Why Moving New York's WNBA Team Was A Big Mistake

Photo: Sam Wasson/Getty Images.
The 1990’s were one of the few heydays of Knicks basketball in New York. From the time I was a pre-teen until I was solidly into college, the Knicks were my obsession and they provided enough drama, enough talent, enough almosts — almost great, almost champions, almost dynastic — to justify my attention.
After Knicks losses, I’d rewrite history in my bedroom playing on the tiny Nerf hoop above my door. Clearly the only thing the Knicks were missing on those nights was me: a five-foot-six Upper West Side teenager with spindly arms and the unfortunate habit of dribbling the ball off her left knee whenever she attempted a cross-over dribble through her legs. No matter. I was sure if given the opportunity, I would rise to the occasion and become a wheeling, dealing, stealing All-Star PG.
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But even while conjuring these ridiculous fantasies in my tiny bedroom, I’d always have to include one other dimension — the fantasy of the Knicks drafting the first and only female basketball player to the NBA.
For boys who grow up in America playacting in their backyards or on public playgrounds, pretending to hit a Grand Slam homer at the bottom of the 9th, or swishing the buzzer-beater in game 7 of the NBA Finals, there is no other barrier to entry in their imagination to the world of professional sports other than their ability. For the entirety of their childhoods, boys are allowed the false belief they can one day be a pro baller. Santa can exist for them through High School. College even. Girls never get that. The fantasies they harbor always have to include being the first to break the gender barrier.
That was the case for every sport but Tennis until 1997, when I was seventeen.

For the entirety of their childhoods, boys are allowed the false belief they can one day be a pro baller. Santa can exist for them through High School. College even. Girls never get that.

There are certain firsts you experience as a teenager that remain perfect, intact as a memory in a vacuum sealed bottle. The freedom and terror of your first time away from home. The first time you read a book that changes your world-view or blows your mind. The first time you find out a piece of information about your parents that puts them into context as something other than living gods. The sensation, and perhaps disappointment, of your first kiss.
On June 21, 1997, the WNBA held the first ever pro women’s basketball game between the New York Liberty and the Los Angeles Sparks. Though I’ve watched thousands of Knicks games, I can’t remember a single one with the clarity I remember that first WNBA game – not just the action on the court, but who I was in the moment I watched it. A young, eager, hopeful girl, unable to sit still in my parents’ bedroom. The feeling of the red indented dot against my fingertip as I pushed record on my parents’ old VCR attached to their bedroom TV. The light of the late afternoon sun reflecting off the curved glass of the television. The jagged seam of the worn out leather basketball I was nervously fidgeting.
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At 17, I didn’t have the full context to understand that I was a product of a grand cultural experiment. In 1972, Congress passed the landmark legislation Title IX that stated no one can be excluded from or discriminated against in any educational activity receiving federal funding on the basis of sex. This has directly contributed to the fact that college enrollment percentages among men and women have inverted, from 58 percent men to 42 percent women in the 1970s, to the reverse in 2017, according to The Atlantic. It’s been especially influential in the way college athletics are run. Schools were forced to offer equal opportunities in sports and dedicate equal amounts of athletic scholarship dollars for male and female athletes based on enrollment percentages.
Born in 1979, I am a member of a generation of girls who have grown up alongside Title IX and have directly benefited from it. One half of my life so far — my youth — belonged in many ways to the before, when Title IX was taking root, when it was totally normal for female athletes to be treated as second class citizens. The second half of my life has been in the after — post-WNBA, post-1999 Women’s Soccer World Cup, post-Venus and Serena, when two generations of female athletes have now lived with equal funding and equal access, so that we are no longer a sub-segment of the population but an actual juggernaut, a demographic that American companies must create products for and market to; for the real gauge of success in this country is if your group is large enough and powerful enough to influence markets.
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Even without the full context of history on June 21st, sitting nervously in my parents’ bedroom I understood the gravity and importance of the moment. I knew the WNBA would always be on borrowed time unless it caught fire with fans. I knew that women would never be able to replicate the NBA’s game – that there would be no glass-shattering dunks, or players like Jordan who could stop time. I knew snarky, glib male sportswriters were sharpening their pencils, waiting to gleefully write those take-downs. And when Lisa Leslie had the chance to dunk, I knew that if she missed, it would be painful. And it was.
Still, the moment was heavy with joy. For the first time in my life, people who looked like me, who walked like me, who had the same obsession as me - even if they were so much better than me - got the chance to reach their full potential. To pursue their version of happiness.

