The New York Liberty feel like a completely new team. Under a strong new franchise face, they now stand as a New York sports beacon.
The modern happenings of the New York Liberty are remarkably similar to Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” era.
Icons of their respective fields, both sides went through periods of exile through forces beyond their control. The Liberty’s sabbatical, for example, was forced through instability brought upon by The Madison Square Garden Company’s sale of the franchise. Forced into the Art Deco-abyss of the Westchester County Center, the Liberty wandered through two brutal seasons.
Swift spent nearly a year out of the public eye in the lead-up to “Reputation.” The Liberty dealt with separation from an NBA brother. Both could’ve been career death sentences.
Instead, they returned with a vengeance by doing the things they do best. The rearrivals were defined by a classy sense of angst…and a stylistic elimination of color.
Granted, the Liberty have some work to do to catch up to Swift’s accolades. But Friday night was a brilliant first step, a rebirth of sorts. The Liberty look remarkably different both literally and figuratively after a series of transactions that will determine the fate of the franchise for the foreseeable future.
Optimism has sprung a traditional sports sense: the announcement of a No. 1 draft pick. Oregon point guard Sabrina Ionescu received that call on Friday night in an abbreviated return to normalcy on the sports and social scene. Add a new arena (Barclays Center) to the mix and one of the WNBA‘s lone survivors from 1997’s inaugural season has more or less become the oldest expansion team in professional sports, or at least in the New York area.
New York is a city renowned for its athletics, a situation that’s impossible to avoid when you house two teams in nearly every major sport. But basketball is the one that truly stands out, evidenced by the fact that havens of hoops like Rucker Park, The Cage on Fourth Street, and Columbus Park in Chinatown are de facto local landmarks. Such roundball retreats have been denied by, once again, factors beyond the control of New Yorkers.
The coronavirus pandemic is creating a harrowing trail of despair. Such devastation puts the seemingly never-ending struggles of the city’s NBA teams into perspective.
But this time, a New York basketball team provided levity and peace, if only for a short while. A tantalizingly-active 48 hours from the Liberty provided a hopeful hint of dawn.
Like most professional sporting rebuilds, proceedings began with a gut-punch of a transaction. It’s a trend New Yorkers have become all too familiar with as of late. The New York Rangers had to bid farewell to veteran staple Mats Zuccarello (and Henrik Lundqvist‘s departure might not be too far away). A vocal portion of the New York Giants fanbase saw Eli Manning‘s retirement as more of merciful release and permission to move forward in time than the celebration of a career.
Tina Charles is the latest to vanish in a metropolitan renovation. Mere photoshops of the Queens native and all-time leading scorer in Liberty history adorned in Washington Mystics gear feels like a crime against New York humanity, as sacrilege as the single-season Teresa Weatherspoon spent in a Los Angeles Sparks uniform.
Even if one didn’t agree with the trade of Charles, perhaps mere debate over the trivial matters of sport was enough for the Liberty and the WNBA to accomplish a simple but unwritten goal of providing the distraction this city and country has yearned for ever since live sports were suspended.
But more basketball magic, at least as much as one can accomplish in this day and age, helped provide a sense of hope, both trivial and genuine.
Charles’ office of franchise face has been filled by a rookie. But in Tina’s place is a first-year player who’s wise beyond her years. As a result, the Liberty franchise has retained stability brought upon by the move to Barclays, overseen by new owner Joe Tsai.
Ionescu has accomplished things no player, male or female, has achieved at the highest level of college basketball. Her historic tally of 26 triple-doubles is mind-blowing enough. Perhaps even more insane is the first-ever career triple-quadruple…2,000 points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds, all of which Ionescu surmounted. She broke into four-digit territory mere hours after she spoke at the funeral of NBA star and women’s basketball advocate Kobe Bryant, who was a personal friend and mentor to the Oregon Duck.
But the most exciting trait Ionescu brings isn’t her on-court sorcery…it’s her character.
“Her accolades truly speak for themselves. She’s talented,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a Friday conference call. “We’re excited to have someone of her caliber and most importantly her character in our league.”
