanbase with a captivating personality and timeless leadership. Once the clock started ticking, she paid the fans’ adoration back elevenfold.
Weatherspoon took home the league’s first two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Her 3.3 steals per game in 1998 still stand as a WNBA record. She retired in second place on the league’s all-time assist leaderboard. Such a New York mainstay was Weatherspoon that over the first seven years of the Liberty’s existence, she didn’t miss a single game, or even a single start. Seven years and 220 games later, she would play a single season in Los Angeles before retiring in 2004.
Retirement has been anything but a departure for Weatherspoon. She literally remains a game day presence in New York, as her name is forever etched onto the Liberty hardwood. Weatherspoon also finds herself in an unfamiliar spot: the bench. As New York’s current director of player and franchise development, Weatherspoon is on New York’s modern game day bench. She serves as a mentor and teacher to New York’s current young crop, which includes first-round picks Kia Nurse and Asia Durr.
— Geoff Magliocchetti (@GeoffMags5490) June 19, 2019
Not only is Weatherspoon pleased with the outlook of the WNBA as a whole, she’s eager to see how high this young New York group can soar.
“We will always say that we’re great athletes and that we can play the game very well, we were skilled,” Weatherspoon said of her days in the original seasons. “But when you’re taking across the board, from one-to-five, there’s such versatility now. It’s so flexible now, everything they do offensively and defensively, it’s almost like positionless. But they’re so talented.”
Weatherspoon appears confident that the Liberty can soon do what she did and get the squad back to the WNBA Finals. It was in the late-summer classic’s 1999 edition that Weatherspoon created the ultimate WNBA memory.
In Game 2 of the best-of-three set, the Liberty trailed the Houston Comets 67-65 with a mere 2.4 seconds on the clock. A party seemed poised to go off as soon as that time disappeared, as the league’s first dynasty appeared to have another in their grasp.
Houston would eventually get that title. Weatherspoon, however, did what she could to delay it.
The clock began to trickle down when she took an inbounds pass from Hampton. Two dribbles later, the ball was released from Weatherspoon’s hands, drifting toward the Compaq Center’s rafters. The hangtime allowed Weatherspoon to write poetry in her mind as it made its descent. The resulting prose?
“Go in. Please go in!”
Houston, we had a miracle.
“All I wanted Kym Hampton to do was throw it in, just give it to me, no one was around. Give me a chance to throw this thing up!” Weatherspoon recalled. “No one was close to me. Tina Thompson was close, but not close enough. It gave me a chance with my right hand, give me an opportunity, and I shot it.”
“It left my hand and I thought ‘oh my God, this thing has a chance to go in’. It was so slow. They always tell you to slow the game down. It really was very slow at that moment.”
The white and orange ball banked off the glass and went through the net yielding the three points necessary to give the Liberty the victory. Houston wound up winning the series with a win the decider fewer than 24 hours later. But Weatherspoon felt her resiliency and never-say-die attitude, traits she’s carried throughout her entire life and is definitely most proud of, were best on display in that deep ball.
“It really just have us a chance to play that third game. People don’t realize that that third game was the very next day,” she said. “We didn’t have any reserve energy left in the tank (in Game 2). We were playing against a team that you had to play flawless basketball.”
The Shot, the beginning, the defense, the mentorship…Weatherspoon has her place in the past, present, and future of New York basketball.
Soon to be immortalized, a face to look up to as long as balls are dribbled, Weatherspoon looks forward to serving as an inspiration to the next generation.
“We were that kind rough and rugged fast pace kind of basketball, era of a different level of physicality. But when you talk about that era of young guards, and the team we have here, it’s only going to get better. They’re getting a feel for how things are. The season might not have gone they would’ve loved it to have gone, but there’s always something you can take of a season and build from it. When you can do that, you see the kind of character that player possesses.
“We have those kids.”