Summer Hoops At The Garden

For New Yorkers, there’s added reason to be amped about WNBA basketball.
by May 23, 2014
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The jingle of the ice-cream truck, the call of ladies pushing their flavorful Italian ice carts, a packed crowd oooooing and aahhhhhing between the staccato call of referee whistles; this is New York City summer basketball. Those familiar with the scene conjure up hoops at Dyckman, West 4th Street and EBC at the Rucker. Summertime in New York City draws its flavor from rangy crossovers, a spin move followed by a no-look-dime off to a cutter baseline, and the occasional big-name pro making an appearance in town.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to familiarize with another warm-weather league, the WNBA, a league that epitomizes all that we love about summertime basketball. Since the League’s birth in 1997, the level of talent has heightened and the distribution of that talent evened. The fundamentals that brought many early adopter fans in are now coupled with rising athletic talent and recognizable big-name players with followings carried over from storied college careers.

For New Yorkers, there’s added reason to be amped about WNBA basketball. New York’s home team, the New York Liberty, returns to its rightful home of Madison Square Garden after a three-year hiatus due to renovations. New York Liberty basketball is literally summer hoops at the Garden. The rivalries, the hype, the hoop culture pulsing through the veins of New Yorkers are all present, rocking the house at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Fitting for the Big Apple, the team is stocked with marquee players, a former NBA champion as coach, home grown stars, and storylines sprinkled with feel-good and drama.

New York Liberty second year head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer, known for the toughness and physicality he brought to the game, may have left a sour taste in the mouths of some New York fans who loved to despise the two-time Detroit Pistons champion of 1989 and 1990. But in addition to the legacy left from his playing days, the original Bad Boy has steadily built an impressive reputation for himself on the women’s side of the game.

Laimbeer is a three-time WNBA champion, having realized quick success with the Detroit Shock in the early to mid 2000s. After stepping away from the WNBA in 2009 to spend time with family and to accept a stint as assistant coach with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, he returned to the WNBA last season with the Liberty, only to fall short of rather high expectations. Injuries plagued the 2013 New York roster. Athletic wing Essence Carson, on the verge of a breakout season, tore her ACL and super veteran Cheryl Ford never made it out of the gate with too many miles on her battle-tested body. The Liberty missed the playoffs after a rough 11-23 season.

The 2014 season brings in a new squad that features four new faces including the addition to the 2012 WNBA MVP, Tina Charles. Laimbeer carved his path to three WNBA championships in Detroit with thoughtful maneuvering in the offseason and leveraged those skills again for this season. In the head coach and general manager role for New York, Bill made the most of a No. 4 lottery pick in the draft and packaged it with a young raw talent in Kelsey Bone and the Liberty’s 2015 first-round draft pick to trade with the Connecticut Sun for one of women’s basketball’s most dominant young stars, 26-year-old and New York City native, Tina Charles.

The blockbuster trade left Connecticut simmering—they did not want to give up their WNBA All-Star and claim Charles made it clear she wanted out by asking for a trade. Connecticut Sun vice president and general manager Chris Sienko said, “We’re not going to be held hostage by anybody. We had to do what’s best for our organization and fan base. New York came back with a significant offer…that’s a great trade.”

After four years of playing professionally in Connecticut as well as overseas, most recently in Russia, a homesick Charles described returning to her hometown as a blessing, “The opportunity to be in New York is a dream come true,” said Charles. “My mom always took me to the Liberty games, I’d see Rebecca Lobo, Becky Hammon, Teresa Weatherspoon before games. This is a big dream to play at the Garden.”

A Queens, New York native, Charles attended Christ The King high school, a nationally ranked basketball powerhouse churning out other great female hoopers like Sue Bird and Chamique Holdsclaw. Charles continued to excel on the collegiate level under Geno Auriemma at the perennial power, University of Connecticut. She graduated in 2010 as a two-time National Champion, the John R. Wooden National Player of the Year and the No. 1 draft pick in the 2010 WNBA draft.

