Margaret Martinez was doing her best, but she knew she had to work on her game. Her 8-year-old daughter Mackenzie fell in love with the defense and hairstyle of Liberty rookie Didi Richards – two peppy afro brothels. When Martinez couldn’t quite get Mackenzie’s features right, she reached out to Richards on social media.
“Do you have any tips on how I can improve?” Martinez asked on Twitter, adding a photo of Mackenzie in a Richards jersey with matching poufs.
Richards tweeted some tech tips – water, gel, and edge control – adding, “Give two punches and BOOM!”
Boom. Connected. Grown up with a love for the early Liberty teams, Martinez and her daughter will watch as the Liberty celebrate their 25th anniversary by honoring the team’s pioneers in three home games this week. With all of these early teams ‘successes, including three trips to the WNBA finals in the league’s first four years, perhaps the team’s most enduring legacy from 1997 is its players’ connection to fans, even in the dinosaur days before social media.
“We had a magical moment and the people in the stands were there, mostly women and young fans,” said Sue Wicks, who led the team in Floorburns and gave autographs.
Wicks will be standing in front of this crowd again, as will Kym Hampton, Rebecca Lobo and Teresa Weatherspoon, albeit in the Barclays Center instead of Madison Square Garden. (The team was sold to Nets owner Joe Tsai in 2019.) The only core players missing from the opening group: Vickie Johnson, the Dallas Wings head coach, and Sophia Witherspoon, an assistant for the United States under -16 National girls team.
“It was a sorority,” said Johnson.
Before Wednesday’s game against Phoenix, Hampton, an accomplished singer, will sing the national anthem. During her three years with Liberty, she sang the anthem before the last home game of the regular season.
“We held hands and she gave us chills every time she sang,” said Weatherspoon.
After playing professionally abroad for a dozen years, Hampton came home to start the league and scored Liberty’s first basket in the WNBA’s inaugural game on June 21, 1997, a Liberty win.
For the past quarter century, the league has struggled to find its place in mainstream sport, growing in terms of talent, and doing well in the “If you can see it, you can be it” department. “We knew the league had the potential to enable little girls like my daughter to become professional basketball players,” said Hampton.
Hampton has spent the past few weeks on the AAU basketball circuit, traveling across the country with her daughter A’riel Jackson, a highly recruited guard from Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School.
Jackson attended her first Liberty game when she was 2 days old. “Your little umbilical cord fell off at the end of the game, that’s crazy. So she has a lot of history there, ”said Hampton with a laugh.
Hampton, Wicks, and Weatherspoon were all in their 30s when the WNBA started, an age where they had more basketball behind them than before them. What if their careers ended in secret in a small gym in Russia or Hungary instead of a noisy Madison Square Garden?
Wicks recalled facing Weatherspoon, known as Spoon, in a damp gym in Italy in 1988. Weatherspoon was made up of muscle and energy. “The uniform they gave her was like a high school uniform, tight at every point, and she hit the floor, played defense, slid down the court and outperformed the players,” Wicks said. “She was just that force, that exuberant personality.”
Wicks remembered thinking back then, “She needs a bigger stage. It was like she was that A-list movie star in this little indie movie, but not just in the background. She stole every scene and made you think, ‘What is she doing in this movie?’ “
New York City was a perfect match for Weatherspoon, a point guard from Pineland, Texas (population 850). She spoke like a preacher, holding them up when the game was on, and jumping on the scoreboard to celebrate with the crowd.
Weatherspoon’s passion hasn’t changed now that she’s 55 and is an assistant coach for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans – and Zion Williams whisperer. Now a whole new generation is discovering Spoon. A Pelicans video telling a story about her return after winning a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
In the clip, Spoon reenacted knocking on a former coach’s door after midnight after returning from the Seoul games. “The trainer who told me as an eighth grader that I would never be great took the medal off my neck and he opened the door and I said BANG!” She said, holding out her right palm and the imaginary medal towards the camera lens . She added, “You can’t let someone tell you who you are and what you can’t become.”
To those who know them best, it comes as no surprise what became of the 1997 Liberty team’s core members. A collection of trainers. A jazz singer. A high profile ESPN analyst. And … an oyster farmer.
At the East End of Long Island, Wicks treads the same waters as generations before her. “The Wicks family worked on the water,” she said. “My father was a Bayman, my grandfather was a boat builder, my great-grandfather a captain, my great-great-grandfather a marauder.”
Wicks has always been a study in contrast – a dreamer and pragmatist, quiet and self-confident, light-footed but heavy under the basket. More than two decades ago, she wondered why teams would fly commercially since travel delays hurt performance; It’s still an issue for this year’s team, having suffered multiple delays on a return flight from Indianapolis. She also asked why WNBA marketing was only focused on the personal lives of the straight players in the league.
Wicks managed to be ahead of their time and their time. When she was soberly asked by a magazine reporter in 2002 whether she was gay, she answered just as directly and became the first openly gay basketball professional.
“You never hear from a player coming out like it’s a confession about this terrible thing. Now it is a celebration of love that they get married. And I think, wow, they really turned the tables, ”said Wicks. “It’s like I’m not coming out, but I’m going to announce that my child will be born with my partner. This is fantastic. I wish that was the perspective back then. “
After retiring from Liberty, Wicks trained college basketball, including at Rutgers, their alma mater, and started a fitness company before returning to the water. Her commute to work is now a walk across the street to her dock on the bay. On a new day, wearing waders and purple crocs, she steered her 24-foot boat through the salty air of Moriches Bay to the floating cages of her Violet Cove Oysters oyster farm. Wicks and her two crew members handpicked each oyster and left the bay with 2,500 to supply two restaurants and a wholesaler.
Wicks finds the poetry in wading waist-deep water on a cold February morning or spinning the cages on a July afternoon scorcher. After months of breast cancer chemotherapy, she’s no longer quite herself, but she’s happy to be back in the same seaweed she grew up in.
“I probably shouldn’t have a break my back at 54,” said Wicks. “But there is something very honest about the value of work. Why are you doing this? I felt the same way with basketball and I loved it just as much. Like playing basketball when you are in your flow room, it has a meditative quality to it. You hear a bird, smell the salt, this symphony is playing out around you and you take your head and then look back at it again. It’s a constant reminder to breathe everything in. “