Players, fans enjoy first WNBA outdoor game

NEW YORK -- Indiana All-Star Tamika Catchings called playing in 90-degree heat at Arthur Ashe Stadium "street ball in a professional realm."

New York's Lisa Willis didn't seem bothered by the summer sun after coming off the practice court before the first regular-season outdoor game in professional basketball history, featuring the host Liberty and the Fever.

Kids and adults were handed free fans as they entered the USTA Billie Jean National Tennis Center for the fan festival at the Liberty Outdoor Classic on Saturday night.

Former Knicks Allan Houston and John Starks along with former Liberty stars Kym Hampton and Sue Wicks participated in the fan festival.

"It kind of reminds me of the first days of the WNBA," Hampton said of the fans flowing into the stadium.

Billie Jean King was enthusiastic about trading tennis balls for basketballs at her namesake venue. Nearly 35 years ago, she played at the Houston Astrodome against Bobby Riggs in the famous "Battle of the Sexes" match.

"It's the perfect arena, it's almost the same (dimensions)," King said recently. "Basketball was my first love, so for me, it's very appropriate that the WNBA is playing the game at the center.

"Anytime we can use the venue, I think it's great for the community."

Players passed by photos of King, John McEnroe, Serena Williams, and other tennis stars en route to the court. The Liberty players were told to drink more fluids days before the game, and big buckets of ice, along with wet towels, were available to both teams.

Huge industrial fans on the corners of the court helped cool the players and coaches. Swirling wind in the bowl of Arthur Ashe Stadium seemed to be more of an issue.

"It's not as hot as I thought it would be," Willis said. "I didn't think about the wind factor on my jump shot, it just means I'll have to be more aggressive and drive to the basket."

Catchings was impressed by the transformation of the Liberty court, all 226 pieces of hardwood, moved from Madison Square Garden.

"This is probably the coolest venue I've ever played in," she said. "We did the outdoor game for Tennessee against Arizona State at the Diamondback stadium in Arizona, but this is awesome.

"Playing street ball, you play on concrete, and sometimes the baskets were nice, but sometimes raggedy from all the guys dunking on them. Here, you've got the official wooden court."

Catchings said the extravaganza, complete with fireworks and confetti, represented more than a basketball game.

"It's about how far we've come," she said of the league, now in its 12th season. "It not only hits the basketball fans, it hits the tennis fans and now it hits people who just want to be a part of the first anything in sports."

Indiana coach Lin Dunn, who has coached at the college and professional level for nearly 30 years, remembers a much hotter basketball game.

"I coached a college team in Puerto Rico one time," she said. "We had a cover overhead, but without any sides, like a pavilion. That was serious heat, a lot hotter than here."

Liberty coach Patty Coyle helped select Indiana as the opponent for the historic game. She was an assistant to Dunn at Miami from 1982-84 during her first years out of Rutgers.

"I'm thrilled that Indiana is here," Coyle said. "She's my mentor."

There were 19,393 in attendance for the first non-tennis sporting event at the center. Knicks forward David Lee pitched in, buying $15,000 in tickets to help kids attend.

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation will receive a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales.

Samantha Koebele tossed a miniature basketball up to a clown on stilts during the fan festival.

The Liberty Outdoor Classic was a family affair for 8-year old Samantha, who came with her mom to watch 13-year-old brother Justin perform at halftime as part of the Liberty "Little Torches" dance troupe.

"It's a lot of fun to watch the kids perform, and the basketball, of course," said Cindy Koebele, of Islip, N.Y.

Latin pop group Menudo performed before the game, and entertained the fans after the Liberty lost 71-55.