Since 18 May 2003 I’ve been to nine basketball games, which is about as many professional sporting events as I’ve been to in my entire life. Back home on the rare occasions I’d go it was mostly to see the cricket: test cricket.
Going to Madison Square Garden up to three times a week to see the New York Liberty play is a very strange cultural experience for this non-USian. All sport everywhere in the world is about rituals, but I’ve never encountered a sporting event with quite this many.
There’s the orchestrated chants. The most complicated of which goes: "Let’s Go Liberty!" (Might be worth it to employ the Barmy Army to come up with some better ones. Those boys know their chants.)
Then there’s Maddie the Liberty mascot (who I discovered only recently is meant to be a dog). Everyone wants to dance with Maddie (he’s not a bad dancer) or at the very least get a hug or shake hands. So far I’ve not had the honour. Though at the Connecticut game (1 July 2003: the Liberty destroyed them 90 to 64) we brought along a friend, and while I was in the bathroom, Maddie came up, hugged and practically sat in the lap of Scott and George and left just as I returned. No fair.
I’m thinking of writing the ACB to suggest the adoption of a mascot. On second thoughts the 2000 Olympic mascots were pretty dire. Maybe not. Be cool if they could have a Keith Miller cool-dude fifties-guy mascot. (Would love to have a link to show you all how gorgeous Miller was in his day, but couldn’t find one good photo of him online. Not one. Nor could I find a link to the excellent-anecdotes-about-Miller-the-archetypal-larrikin site. What’s the point of the WWW, people? Why do these sites not exist?)
The Liberty have not one, but two, cheerleading squads. The grown-up Torch Patrol who do all sorts of dance routines adorned in fabulous you-must-rush-to-buy-it-for-yourself Liberty gear. On the weekends there’s the Li’l Torches who are really really wee. One is so very tiny you could easily hold her in the palm of your hand. Very cute. Very disturbing.
I like to get to the Garden early to make sure I get my free giveaway (best one so far: a New York Liberty oven mitt. Worst one: a crappy promotional poster for Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle—uggh) and so I can start screaming when the Liberty come running out of the tunnel. I love to scream (happy screams). But, hey, who doesn’t? I bet there are heaps of people at sporting events who go solely cause it gives them an excuse to scream their lungs out.
The next highlight is the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner". Singing the national anthem is not de rigeur at sporting events in Australia. Practically the only time you hear it is during medal presentations at the Commonwealth (where you hear it a lot) and the Olympic Games (not so much). I can’t say as how I’ve ever looked forward to hearing "Advance Australia Fair" sung. It’s a funeral dirge with less-than-captivating lyrics that I and most of my fellow Australians seem incapable of remembering beyond the second line. Many have tried to arrange "Advance Australia Fair" to make it more appealing. All attempts have failed.
We Australians made a grave error with our choice of anthem (and, no, "Waltzing Matilda" wouldn’t’ve cut it either). We should have chosen a song that’s full of unbelievably tricky bits only a trained professional can sing without breaking their vocal chords.
It turns out that the performance of the "Star Spangled Banner" is not just about patriotism. There’s way more to it than that. Singing the US national anthem is a sometimes uncomfortable spectacle (like watching a tight-rope walker). Will the soloist reach the high notes? Will they reach those notes without sounding like crap?
American crowds whistle and stomp for those who hit the scary notes with clarity (often while they’re hitting those notes—just like at a jazz concert). They even applaud those who don’t quite hit them but make a decent effort. Encouragement applause. Failure is indicated by embarrassed silence. No-one says a word. It’s like the audience has decided to forget the whole thing instantly.
After the singing contest the baddies are introduced. And they really are the baddies. There’s hardly ever any polite applause for the visiting team. None of that humbug for your New York crowd. Nope, they boo. Particularly if it’s Lisa Leslie or, even worse, Debbie Black (awesome players both of them). I have to confess that I booed Lisa Leslie too, but in a mellow I-don’t-really-mean-it kind of way. She’s the US Olympic basketballer who was mean to our Lauren Jackson in 2000. All because nice Lauren accidentally pulled one of Lisa’s hair pieces out during a game. An innocent mistake! And, honestly, what’s with wearing hair pieces during a pro basketball match?