An entire generation of adults have grown up in an America that has never known a time when there wasn’t a professional sports league for women.

It’s now almost 22 years later. There are players currently playing in the WNBA who were born after that game. An entire generation of adults have grown up in an America that has never known a time when there wasn’t a professional sports league for women. For those of us who know the before, when girls had to wear boys’ sneakers, and female athletes were never featured in an ad campaign unless they were gorgeous and half-naked, when the idea of a woman coaching a team in the NBA was so ridiculous, it wasn’t even a thought experiment, this all feels a bit like waking up on another planet.
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And yet, when the Liberty was quietly moved out of their 20-year home at Madison Square Garden where they consistently drew an average of 10,000 fans to Westchester County Center, a tiny arena about an hour outside of the city that seats just 2,300, for their 2018 and 2019 seasons, it hardly got any press.
For the last 20 years, the Liberty have been under the thumb of James Dolan, Chairman of The Madison Square Garden Company, who also owns the Knicks and the Rangers. The team was just sold to Joe Tsai, a minority owner in the Brooklyn Nets, after being placed on the auction block two years ago.
In the time that Dolan has owned the team, it’s been clear that the Liberty have been an afterthought - from small, immeasurable slights like a seeming disinterest in allocating marketing and advertising dollars, to the slap in the face of appointing Isaiah Thomas, the former Knicks coach who was found guilty of sexual harassment, as the president of the Liberty in 2015.
But there is a cutting symbolism in sending one of the most popular WNBA franchises to a rinky dink arena in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. For the pros who play for that team and the fans who love them — so many of them girls and young women — what it says is: you don’t matter.
When I found out about the Liberty’s banishment, the grown-up me wasn’t surprised. I’d worked as a woman in sports for many years and was familiar with subtle sexist slights and crushing disappointments. I’d had years under my belt of reading snarky male sportswriters’ vicious columns about the WNBA, all but ensuring their young male readers would grow up thinking the WNBA was horribly uncool and the players were clearly inferior.
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But the 17-year-old girl who still lives inside me, the one who thought the world was really changing sitting in her parents’ bedroom on June 21, 1997, well, she was shattered.

But the 17-year-old girl who still lives inside me, the one who thought the world was really changing sitting in her parents’ bedroom on June 21, 1997, well, she was shattered.

My apartment building has a hoop in its back courtyard. It’s old and is missing a net and who knows if it’s a regulation 10 feet from the ground. It’s affixed to a concrete overhang attached to the adjacent building and it feels higher than 10-feet to me, but maybe that’s just because I don’t have the ups I used to. In warm months, I go back there when I have some spare time and shoot around. Sometimes I take my four-year-old son. I’ve taught him to cheer when I swish a shot and boo when I throw up an air ball. When people walk by and see us, everyone smiles.
I’d always planned to take him to a Liberty game as soon as he was old enough. It was important to me that the first pro basketball game he’d ever see was a game between women. I know he’ll eventually be a Knicks fan – every New York City kid is – but I thought it would be a beautiful, poetic thing for my son to be a Liberty fan first. I grew up learning to play on the city courts with Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley as my teachers. What if my kid’s teachers were Tina Charles and Sugar Rodgers?
I hope New York doesn’t lose that team permanently. It would break my heart. I have no idea if Tsai will move the Liberty out of state or if he’ll send them to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn where the Nets play. If so, I’ll be there with my kid. We’ll get good seats across from the benches on the half court line. We’ll share a popcorn. I’ll explain what’s going on — see, that’s a fast break, look how fast she is! That’s a blocked shot, look how high she jumps! I’ll buy him a jersey of the player he likes the best. On our subway ride home, I’ll ask him what part was his favorite. He’ll surprise me with his answer. And then we’ll go on with our day. Nothing extraordinary — maybe read some books, play with some Legos, eat some dinner. He’ll go to sleep dreaming of basketball players in teal jerseys and ponytails playing under sleek black industrial rafters and the promise of a fresh start. He’ll never know what his mom knows. How tenuous it all is. How unbelievable.
Dana Czapnik's critically acclaimed debut novel The Falconer was published in January 2019. She is a 2018 Fellow in Fiction from The New York Foundation for the Arts and a former sports journalist.
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