Along with an incredible pedigree, Charles brings leadership on and off the court to the Big Apple. Committed to philanthropic service, she has already built out her Hopey’s Heart foundation that supplies AEDs (Automated External Defibrillators) to schools and built a school in Mali, Africa. Charles has achieved a lot, yet she comes to New York looking to accomplish a goal she’s never reached: win a WNBA championship and bring the elusive title to New York City.

After a 1-1 split, two games into the regular season schedule Bill Laimbeer sees a bright future for his newly acquired dominant post. “I like the athleticism Tina’s shown. She has much more to bring than what she’s showing and we want to bring that out.” He also commented on her basketball IQ, “Tina is a willing learner. That, plus a team that has a year under their belt with my system, is going to help.  The team understands the structure I want after having a year to play in it.”

The WNBA summer hoops season moves quickly, and a challenge for all teams is to mesh together quickly. At 6-5, solid built, Charles can be found getting in deep with her back to the basket and drop-stepping baseline or counter spinning middle for sweeping artistic hook shots over defenders. She’s expanded her game to include a mid range jumper and passes out of double teams increasingly well. Tina Charles needs the rock. However, so does another superstar, Cappie Pondexter.

Pondexter is exactly what New Yorkers can’t get enough of.  A lightning quick Allen Iverson-esque crossover to set up a step back fade-away jay that slips past the outstretched hands of a sadly defeated defender at the buzzer; yes, that’s what the Rutgers grad and WNBA All Star provides. At any self respecting summer hoops tournament in the city the emcee/hype man on the microphone would have a lot to say about Pondexter, “The bigger the shot the more she likes it. She is swag! She is confidence! Cappie puts the sizzle in the summer!”  Along with that sizzle, Pondexter provides substance; Cappie is a proven champion, having already won two titles with the Phoenix Mercury in 2007 and 2009.

Last season, Laimbeer made a shift in the All-Star guard’s game, shifting her from the shooting guard to the point guard or “lead guard” position. Pondexter embraced the challenge, however, struggled at times with the nuances of poised point guard play and choosing when to take her shot. Both Laimbeer and Pondexter have expressed desire to continue down the path of converting the slippery scorer into a combo guard creator.

Laimbeer is making a second attempt at successfully implementing the Triangle offense with the Liberty. With the Triangle being anchored through the post, Laimbeer can “take advantage of having one of the best post players in the world in Charles,” he explains. “The triangle is a post dominated offense. It runs through the post on the low box and elbow. We’re not a great three-ball shooting team we’re more slashing and cutting. I plan to use the Triangle more than I plan to use set plays,” he continued.

The triangle works when smart reads are made against the defense and also when the team keeps good spacing and timing. It’s more cerebral than, say, a “clear it out and watch Cappie work” isolation play, which past Liberty squads have been known to do. Laimbeer considered how Pondexter would find her shots this season, “The offense dictates who gets what. It goes into the post first and it depends on how fast teams will double Tina and how efficient Tina is with the ball. Cappie will still be a creator for us, she will find her shots, but she won’t be as ball dominant as she’s been in the past few years.”

Pondexter welcomes the shift of focus, “I’m excited to have Tina. She’s a great player, competitor, Olympian. To have her on the floor at the same time will be special. They have to decide who they want to double. We’ll open up a lot of things for each other,” she said.

Two superstars, a second year head coach, and a return to Madison Square Garden headline the 2014 New York Liberty season. Summer basketball has officially returned to New York, boosted by the rich tradition of past Liberty glory and fueled by new blood and fresh faces.  Add one more league to your summer basketball schedule; Summer Hoops at The Garden has commenced.

Catch the next home game, Tuesday, May 27, 7:00 p.m. EST as the New York Liberty host Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm at Madison Square Garden.

Ros works as an analyst and reporter for MSG Networks covering the New York Liberty, for ESPN and Pac-12 Networks breaking down NCAA basketball, and for the NBA D-League covering the Santa Cruz Warriors.