GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Swin Cash still smiles when she talks about it. In the midst of last season, the best in team history, one memory stands out. She was walking down the street in Harlem and a stranger called her name, finishing off with “Go Liberty!”
It’s a small thing, and one that isn’t likely to impress too many professional athletes in New York, but Cash knows that for a WNBA team, the road to recognition is a long one. So when Madison Square Garden buzzed during the Liberty’s playoff run, or when the team’s teal–and-white jerseys started popping up around Penn Station, it mattered.
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The Liberty opens its season May 14 at Washington and wants to make it happen again.
“We really felt the rejuvenation of the Liberty,” said Cash, a 14-year veteran. “Things like people recognizing you on the street] make you feel that people are paying attention. I think we took a step in the right direction and accomplished a lot of what we wanted to do in the community, and now it’s about building on that. We don’t want to take a step backward.”
It’s the 20-year anniversary of the WNBA this season and the Liberty is the only original eight team still in existence to not win a championship — a fact that was brought up over and over during Thursday’s media day at the MSG practice facility.
After three straight losing seasons, the Liberty finished first in the Eastern Conference last year before losing to Indiana in three games in the best-of-three conference finals.
“We still have a sour taste in our mouth,” Cash said.
It’s no secret why: The Liberty’s 23-11 record was its best ever, and it lost Game 2 after taking an 18-point lead in the second quarter.
Coach Bill Laimbeer said his team has every possibility of returning to that stage and possibly going further. Though the Liberty has lost Epiphanny Prince to an ACL injury, it also has acquired former Fever guard Shavonte Zellous and boasts one of the best players in the game in Tina Charles, who will represent the United States in the Rio Olympics this summer.
“It’s a big motivation to know you’re right there,” Charles said. “No one wants to lose, especially when you get that close . . . I think about it all the time. If we would have handled ourselves better] in Game 2.”
Isiah Thomas, now in his second year as team president, said interest in the WNBA and the Liberty is trending upward.
“I think the WNBA finds itself in a very similar position to where the NBA was in its 20-, 25-year infancy,” he said. “There was a question in this country at one point in time, would corporate America and would fans come out and watch African- Americans come out and play basketball? The same question is being asked right now in this country: Will people come out and watch women play basketball? And if you measure apples to apples in terms of where the NBA was in its first 20 years and where the WNBA is in its first 20 years, the WNBA is actually positioned better than the NBA was.”