The New York Liberty Story
On October 30, 1996, New York was selected as one of eight charter members of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). Within four months, Carol Blazejowski, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, was named vice president and general manager for the New York franchise. Rebecca Lobo and Teresa Weatherspoon joined as the team's first players and the franchise name and logo were introduced.
The Liberty's and WNBA's first game was played on June 21, 1997 in Los Angeles. Led by head coach Nancy Darsch, the Liberty defeated the Los Angeles Sparks, 67-57, before a crowd of 14,284 at The Forum. The contest against LA began a three game road trip, where the Liberty went undefeated. They came back to New York with a 3-0 record, for the first game in their new home, Madison Square Garden. On June 29, 1997, in front of a crowd of 17,780, the Liberty scored their first win at home, defeating Phoenix, 65-57. Not only did the Liberty make their WNBA debut in 1997, but so did the Liberty's mascot, Maddie -- appropriately named after Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena and new home of the Liberty.
New York reeled off seven straight victories to start the inaugural season, finished in second place in the conference and advanced to the first ever Championship game versus the Houston Comets. An average of 13,270 fans attended each of the Liberty's 14 home games during the first year, cheering the squad's advance to the WNBA Championship and mourning its 65-51 loss on August 30, 1997 in Houston to the Comets.
Year two saw the WNBA expand to 10 teams. Despite a rough start to the season, New York rallied late in the second half, including a stretch when the Liberty won 10 out of 11 games. One of those wins was a 70-54 victory over the champion Houston Comets. This rematch took place in front of the Liberty's first ever-Garden capacity crowd of 19,563 in a nationally televised contest on NBC. The 1998 campaign closed with the team falling just a game short of making the playoffs, but their late season surge indicated success for the coming year.
The 1999 season brought two more teams to the WNBA, bringing the league total to 12. Veteran NBA coach Richie Adubato took over the team reins, making his WNBA debut on June 10, 1999 when he guided the Liberty to an 87-60 victory over the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Rockers. With the Liberty posting impressive attendance figures for the third straight season, Madison Square Garden played host to the first-ever WNBA All-Star game - a sellout (18,649) - on July 14, 1999. Four Liberty players were selected to the Eastern Conference squad: Rebecca Lobo, Teresa Weatherspoon, Kym Hampton, and Vickie Johnson.
With Adubato at the helm, the Liberty posted an overall mark of 18-14 and won its first Eastern Conference title. After defeating Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs, the team faced a rematch with the defending WNBA Champion Houston Comets. Despite falling short of the title, the series was pushed to a third game when Weatherspoon made the most famous shot in WNBA history - a half court buzzer-beating shot that won Game Two before a stunned Houston squad and Compaq Center crowd.
The 2000 season pitted the Liberty against more new teams as the league expanded to 16 franchises. With a club best 20-12 record, the team finished atop the Eastern Conference, clinching another trip to the playoffs and earning a third berth in the WNBA Championship. New York fell to Houston in overtime of Game Two, dropping the series 2-0, but had a strong showing with four players scoring in double figures. Weatherspoon, honored as the League's Defensive Player of the Year in 1997 and 1998, was voted to the WNBA All-Star squad as well as the WNBA All-Second Team. Newly acquired center Tari Phillips replaced retired center Kym Hampton. Phillips thrived in New York, leading the team in points and rebounds and earning the WNBA's Most Improved Player Award.
In 2001, the New York Liberty celebrated their fifth anniversary. Although the team advanced to the Eastern Conference finals versus Charlotte and fell in the series 2-1, there was much to celebrate. The franchise led the league in attendance, averaging 15,660 fans per game. The team set a new record for victories, finishing the season 21-11. Both Tari Phillips and Teresa Weatherspoon reached the 1,000 career point mark, joining Vickie Johnson and Sophia Witherspoon on that list. The team tied a record win streak with seven victories in a row from June 21 - July 5. Once again the Liberty was represented amply in the All-Star Game: the coaching staff of Richie Adubato, Pat Coyle and Jeff House led the East squad, which included Liberty starters, Tari Phillips, Teresa Weatherspoon and Vickie Johnson. Tari Phillips tipped off the All-Star festivities with a rousing rendition of the national anthem. Sue Wicks capped off the season by winning the WNBA Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award.
The 2002 season was one of records, set and broken. Coach Adubato and company led New York to 18 wins, tied for fourth best in the league, including a streak when the Liberty won 10 of 14 games. The Liberty advanced to the WNBA Finals for the fourth time in six years, before falling to the Los Angeles Sparks, 2-0. Prior to the Finals, the Liberty won four consecutive season ending games to advance, first in the opening round of the Playoffs versus the Indiana Fever and then in the Conference finals to the Washington Mystics.
