Although she hails from Pineland, Texas (pop. 862), New York Liberty point guard Teresa Weatherspoon needed all of 20 minutes to start acting like a native of the Big Apple. During the first week of June, three weeks before the WNBA season began, the Liberty came together for a double-decker bus tour of Manhattan and a party at the All Star Cafe in Times Square. When the bus stopped in Battery Park so the players could take a look at the team's namesake statue standing tall in the harbor, Weatherspoon jumped a fence, hopped onto a police boat that had come to shore and introduced herself to the officers on board, who turned out to be basketball fans. The feisty guard, who sparked Louisiana Tech to the NCAA title in 1988, promptly made her way to the boat's bridge and, with the officers' blessing, took control of the vessel, gunning the engines and heading straight for a Circle Line cruise ship as her teammates and onlookers cheered from the shore.
Less than a half hour in Manhattan and Weatherspoon was already looking to take out a boatload of tourists. In New York this is what you call the beginning of a beautiful relationship between the masses and the Misses. In the last few weeks members of the Liberty have appeared on Live with Regis and Kathy Lee and The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and most of the players, all of whom live in Manhattan, already find it hard to walk down the street without getting hit up for autographs by bankers and bums alike. The simple truth is, New York loves a winner, and so far in the WNBA's inaugural season the Liberty has obliged handsomely. After last Saturday's 66-53 victory against the Utah Starzz, 7-0 New York stood as the only unbeaten team in the league. "There's pressure here to be the best," says Liberty vice president-general manager Carol Blazejowski. "But we have an intense, spirited bunch, starting with Teresa, that thrives on that challenge and has fun with it."
Weatherspoon, 31, won Olympic gold in 1988 and bronze in '92 and played professionally for eight years in Italy and Russia before being assigned to the Liberty last January. Under the star system the WNBA has used to promote its league, 23-year-old center Rebecca Lobo, a first-year pro, is supposed to be the team's main attraction, but it is the ferocious Weatherspoon who has elbowed her way into the spotlight. At week's end Weatherspoon, who has a tiger tattooed on her right shoulder, led the league in steals (3.3 per game), was tied for second in assists (5.6) and was averaging 7.9 points. In a 70-67 win over the Houston Comets on July 2 at Madison Square Garden, Weatherspoon stepped to the line and calmly sank four crucial free throws in the last 17.1 seconds. "She may be the best guard who has ever played this game," says Blazejowski, herself a Hall of Famer at forward. "There's no question that she's the heart and soul of our team."
Because WNBA teams would have only three weeks of preseason preparation, Blazejowski knew that experience and defensive intensity would be keys to winning early in the season. As coach, she hired Nancy Darsch, the former Ohio State coach who pledged to install a defensive style. Before the April 28 draft, the two took extra care to find players who might jell quickly and who would harbor no ill will toward Lobo. They put together a team with a total of 48 years of professional playing experience, selecting three former Olympians and a handful of young players, such as guard-forward Vickie Johnson, who in 1995-96 averaged 16.0 points for Louisiana Tech. Then Blazejowski mixed the pot with her two Spoons.
If Weatherspoon (Tea Spoon, to her teammates) symbolizes the in-your-face New Yorker, then fellow veteran guard Sophia (Serving Spoon) Witherspoon reflects the city's slick, smooth side. A '91 Florida graduate who played last season for Alcamo in Italy, the 28-year-old Witherspoon at week's end led the Liberty in scoring (13.3) and had hit 12 of 24 shots from three-point range. Her fluid jumper, soft baseline touch and effortless give-and-go maneuvers in the open court with Lobo had provided some of the league's finest offensive highlights.
Still, her backcourtmate is the Spoon that stirs the Liberty. With New York down seven against the Comets, Weatherspoon stomped on the Garden floor and hollered at her team to pick up the intensity. ("I can be a full-on nut on the court," she says.) Witherspoon then scored seven points to spark a 12-0 run that put the Liberty ahead, 52-47, with 7:53 to play. Last Friday in front of a crowd of 10,239 that turned out in Houston's Summit, Witherspoon poured in a game-high 21 points, including three treys, as the Liberty won 65-58 to sweep the home-and-home series. In that game three other New York players—Lobo (13 points), Weatherspoon (10) and forward Kym Hampton (10)—also scored in double figures. The next night in Utah, Lobo scored only eight points and was 3 of 17 from the floor, but Hampton and the Spoons combined for 37 points.
"The situation for me is perfect in New York," says Lobo. "I don't have this incredible burden to carry the team. All I have to do is play hard and work on improving. Teresa and Sophia and Vickie Johnson can score. And Hampton and [forward] Sue Wicks can help clear out people underneath."
For the handful of people who haven't yet seen the WNBA's ubiquitous ad campaign, the 6'4" Lobo played her college ball at Connecticut and was named the 1995 NCAA Player of the Year after leading UConn to a 35-0 record and the national title. She then won 52 straight as a member of the U.S. national team and another eight as a member of the U.S. Olympic team, which won gold in Atlanta. Add on her seven victories with the Liberty and at week's end Lobo was 102-0 since March 26, 1994, when UConn lost to North Carolina 81-69 in the NCAA regionals.
Although Lobo spent much of her time with the U.S. teams on the bench and is still a long way from becoming the on-court superstar the WNBA's marketing machine has made her out to be, her streak is still remarkable. Lobo downplays it. "It's the team that's winning all these games, not me," she says. "And what we've decided is we have no individual egos, but we do have one big collective one."
Despite her demurrals, Lobo, who through Sunday was averaging 11.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and nearly two blocked shots per game, is one of the best all-around finesse players in the league. Her ability to rebound—particularly on the defensive boards—to step out and set high picks, and to shoot three-pointers has thus far befuddled defenders. Although she occasionally gets pushed about in the paint, the bruises that dot her arms and legs are proof that the Southwick, Mass., native is increasing her assertiveness to match that of her new hometown. When the Comets' mascot taunted Lobo before the game last Friday, she playfully bounced a ball off its blue nose. During the game, while moving through a pick, Lobo knocked Houston guard Tiffany Woosley woozy. The next night against Utah, enduring a third horribly officiated game in a row, Lobo finally let the refs have it. "Rebecca is not the cookies-and-milk and all-American girl everybody thinks she is," says Wicks, her backup. "She has a dark, funny side to her. And she's just as intense as the rest of us."