Not only do they boo the opposing players but they don’t applaud the good plays they make. This sits oddly with me. I’m used to cricket. If an opposing player does something cool you clap. Maybe not as loud as you would if it were one of your guys, but you still clap because, well, it was a cool shot and coolness must always be applauded. Not in New York City you don’t. Not unless you’re actually supporting the baddies in which case it’s okay. You can expect to be joshed about it, but gently (unless, of course, your side has the audacity to win, then the kidding gets a little less gentle).
My compromise is that I applaud all the Australian players (sadly there aren’t any on the Liberty). I’ve cleared this with the other season ticket holders nearby, who’ve agreed that as long as I’m not busted applauding non-Australian baddies that’s okay. This is a bit tricky when Janeth Arcain is playing. She’s a fabulous Brazilian player who I can’t help but applaud. So I lied. I told them that she used to play in Australia, making her practically Australian, and they’ve agreed I can cheer her too.
Then they introduce the goodies: the NEW YORK LIBERTY!!! (The announcer has an all-caps, many exclamation marks, kind of announcing style.) Lots of screaming at this point and by now almost all of the crowd has filed in, which could be 12,000 or more. That’s a lot of noise. The crowd is very mixed. Black, white, brown. Predominately female, though in a 60/40, not 90/10 kind of a way. Many dykes, and handfuls of old blokes who can’t afford Knicks tickets. There’s lots of dyke and straight families, so you get to see wee little boys and girls running around in Teresa Weatherspoon and Becky Hammon jerseys. A few too many celebrities: Joan Jett, Rosie O’Donnell, Judge Hackett, Matthew Modine, famous retired Liberty (yay Kym Hampton! Sue Wicks!) and Knicks players (nice to see the boys supporting the girls).
We scream ourselves hoarse for the starting line up: Vickie Johnson (shooting guard), Tari Phillips (centre), Crystal Robinson (forward), Teresa Weatherspoon (point guard), and Tamika Whitmore (forward). I scream loudest for my favourite, Tamika Whitmore. She’s kind of a heart-breaking player to love cause she’s so hot and cold. But when she’s good, damn, but she’s good. Plus she looks unbelievably great in her civvies. When other team members are injured they show up resplendent in pastels. Uggh. Tamika’s all black and olive and cool as hell. I love that she always looks serious. If some jerk-off bloke on the street told her to, "Smile, sweetie", I like to think she’d deck him. The rareness of Tamika’s smiles makes them even more excellent.
Everyone cheers Theresa Weatherspoon cause, well, she’s T-Spoon and everyone (who isn’t insane) loves her. Crafty as a fox, leads the league in assists, sets up plays like you wouldn’t believe, and when you least expect it—scores! A legend. (I also like that she’s older than I am.)
After the introductions, all eleven players on the roster throw free T-shirts into the crowd. Including my other favourite, Elena Baranova. Elena is superb and has a very complete game. She’s 196cm (6ft 5in) so naturally she blocks and rebounds, but she can shoot jump shots, even threes! Elena’s been a pro since she was sixteen and has been on the Russian (or Soviet or whatever it was called in any given year) National Team like a gazillion times.
Cause she’s so fab I started wearing my Russian T-shirt (it’s actually a Nom D T-shirt from Dunedin, NZ) with the word RED (KRASNY) printed on it in Russian (pardon the no cyrillic alphabet). One of my Russian friends, Valeria, taught me how to say Elena so I sound Russian. Every game I’d wave my arms and yell "Elena!" and generally try to attract her attention in hopes of scoring a T-shirt from her.
Sadly, the first few times she didn’t hear me and was intent on setting some kind of distance record with her throws. Then, and this is another very cool thing about Madison Square Garden, on the one hand, it’s vast and you’re sitting there as part of a crowd of 15,000, and on the other hand, there’s a strange kind of intimacy. One glorious day Elena heard me, she saw my Russian/NZ T-shirt, and threw a Liberty T in my direction. It arced through the air, headed straight for me. I reached for it, felt it brush my hands, thought I had it, then watched in despair as it sailed through my stupid traitor hands to the people several rows behind. Oh the agony! Oh the unco-ness of me.
Two days later, at the next home game, I tried again. I yelled, I hollered. Elena smiled and threw the T-shirt. A little softer this time. Too soft. It was snagged by a bratty boy two rows in front of me. Elena shrugged and kind of half-smiled.