During their remarkable playoff comebacks, the Liberty set some impressive records along the way. New York shot a franchise and all-time WNBA record 66 percent from the floor versus the Mystics on August 24, in game two of the Eastern Conference Championships along with scoring a franchise-high 96 points in the same game. Several Liberty players solidified themselves in WNBA history during the 2002 season, but Teresa Weatherspoon and Vickie Johnson stepped into a class of their own. Weatherspoon became the first player in WNBA history to tally 1,000 points and 1,000 assists in a career. Johnson became the first Liberty player and 11th WNBA player to score 2,000 career points. Additionally, Crystal Robinson, Tari Phillips and Tamika Whitmore registered their 1,000th Liberty career points.
With the team's success, individual accolades also came New York's way. In addition to all the statistics posted, Phillips and Weatherspoon were voted by the fans to the 2002 WNBA Eastern Conference All-Star team making their third and fourth appearances, respectively. As a result of her dominant play, Phillips was named to the 2002 All-WNBA Second team. She was also selected to the 2002 USA Basketball team that won a gold medal in the World Championships. Additionally for the first time in franchise history, four players finished the season averaging double-figures in scoring; Phillips (14.1), Whitmore (12.7), Robinson (11.8) and Johnson (11.6). By posting a sixth consecutive winning record, the Liberty is also able to boast that they are one of only two teams in the WNBA to have had a winning record in each year the WNBA has been in existence.
The seventh New York Liberty season proved to be one of changes, obstacles and milestones but most of all of unforgettable finishes. The fans settled in for a memorable season as more than 15,000 packed The Garden for the start of the 2003 campaign. New York began the year with the anticipation of another winning season but also with heavy hearts due to the absence of one of the original fixtures of the franchise. Sue Wicks, the Liberty's first ever draft pick, announced her retirement just prior to the 2003 training camp, leaving fans and teammates saddened by the departure of such a popular player on and off the court.
With Wicks cheering the squad on from the sidelines, New York started the season winning three of its first five games with guard Hammon leading the charge by averaging 18.6 ppg during that span. Hammon also notched a career-high performance at Minnesota finishing with 33 points while hitting six three-pointers in the Liberty victory.
New York then suffered a crucial setback when Hammon was lost for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL in late June. With the top scorer falling in the 11th game, New York's heart was tested but the team did what they have come to represent since their inception - they rose to the challenge. Facing adversity square in the face, the Liberty pulled together and rallied to compete against the league's best on a high level.
The squad's hard work ethic paid off in the stat column as they finished in the top five in two statistical categories; field-goal percentage (.429) and three-point percentage (.362).
As a team, New York registered numerous achievements. On July 12, the organization hosted the 2003 WNBA All-Star game for the second time in franchise history as three Liberty players represented the Big Apple in the weekend's festivities. Weatherspoon and Phillips were voted by the fans onto the Eastern Conference squad as starters for the fifth and fourth times, respectively, while sharpshooting guard Hammon, although not able to play, was named to the All-Star team by the WNBA head coaches.
During the second half of the season, New York orchestrated two of the top comebacks in team history. At Connecticut versus the Sun on August 12, the Liberty overcame a 17-point deficit to post a 74-73 last second victory, which was the second biggest comeback in team history. New York defied the odds a second time in Washington versus the Mystics on August 21, battling back from a 20-point halftime shortfall to mark the largest margin of a comeback victory (65-60) for the Liberty all-time.
Then in the strangest scenario of all, due to the massive blackout on August 14, the New York Liberty became the first team in WNBA history to play three games in as many days. Not only did the Liberty play the first back-to-back-to-back in league history (8/16, 8/17, 8/18) but New York finished the unorthodox stretch with a 2-1 record. Despite losing the first game to the Connecticut Sun, the Liberty battled to win the final two games.
Entering the final game of the regular season, New York's backs were against the wall needing to win in order to advance to the postseason. Arriving in Charlotte for a matchup against the Sting, the Liberty found their opponents in the same situation. After 40 minutes of action, the teams were even. Despite a scrappy, hard fought and thrilling overtime period, the Liberty's effort came up just short as they failed to qualify for the playoffs for only the second time in their remarkable history.
