These Women Could Make New York Champions Again

The Mets are out. The Yankees are out. The Jets’ new star Aaron Rodgers’s poor tormented Achilles’ tendon is out. The Giants lost their first game by a brutal 40-0. It can feel like a dark time to be invested in New York sports.

But don’t despair, New Yorkers: The Liberty is here.

For the uninitiated, that’s our hometown women’s basketball team, currently shooting for their first W.N.B.A. title — and New York’s first basketball championship of any sort since 1973 (yes, that’s when the Knicks last won). On Sunday, in what’s being hyped as a final of epic proportions, the Liberty faces off against the defending champions, the Las Vegas Aces.

Win or lose, the team is already a New Yorker’s dream. We love basketball, we love strong women (at least in theory) and we especially love to be the best. With the Liberty, we can have it all.

Ms. Laney squared up against the Connecticut Sun.
Jonquel Jones, a former M.V.P., has been a standout addition to the team this season.

If the W.N.B.A. has struggled since its inception to earn equal respect with the parallel men’s league, the Liberty is proving it’s more than ready to make this happen. So are their fans. Far from fathers dutifully taking their girls to games for an empowerment lesson, many Liberty fans are sports-loving young men (not to mention women) who keep returning not because they ought to but because they love it.

When one such fan recounted to me the Liberty’s ascent, met by a growing but still grossly deficient amount of recognition, he inadvertently described the entire arc of American women’s sports. “They don’t really get the respect they deserve,” John King, 21, a season ticket holder from Long Island, said. “People don’t understand how incredible going to their games and cheering for them is, until they actually do it.”

Mr. King echoes a fan base that’s caught fire: This season was a breakthrough as the Liberty posted their best record ever, 32-8, and their home games at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn sell out regularly. The home court V.I.P. section has become a who’s who of notable attendees, from the singer Alicia Keys and the tennis pioneer Billie Jean King to the Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and the rappers Common and Fat Joe. Jason Sudeikis and his family attend frequently. Ditto for Fran Lebowitz.

Sabrina Ionescu, a Liberty guard, on the sideline during the team’s playoff run.
Breanna Stewart, center, joined the Liberty this year and won the league’s M.V.P. award.

Like any good New York success story, the team’s path to success hasn’t been a straight shot. The Liberty was founded to great fanfare in 1997, the W.N.B.A’s inaugural year, and was initially built and marketed around the league’s first-wave stars like Rebecca Lobo. Over its first six years, the team regularly made the finals. But it never won.

In 2018, its owner exiled the Liberty from Madison Square Garden to a small facility in Westchester. The team languished. Then came the rally: In 2019, the billionaire owners of the Brooklyn Nets bought the Liberty and began to invest. In 2021, the team played a full season at the Barclays Center.

Go ahead: Call it a comeback.

Ms. Stewart grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and now lives in Brooklyn, where the Liberty plays its home games.

This year, the Liberty signed a holy trinity of stars, when the former M.V.P. Jonquel Jones, the now two-time M.V.P. Breanna Stewart and the five-time All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot all joined the team in the span of three weeks. Those new players form the core of what’s emerged as a league power — and they’ve fully bought into the idea that wanting to win is written into a New Yorker’s genetic code.

The last time the Liberty was in the finals, Ms. Stewart, who’s now 29, was playing Little League in Syracuse, N.Y. Now, when she walks around her Brooklyn neighborhood with her wife and daughter, fans stop to congratulate her on the street.

Ms. Ionescu made the All-W.N.B.A second team in 2022.
A coach reviewed strategy during the playoff run.

The team is rewarding long-suffering stalwart fans and converting a new generation. Mr. King attends games with his older brother, Trent, 25, and their friend Kieran Baisley, 23. Four years ago, they’d never been to a pro women’s sports game. Then a friend offered them some extra tickets. Now they call themselves the “sea foam army,” because they attend every game dressed in robes that match the team’s signature oxidized-copper color, their outfits topped with Statue of Liberty crowns.

As the Liberty closes in on the finals, Ms. Stewart’s attitude fits right in with the city she now represents.

“For basketball in New York City, this is huge,” she said. “But this is how it should be.”

Liberty team members enjoyed the cheers of a full-house crowd in Brooklyn.

Elle Pérez is an artist and a photography professor at the Yale School of Art. Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is a writer and producer in Opinion.

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