Ionescu engaged in brief euphoria with her family shortly after Engelbert knighted her as the top pick. Satisfaction completely left her by the time she spoke to the media as a member of the Liberty for the first time. Reveling in her accomplishments and trophies, ones that may need their own flight to New York, was the furthest thing from Ionescu’s mind.
The Walnut Creek, California native has only visited the city twice. But the sense of perfectionism embedded in every NYC worker was present in her first Brooklyn moments.
“I’m looking to do everything that I possibly can to get better in every aspect, whether that’s scoring, defending, rebounding, passing,” she said on a conference call. “I’m really just excited to be playing against professionals and learning from them and just seeing where that takes me.”
For opponents, these must be downright harrowing words from a player whose box scores required more updating than anyone in the history of college basketball.
Ionescu also promised her improvement would not be limited to the hardwood.
“The fact that I’ll be able to be in Brooklyn and have a platform and a voice in kind of the mecca of the world is going to be amazing,” she said. “I’m just excited for that opportunity, having done it in Eugene and kind of changed the way people viewed women in sports in Eugene.”
“[Becoming the top pick] is worth all the long nights, early mornings of going in and doing all the extra work. This is really what it’s all about. I’m so excited for this opportunity, but not settling here. I’m just excited to continue evolving my game and doing more.”
Some players know just how truly vibrant New York City can be at its peak. Just ask Virginian Jocelyn Willoughby.
The former University of Virginia standout got her basketball start in East Orange. Such a journey included visits across the Hudson River to the ghosts of the Liberty’s past play at Madison Square Garden.
Willoughby’s evening embarked on a dramatic roller coaster. She was originally chosen by the veteran-laden Phonix Mercury with the No. 10 overall selection. Then, a trade shipped her back East about 30 minutes later.
Gratitude, anticipation, and hope were the only emotions on her mind. The chance to play with champions like Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner had come to pass. Now, Willoughby can’t wait to co-author a new legacy with peers like Ionescu and Megan Walker (No. 9 overall).
“I think, obviously, the coaching staff is new and just the culture that they’re trying to build in Brooklyn is one that I’m excited about,” she said. “I think to have players around me, coaches, I think we’ll be young, but young teams are I think often exciting to watch and have a lot of growth and just potential. So I’m really, really excited about it.”
Fortunately, there’s one lingering trait that appears to be sticking around in Brooklyn, other than the team name, of course: the character Ionescu and her fellow rookies are bringing.
After all, character was never a concern in New York. It’s a trait that was likewise called for by new head coach Walt Hopkins, a rookie who, like Ionescu, seems wise beyond his years.
“Obviously, there are on-court attributes that are important, like a combination of skill and athleticism, versatility,” Hopkins said in a pre-draft interview with ESNY. “Those are all highly covered in the type of offense we want to run. But, at the end of the day, if they’re not good people, if they’re not going to care and put their teammates first, be unselfish, then it’s going to be a really tough fit and it’s probably not going to work out. So those are the people we’re trying to make sure that we get a really good look at. It’s the character, either way.”
The past two years were tough for the wearers of seafoam. But that didn’t cause their values to be lost. It’s a team that Hopkins can be proud to take over.
Smiles were often present in the locker room. The extra mile was never untrodden in practice. Players helped each other whenever they could. For example, when Han Xu’s translator was unavailable after a game at the County Center, her locker neighbor and fellow rookie Asia Durr simplified reporters’ inquiries for her. Rebecca Allen did the same thing for another international rookie, Marine Johannes, after the latter’s metropolitan debut.
When the time is right for live sports to come back, New York has a team they can truly support both on and off the court, along with several new years to look forward to with living or dying by the standings.
“I’ve been on the West Coast for my entire life,” Ionescu remarked. “[I’m looking forward to] just being able to leave and go there and be excited by all the new things I see and everything that I learn in the city. Then obviously just playing in Brooklyn, where everyone loves basketball, and being able to be a part of that organization is really exciting.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags