After Sunday’s game at Barclays Center drew over 7,000, the New York Liberty dispelled notions they couldn’t draw in Brooklyn.
It’s not often you can lose a game by 15 and still emerge with a victory. The New York Liberty provided a welcome exception on Sunday.
Their game with the defending champion Seattle Storm was a showing that has become far routine for the Liberty’s 2019 edition: an elite effort from a young, talented squad for 25-30 minutes in a world where games last 40. On an organizational level, however, Sunday provided perhaps the biggest victory the team has had in quite some time.
New York played their first regular-season game at Barclays Center on Sunday. The arena primarily known as the base for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets is a far cry from what has become their customary settings in the suburb of White Plains. Since 2018, Liberty home games have primarily been held at Westchester County Center, a cozy Art Deco-adorned building nearly an hour’s drive away from Brooklyn. WCC’s website lists capacity at 4,400, but that number is often cut in half for Liberty game days.
Brooklyn afforded the Liberty their largest home crowd of the season by far. 7,715 fans came to cheer the team on in their return to the city. The result notwithstanding, the reaction from the stands was unanimously positive.
“I was blown away by the energy of the game,” Liberty fan and Abrams Media lawyer/producer/writer Kelsey Trainor said. “The Liberty had a few opportunities to run away with it. Overall, a fantastic environment and would love to see more Liberty games at Barclays.”
Head coach Katie Smith agreed.
“The crowd was great, atmosphere’s great, energy’s great,” she said. “All the game ops, fans, it has a really fun vibe for basketball. We had a blast today.”
Compared to 2018 average attendance figures, the Brooklyn attendance would rank fifth in the WNBA.
Fans of the four major sports each try to claim that New York is primarily “their” town. With the metropolitan area hosting at least one team in almost every major league, it’s easy to see why. Even MLS has made a mark with two teams bearing the city’s name (even if one plays in New Jersey, as is the case with both NFL squads). But with sites like Rucker Park, West Fourth Street, Columbus Park, and Great Lawn seamlessly embedded into the city’s pristine list of landmarks, it’s hard to deny the grip basketball has on the town.
That’s what’s made the lack of professional success so hard to bear for the area’s dedicated and raucous fanbase. Fortunes may soon reverse for the Nets, but the fact remains that the team has won a single playoff series since migrating from Jersey in 2012. Nothing more needs to be said about the fortunes of Manhattan’s Knicks, if only for the sake of you, the reader.
The Liberty have contrasty been a beacon of WNBA consistency for over two decades. A championship still awaits, but the team has, by far, been the standard for professional basketball in the hoops haven that is New York City. The team has been operating since the league’s inception since 1997. Only seven seasons to date have ended sans the postseason.
Adding to the Liberty’s charm is the fact that some of the team’s most renowned heroines have hailed from New York’s historic boroughs. For example, Tina Charles, the team’s leading scorer, was born in Queens and spent countless hours in Brooklyn, where her father Rawlston continues to own and operate a Calypso record store and recording studio. The establishment, Charlie’s Calypso City, is a short walk from Barclays.
And yet, recent history has denied them the New York privilege they have more than earned.
The final days of the MSG era were marred by controversy and indifference. New York fans are used to the shenanigans of MSG chairman James Dolan, and the Liberty were victims as their Garden clock approached midnight. 2015 saw Dolan name Isiah Thomas (one of many who played a role in the destruction of the Knicks) the team president. Adding to the dubiousness of the transaction was the fact Thomas was found liable in a sexual harassment lawsuit from former MSG employee Anucha Browne-Sanders (a settlement of $11.5 million was later revealed).
MSG put the same up for sale in 2017. As the team floated in limbo, their home games were moved to the cozy arena in White Plains, 45 minutes away from Manhattan. A 45-minute drive for tip-off might as well be two hours when it comes to New York traffic. Thus, the team’s city-based following was alienated and cast aside, leading to dwindling attendance. Two final games at MSG were matinee dates reserved for summer camp attendees.
Back in the city, a sense of normalcy returned to the Liberty fanbase.
“It was a great crowd. Lots of the old guard was there and didn’t feel like there was a lot of free tickets,” Queens native and self-described “Liberty Big Hat Man” Glenn Starkey said. “People were lining up at 1:00 for a 3:00 tip-off. It was very loud, even when Seattle pulled away. I’d say those are all very good signs.”
Charles led the Liberty with 22 points on 10-of-16 shooting on Sunday. At the beginning of the year, Charles referred to Barclays as the “only” right place for Liberty basketball. The local legend not only doubled down on that claim but made a firm statement on what the future should look like.
Charles has taken on many new roles since 2019 commenced. A documentary that centered on Rawlston’s journey and career, her directorial debut, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Throughout a difficult season, some have speculated on whether the right move for Charles and the Liberty would be to part ways. If it came to that borderline unthinkable move, Charles could get her shot at an elusive title, perhaps the last milestone left to tackle on her treasured basketball resume.
