After the WNBA All-Star Game, one of the topics among a group of us media folks was how badly the good ship New York Liberty was listing, and what could be done to try to right it.
Furthermore, how important it was not to lose or largely alienate the important New York fan base by giving them a product not worthy of their devotion (zealous obsession). I’ve been known to poke a bit of fun at Liberty fans in the past _ OK, a lot _ but it’s always with affection. I love that they are funny and passionate and say what’s on their mind without a lot (or any) of cushioning around it.
And that they are sometimes hilariously profane in their assessment of situations. Whereas a Midwesterner might say, “I’m really frustrated because the team doesn’t appear to be headed in the right direction and I know everyone is trying hard, but I’m worried that that don’t seem to be answers,” …. the New Yorker might say, “Oh, (blank!) We’re (blanked!).”
The league needs Liberty fans to be fired up, to be engaged, to be second-guessing every coaching move, to be cheering their hearts out with every victory and to be ticked off at every defeat. The worst possible thing is to have them be disengaged. It’s a thin line between love and hate, but when it comes to successful spectator sports, either is infinitely better than the flat line of apathy.
And that may be what, as much as anything, cost Pat Coyle her head-coaching job in New York. Growing fan indifference goes hand-in-hand with losses, the latest of which _ by three points to Washington on Thursday _ left the Liberty 6-11 and in last place in the Eastern Conference. If there had been a feeling that the Liberty was just going through some rough times, but ultimately was going to come around, maybe Coyle would have kept her job.
Since general manager Carol Blazejowski wasn’t going to fire herself for assembling this team, and the team itself couldn’t be dismantled, then letting Coyle go was the only remaining option. The fact that the assistant who took over, Anne Donovan, is the recent Olympic coach, a WNBA finals winner and one of the most recognizable names in women’s hoops obviously makes the decision somewhat easier for Blazejowski.
However, considering how long she and Coyle have worked together – Blaze has been there since Day 1 in 1997; Coyle came aboard as a Liberty assistant in December 1998 _ it had to be difficult. Even though Blaze’s canned “statement” sounded as cold, bloodless and unfeeling as such things usually do.
“We thank Patty for her contributions to the New York Liberty over the past 11 seasons; I have great personal and professional respect for her. However, at this time I decided that a change was in the best interests of the team.”
Consider that last season, the Liberty really gave Detroit a run for its money in the Eastern Conference finals. But this year, New York looks rudderless. And it feels more like a state of mind now with the Liberty, more than just a passing gloomy period. That’s what must change.
And, as mentioned, it’s important for the Liberty to provoke passion – positive and negative – from its own fans and those throughout the league. But this team – despite playing in the publicity capital of the known universe – feels almost like a phantom, something you sense is there but don’t actually see.
Who, among those who follow the WNBA, has been talking much about the Liberty this season? Who’s been paying much attention, except, unfortunately, to wonder if/when Coyle might get fired?
The team’s All-Star was Shameka Christon, and she is averaging 18.2 ppg. This is her sixth WNBA season, and she has really blossomed the past three years. But the plain fact is she still doesn’t have much name recognition. Some of this is carried over from college. It wasn’t easy to get face time being at Arkansas and not going to the NCAA tournament your senior year, while at the same time players like Diana Taurasi, Alana Beard, Nicole Powell and Lindsay Whalen were dominating the collegiate stage.
Christon was the fifth pick overall behind those four in 2004, and had a rather anonymous rookie season, averaging 5.8 ppg. As she’s ascended into being the Liberty’s best player, though, it doesn’t seem as if she’s gained the kind of stature that … well, frankily you’d hope the best player for the team in the Big Apple should have.
Sure, it would have been the league’s PR dream had Taurasi ended up in Manhattan. But there was no way to really rig that into happening. And none of this is meant to be disrespectful to Christon. (In fact, maybe it’s as much to tweak the WNBA’s hype machine to give her more.) Nor is it to say there aren’t other interesting players on this team, including Janel McCarville and Essence Carson.
But there’s no getting around that there is little real “star power” on a team that is located in – did I mention this? – NEW FREAKING YORK! Look … the sizzle matters there, as well as the (vegetarian) steak.
Meanwhile, aside from just that, the Liberty has assembled a team that was good enough to almost make the WNBA finals last year …. and yet still felt oddly patchwork, like a living room that five different people attempted to decorate without talking to each other. Now, the Liberty seems even less cohesive.
Also, the franchise has taken perverse pride this season and the last two in how “youthful” it is. Christon is the most experienced player with five previous seasons. But there’s such a thing as being “too young,” and I think the Liberty is – and has been for too long. Which is funny, because at one time with this franchise, it was just the opposite: The feeling that it didn’t have enough youthful spark. Balance, Libs, balance.
Who on this Liberty roster is the veteran post player who could, for example, take rookie Kia Vaughn aside and give her advice that she’d listen to? As in, the tough-love, no-BS kind. We all know Vaughn is immensely talented … yet seemed to be visiting other planets during several games her senior season at Rutgers. When she’s engaged in the task at hand, she can be a force in this league. Yes, she’s got former Scarlet Knights teammate Carson there in New York, but it would be good seeing her paired with the type of interior player she would learn from every day in practice. (Especially when you also add in the fact that C. Vivian Stringer’s Rutgers teams have been more noted for the development of guards than of posts).
Who on the Liberty roster is the one taking over vocally when that sort of thing is needed? And really feels like she can say whatever is necessary to get people’s heads together and yet not alienate anybody? I don’t know … and the thing is, with pretty much any successful team in the league, even outside observers can usually correctly pick that person (or persons.)
Not sure how much of that Donovan can really address the rest of this season. But to the extent that she can, she’s going to have to.