Individual milestones proved to be highlights throughout the season as several players reached career marks during the 2003 season. But none were more impressive as Ms. Consistency, Johnson, who not only registered her 2,500th career point but also finished the year with a career-high in points per game (13.4 ppg) and field-goal percentage (.458). Joining Johnson were teammates Hammon recording her 1,000th career point, Phillips grabbing her 1,000th career and 1,000th Liberty rebound while Robinson scored her 1,500th career point.
The Liberty was feeling confident heading into its eighth WNBA season. Having acquired veteran Ann Wauters in the dispersal draft and Shameka Christon in the college draft, the team had a younger and more athletic look to it. And it showed – the team sprinted out of the gate – posting a 6-1 record. After encountering a rough patch in the middle of the season, Pat Coyle replaced Richie Adubato as head coach and immediately turned the team around. Under Coyle’s guidance, the team registered an 11-6 mark and secured their sixth playoff appearance.
The team showed its typical toughness and passion by overcoming a rash of injuries to starters Ann Wauters and Tari Phillips as well as a change of venue. The Liberty played to a sellout crowd for six games at the historic Radio City Music Hall. The Liberty, in their new home, posted a 5-1 record to prove that playing on a stage definitely has its perks. In addition to the Liberty playing to a full house at Radio City, the Liberty hosted another mid-season classic: The Game at Radio City, which featured the USA Women’s Olympic team vs. a WNBA Select Team.
In the first round of the playoffs the Liberty took on the defending WNBA Champions – the Detroit Shock. In game three, with the clock winding down, Becky Hammon dished off to Bethany Donaphin, who calmly drained a jumper to send the Liberty into the Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Connecticut Sun. Although falling to the Sun, the season proved to be a successful one.
On the court, several individual Liberty players distinguished themselves. Becky Hammon, in her first full year at point guard, truly led the team. She finished the season first in scoring with 13.5 ppg while averaging 4.4 apg and 1.8 steals per game and registered her 1,500th career point. Elena Baranova stepped up, leading the team in rebounding with just over seven rebounds per game, while shooting a team high .463 from the field. Overall, Baranova finished fourth in the league in total rebounds, second in three-point field goal percentage (.461) and fourth in the WNBA in double-doubles with seven total. And, Crystal Robinson overcame a broken finger all season to not only make some clutch baskets but also post her 2,000th career point.
The great play and milestones continued into the Liberty’s ninth WNBA season in 2005. Although the team floated around the .500 mark for much of the first two months of the season, August saw a rebirth of sorts for the team. The Liberty played five games from August 10 to August 20, winning each of them. The highlight came on August 12 with a double-overtime victory against Charlotte, 82-74.
The Liberty finished the season posting an 18-16 record, yet another winning year, resulting in another post-season appearance. For its seventh playoff berth in nine years, the Liberty matched up against the Indiana Fever in the First Round. Although losing to the Fever in two games, the Liberty took away many accomplishments from the 2005 season.
Becky Hammon, for the second season in a row, secured her role as the leader on the court. She was the team’s forerunner in virtually every category, including points (13.9), assists (4.3), steals (1.76), and minutes per game (34.7). Hammon was one of only two Liberty players (Vickie Johnson being the other) to start every game during the season. She was named the WNBA’s Player of the Week on July 25, and was voted by the fans as a starter for the 2005 WNBA All-Star Game. She also recorded her 2,000th career point on August 16, and for her stellar season, Hammon was named to the All-WNBA Second Team.
For career marks, Vickie Johnson scored her 3,000th point on June 18, making her just the seventh player in WNBA history to accomplish this mark. Additionally, she pulled down her 1,000th rebound just over a month later on July 21. Elena Baranova recorded her 2,000th career point on July 31 and Crystal Robinson recorded her 500th rebound on May 26. In another career milestone, Ann Wauters was voted by the league’s coaches to her first All-Star Game. Liberty fans were able to witness these great moments and more in 2005. In total, 29 of the 34 regular season games were televised either locally or nationally, the most ever in the history of the team.
The Liberty, as well as the WNBA itself, celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2006. The 10th New York team took on a different look in the new season, as long-time mainstays departed and new, young talent stepped in. The first half of the season was tough for the inexperienced team, especially when veteran leader Becky Hammon suffered an ankle injury on July 9. In true New York spirit, the team rallied in the second half of the summer, finishing the 2006 season by winning 7 of its last 10 games, and ending with an 11-23 record.
In 2006 the Liberty and Madison Square Garden hosted the WNBA All-Star Game for the third time. Becky Hammon was voted an Eastern Conference starter by nationwide fans, but was unable to play due to injury. It was the third All-Star nod in Hammon’s career.
