(From left) Former Liberty stars Sue Wicks, Teresa Weatherspoon and Crystal Robinson. 

(From left) Former Liberty stars Sue Wicks, Teresa Weatherspoon and Crystal Robinson.  Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli; AP/Shawn Baldwin; AP/Tina Fineberg

Once the playoffs started, they knew it was time to get serious.

Teresa Weatherspoon, Sue Wicks, Crystal Robinson and a dozen or so other players from the Liberty’s heady early years needed to be together to cheer on the franchise’s best team in decades. Now middle-aged and well into their post-playing careers, the former players are scattered around the country. But they weren’t about to let an inconvenient thing like geography stop them.

 And so, the Libs Legends chat string was born.

“Every game, we put on our Liberty shirts and watch the game together, mostly on TV” said Wicks, a fan favorite who now lives in Mastic Beach. “I’m one of the few who can get to a lot of games. We have the chat going the whole time and my teammates are telling me ‘Yell at Breanna Stewart to do this’ or ‘Tell coach Brondello that.’”

When the Liberty meet the Aces Sunday in Las Vegas for Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, it will mark the first time in 21 years the franchise will be playing in the league’s championship series. No one is more excited to see this drought end than this group of Liberty pioneers, who are hoping the team can win the title that they were never able to bring to New York despite making the finals four times in the league’s first six years.

“No one deserves a title more than the city of New York,” said Weatherspoon, the Hall of Fame point guard. “We want a title. We don’t have a title. And that’s all that you have to say.”

The Liberty are the only one of the league’s original eight teams to have never won it all. That stat, however, obscures the fact that the Liberty were a perennial contender in the WNBA’s formative years and their early success helped anchor the league. The Liberty lost to the Houston Comets in the Finals in 1997, 1999 and 2000. They were defeated by the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002.

Robinson, whom the Liberty made the No. 6 overall draft pick in the 1999 draft, has played and coached a number of places over the course of her career. She said nothing matches her experience on the Liberty which she helped get to three finals in four years.

“We all feel a sisterhood,” Robinson said. “The New York Liberty is really something special. You have to perform under some incredible pressure. The expectation for us was always to win, no ifs ands and buts.

“I feel all the former Liberty players are as excited as the organization and players are. I’m so glad to see we are back to where we are getting into the finals. And I think this group has the ability to win it.”

The Liberty and the Aces are both talent-laden superteams with both rosters boasting multiple league MVPs and All-Stars. Yet, it’s the attitude of this Liberty team that the former players identify with most.

They’re playing great basketball and they’re hungry, they’re hungry to bring home a championship. It’s great to see them as hungry as they are, work as hard as they are. That’s what New York is about, the grind. They’re grinding hard and they are working hard. They want it.

“We were never considered the most talented team. We were just a hard-working crew. We came out with a grind just like New York City. We wanted to be known [for what] the city is known for. This group also knows how to grind and work for something.”

This is something often mentioned on the Lib Legends chat string, which on game nights is a mixture of reminiscence, pep talks, basketball strategy and fashion commentary as they share pictures with one another wearing their Liberty swag.

Of course, there are two important Liberty legends who cannot participate in the group chat — Rebecca Lobo and Becky Hammon — though their presence will be front and center throughout this series and is a testament to just how important the early Liberty teams were.

Lobo, the first player drafted by the organization, is ESPN’s lead game and studio audience analyst and will be working the game. “We all listen to her while watching,” Wicks said. “If I’m at a game, I’ll listen to her the next morning just to hear her commentary.”

And then, of course, there is Hammon, the teammate-turned-coach who is attempting to lead the Aces to their second straight championship. Hammon, who made the Liberty as an undrafted free agent in 1999, is close to nearly everyone on the string.

And, under any other circumstances, they would all be cheering for Hammon to win. In fact, Wicks admits that at a recent Aces-Liberty game she felt so guilty rooting against her good friend that she toned it down, a bit.

Still, everyone remembers the pain of getting all the way to the finals but not being able to take the final step

“It was heartbreaking,” Robinson said. “I can say some of us who played still have those ill feelings inside of us about losing those games. Whenever we talk about it, it’s like some of us are right back there again. Hopefully, this year will erase some of it for us.”

Robinson, who was Hammon’s roommate on the road, said it’s hard to balance the desire for the franchise to win one with her desire to see Hammon do well. Weatherspoon, whose half-court shot at the buzzer to force a Game 3 in 1999 is one of the most iconic buckets in WNBA history, said as difficult as it is to root against Hammon, they need the Liberty to win a title.

“Becky Hammon is our little sister, the baby of the family," Weatherspoon said. "It’s hard to see and I’m sure there’s emotions flowing through her. But she’s bringing her team in to win, and she doesn’t care who it’s against. Your heart roots for her cause she’s like your little sister.

At the same time, this is an organization we all played for and we don’t have a title.

“And we want one.”

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