Frustrated as she may be with the losses (the Liberty are 15-43 over the past two seasons), Charles has given every indication she wants to stick around for what could become an era defined by Brooklyn.
In a difficult Liberty season, Charles often invokes the memories of the past. She knows the history of this squad, by far the premier professional women’s team in the celebrated metropolitan area. To her, there’s only one place for them.
“It’s not a shot at Westchester, but this organization is deserving of playing in an arena in the likes of Madison Square Garden or Barclays,” Charles said in a polite yet assertive declaration. “It’s more than just my personal opinion, It’s what needs to happen.”
A basketball revolution in the city comes at a time when women’s sports are becoming more mainstream and popularized (each for lack of better terms). To fully take effect, a consistent and strong prescience in the media and sports capital of the world is necessary for the tide to truly turn. After all, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Charles again went historian when assessing the crowd.
“I’m not surprised at the crowd,” she said. “The New York Liberty has a great following. This is a legendary organization, being one of the very first franchises when it started in 97. It wasn’t a shocker to me at all.”
Players and fans alike echoed Charles’ words and firm desires.
“It’s really nice to play in an arena like this,” Bria Hartley said. “I think at the professional level this is what an arena should look like. The fans are eager to get here, eager to support, so you want to continue that in the future.”
“The energy was palpably different compared to WCC. I was glad to see so many people show for this game, as it definitely felt like a test run,” Liberty fan Myles Ehrlich observed. Ehrlich, a Brooklyn native and editor at an environmental consulting firm also offered objective criticism, but it’s a problem he, and presumably the players, the Liberty would be happy to deal with.”
“It did feel less intimate, though, especially with anything (Liberty mascot) Maddie-related, but that’s a fair trade-off for a top-tier venue like that.”
“Top-tier” is the operative term. That was all part of the plan when Taiwan-born billionaire Joseph Tsai took over the team in January. A 49 percent stake of the Nets is among the many assets for the founder of retail conglomerate Alibaba. He’s working on a deal to purchase the remaining portion from Mikhail Prokhorov.
Tsai seemed to make a commitment to Liberty basketball after their time in basketball purgatory. Two dates were announced for Barclays. The first was an exhibition date with the Chinese national team and last Sunday’s game, one that celebrated the team’s annual Unity Day festivities.
“As one of New York’s proudest franchises, the Liberty has played a vital role in New York City over the past 22 years,” Tsai said in his opening statement as New York owner. “The Liberty and WNBA exemplify what it means to compete at the highest level, serve as role models in the local community, and bring greater opportunities to female athletes. Our goal is to continue this important work and help bring the WNBA into its next phase of growth.”
Nothing is confirmed yet, but discussions are ongoing to potentially secure the Liberty the big house they desire. Tsai’s full purchase of both the team and Barclays Center would make that dream closer than ever. The buying of the Brooklyn arena would also come alongside Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. While the latter building has gained a cult following amongst New York Islanders fans, a move for the Liberty would move the Liberty even further away from the city. The so-called “Fort Never lose” is nearly two hours away from Manhattan.
Sunday’s loss somehow became a win. Compared to 2018 season averages, the 7,715 fans in attendance would rank fifth in the league. The only ones ahead of them would be new partners in sharing NBA arenas. That list includes the visiting Storm, who play at the late SuperSonics’ dwelling (formerly known as KeyArena).
The Storm themselves are on a bit of a sabbatical, sent to the University of Washington’s campus and Everett while their regular pad prepares for NHL hockey. The face of the Storm, Sue Bird, knows just how special having Brooklyn would be for her opponent. Bird speaks not only from WNBA experience but as a New York native. The Nassau County native spent her high school days at Queens’ Christ the King…a school that also boasts Charles as an alumna.
“As a basketball fan, (Barclays) is an arena. You’d rather play in an arena rather than a community center,” Bird told Winsidr. “Things happen, and they had to make the best of the hand they were dealt. But I think the Liberty has done that and hopefully this game can be a start of a maybe a new home from them starting next year or the year after that.”
“I think it’s safe to say everyone would love to play here.”
Yet another Liberty fan, Todd Roman, unknowingly expanded on Bird’s futuristic point in reflecting on his Brooklyn experience.
“I hope Tsai gets the team their full-time next season,” Roman noted. “To be able to play in a professional arena would help out this team, put them back on the rada,r and hopefully attract some quality free agents down the road.”
Wins aren’t piling up just yet, but the Liberty are acquiring the pieces. Charles has made her intentions clear. First-round picks Kia Nurse and Asia Durr provide the shooting. International flair has come from the arms and antics of Amanda Zahui B, Rebecca Allen, and Han Xu. The 2019 playoffs may be becoming a pipe dream, but the possibility of another high draft pick awaits. Players have repeatedly expressed their belief and faith in her coach and Hall-of-Famer Katie Smith. This time next year, Brooklyn visits may no longer be a novelty.
The Borough of Churches lost their Dodgers decades ago. In due time, a group of willing Brooklyn Lodgers could well stand in their wake.
On Twitter @GeoffMags5490