Despite a less-than-ideal record, there were several other highlights to celebrate in 2006. The Liberty welcomed its 2 millionth fan, becoming the first team in the history of the WNBA to reach the mark. For the fans that weren’t in the stands, those at home had unprecedented access to the Liberty. New York became the first team in the WNBA to have its complete regular season aired on television, as Liberty games were seen on MSG Network, ABC and ESPN2.
Becky Hammon and Barbara Farris reached career milestones of their own in 2006. Both reached the 500 mark for career rebounds, Farris’ coming on June 21, followed by Hammon on July 6. Despite missing part of the season with an injury, Hammon still finished 2006 as the top free-throw shooter in the leauge (.960). Erin Thorn also led the WNBA in three-point shooting, posting a .431 average on the year.
Perhaps the highlight of the 2006 season, which is sure to be remembered for seasons to come, was “Spoon Night.” The Liberty honored legend Teresa Weatherspoon by making her just the second woman to ever be inducted into the MSG Walk of Fame. She joins Liberty GM and SVP Carol Blazejowski. As a finishing touch, Weatherspoon’s name and number 11 will permanently be displayed on The Garden court in front of celebrity row.
After a strong finish to 2006, the Liberty enters its 11th season in 2007 excited to regain its position atop the Eastern Conference.
After a strong finish to 2006, the Liberty entered its 11th season in 2007 with its youngest roster in franchise history. Behind the play of guard Erin Thorn on Opening Day, New York tied a Madison Square Garden record for most three-pointers in one game with 13 three-pointers against the Chicago Sky. The Liberty achieved its first season opening victory since the 1999 season. Thorn notched a career-high 28 points. The new-look squad went on to win its next four games for a roaring 5-0 start to the summer, the second best season all-time season tip-off for the organization.
In the entire history of the WNBA, undefeated teams with at least two games under their belts had only squared off on three occasions, and never had two teams with at least 3-0 marks met face-to-face until June 5 when the Liberty beat the Indiana Fever.
The Liberty’s class of 2007 brought a wealth of experience from some of the nation’s top collegiate programs. Jessica Davenport, the No. 2 overall pick, earned the most starts for the rookies with 13, and helped the team go 6-4 when she was in the starting line-up. The No. 5 overall pick, Tiffany Jackson, proved to be a solid force off the bench in her rookie campaign. One of her finest performances of the summer was when she led New York with 16 points against the defending WNBA Champion Detroit Shock to tie the season series at two wins a piece. Rookie guard Shay Doron made the 2007 season a historic one for the WNBA record books, as she became the first Israeli to play in the league.
New York’s battles against Detroit produced the most competitive and exciting matches of the summer. The Liberty was one of only two teams in the league to hand the Shock two losses in 2007, and the first to do so. Its only two overtime matches of the regular season came at the hands of the defending champs, and it marked the first time in franchise history that New York had faced the same team in overtime in one season. Each team drew one win each in overtime play.
The 2007 season marked the 11th year that the MSG Network served as the television home for the Liberty, having broadcasted games since the inaugural season of the WNBA. For the second year in a row MSG televised a total of 30 regular season games, the most for any WNBA team. New York was featured on national television on ESPN/ABC twice and over 20 times on NBATV in the regular season.
The Liberty finished the regular season with a 16-18 overall record and went 6-4 in its final 10 games of the season. With its three consecutive wins, New York had the best streak in the Eastern Conference to close out the regular season and clinched the final Playoff berth in style. Even though only four of the roster’s 13 players had previous WNBA Playoff experience, it marked the eighth post-season campaign for the Liberty, as a charter member of the WNBA.
When faced against the No. 1 seeded Shock in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, the No. 4 seeded Liberty didn’t go down without a fight. After capturing victory in Game One and beating the Shock by a franchise best 22-point margin, New York lost by three points in Game Two and was within seconds of winning the series, but lost by one point in a Game Three overtime thriller at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Two players were honored by the league with post-season awards, as Janel McCarville was named the Most Improved Player of the Year in her first season with the Liberty and Loree Moore earned second-team All-Defensive accolades for her third season in New York.
With a .372 percentage from three-point range on the year, New York wrapped the regular season as the League’s No. 1 overall leader and boasted five players in the WNBA’s Top 20 category of long-range shooters. Seven Liberty players completed the regular season ranked amongst the League’s Top 20 leaders across nine statistical categories, while four of them ended up in the Top 10: Loree Moore for assists (3rd, 4.8), steals (2nd, 2.2) and minutes (5th, 34.2); Janel McCarville for field goal percentage (1st, .546); and Cathrine Kraayeveld for three-point field goal percentage (8th, .411).