I had to wait five days for our next attempt. This time Elena came straight up to my end of the court. She gave me a broad smile and made no mistake about throwing it directly to me. At last! I didn’t flub it and no brat leapt up to snatch it from me. Elena grinned and gave me the thumbs up. Third time’s a charm. My new mission (gotta have a mission) is to get her to sign my brand-new courtesy-of-her-fine-throwing-arm fetching green Liberty T-shirt. Then my life will be complete.
Then of course there’s the actual game. Liberty are a heartbreak team. They win most of their games at home (so far this season they’re 6-2). But individually they’re erratic and injury-prone. You never know who (if anyone) is going to be on song. By far the worst moment this year was in the game against Detroit on 27 June 2003. They were on a winning streak; we were not. Becky Hammon, our top scorer this season, came on a few minutes into the first half. She’d barely been in the game a minute, when she made a routine pass that went shockingly wild. I turned to look and she was clutching her right knee and then she was on the ground. It looked really bad. (Tamika helped carry her off.) And, naturally, it was her ACL, so no more Hammon for the rest of the season. I’d love to say we rallied and took that game, but Detroit won by five. It was agonising.
I am less destroyed by our losses than Scott. I guess it’s because I’m still revelling in seeing so many unbelievably strong and amazing women week after week. I know it smacks of hokey seventies feminism (I’m sure you can hear Helen Reddy’s "I am Woman" swelling up in the background) but seeing all those players (the baddies as well as the Liberty), who come in a vast array of sizes: tall, short, really really tall, skinny, strong, big, and even bigger, with their tiny tits, big tits, huge arses, no arses, it really gets to me. It’s so wonderful.
Their ball skills are incredible. Not just on the court, but when they’re standing around during timeouts, twirling the ball idly in their hands, behind their backs, bouncing it off their knees. They walk like women who’ve never been hamstrung by high heels. They stride, they don’t mince. They make me so happy.
When I was growing up my relatives (never my parents) were always telling me that there were operations available to slow my growth. If I was too tall I’d never get a husband (uggh, who the hell would want one?). I was 172.5cm (just under 5ft 8in) when I was twelve. Sadly I’m still 172.5cm. Tamika Whitmore is 188cm (6ft 2in). The tallest woman in the WNBA is Margo Dydek at 218cm (7ft 2in). One of the shortest is Debbie Black at 160cm (5ft 3in). They’re all fabulous players.
I spent most of high school avoiding PE, particularly organised sports. We girls were not much encouraged in sporting pursuits. I didn’t find out until much later that there are quite a few sports that are fun (fencing, climbing, tennis) and that I’m not too foul at them.
I love being part of a huge crowd that loudly and overwhelmingly values these women, that thinks they’re beyond-words awesome, and worth supporting, worth paying money to watch, worth getting obsessed about (in a non-stalkery way).
It’s sublime when the Liberty actually get their shit together like they did against Connecticut on 1 July 2003. For the first time all season, everyone played great, from the lowliest rookie who’s barely had ten minutes all year, through to the stars like Tari Phillips and Crystal Robinson (who, still nursing an ankle sprain, was only allowed to play cause she begged and begged the coach, and ended up being most valuable player). We won by 26. It were poetry, I tell you.
Scott and me, we’ve developed our own Liberty viewing rituals. We’ve gotten to know the other season ticket holders near us. Before each game the folks in our row all discuss how the away games went (mostly badly, the Liberty don’t thrive away from the Garden), who’s injured, who’s back from injury, and who the danger players are on the other side. When the game starts, if there are free seats in our row, we shift across so that we can sit closer to the centre line, and then we all grin sheepishly, and shift back, when people actually show up for those seats.
Even if it’s raining Scott and I walk to and from the game. Full of anticipation on the way there: what will our lucky surprise be? Another bottle jersey? Will the Liberty explode or implode? And on the way back we relive the entire game (though Scott never dwells enough on my T-shirt saga with Elena).
The last ritual of the night is dinner at Counter. Not only does it have fab food and wine and the most comfortable, inviting bar in Manhattan, but the owners, Donna and Deborah, are Liberty fans always eager to be told about the game.
New York City, 8 July 2003