- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- The WNBA is back in action at Madison Square Garden.
After three summers playing at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, the Liberty finally returned to the world's most famous arena on Saturday night, losing to the Chicago Sky 79-65. Sky forward Elena Delle Donne scored 23 points -- 16 in the first half -- to spoil the Liberty's homecoming.
But, of course, the outcome of the game wasn't really the point.
For the WNBA as a whole, and the Liberty in particular, Saturday's game was about so much more than a single win or loss. Returning the New York franchise to its original home arena, right in the heart of Manhattan, will hopefully also return the Liberty to its perch as a flagship WNBA franchise and the league's anchor on the East Coast. In the opening years of the league, a balance existed, with the Liberty drawing fans and headlines on one end of the country, the Los Angeles Sparks on the other.
At the height of New York's popularity, just more than 10 years ago, the Liberty averaged around 15,000 fans per game. The season before the move to New Jersey, which was necessitated by summer renovations to MSG, the team averaged 11,069 fans per game, still well more than the league average.
Those numbers dipped significantly lower while the team played at the Prudential Center. The Liberty's season averages during those three seasons (2011-13) were 7,702, 6,779 and 7,189.
Translation: New York went from blowing away the league's attendance figures to being right smack in the middle of the pack. Now, beginning with Saturday's game, the Liberty must slowly build back their identity, must reconnect with the many fans who didn't follow the team to New Jersey.
"I'm sure we had some fans in Jersey who it was easier for, and I was always so impressed with how many of our fans made the journey," said former Liberty guard Katie Smith, who is now an assistant coach with the team. "But being back in the Garden helps -- it just does. This is where it all started for this franchise."
On Saturday night, about an hour before tipoff, only the most die-hard New York Liberty fans were already in their seats watching warm-ups. (Eventually, 9,131 people would show up for the game.) Two of those fans were Sharon Wright and Audrey Adams. Both are longtime season-ticket holders. In fact, Wright says she has missed only one game in the team's 17-year history.
But for both women, as well as for their friends, making the journey to the Prudential Center was difficult and frequently kept them from games. "Three of the longest, most miserable years of my Liberty basketball life," Adams said.
She didn't seem to be joking.
When asked how they felt about the team's return to MSG, they responded instantly, and all in agreement: "Thank God." Many of the team's fans live across the East River, in Queens, Brooklyn -- some, like Wright, are even in Long Island. Crossing two rivers to attend an evening basketball game often became more chore than entertainment. Adams said her commute home from the Prudential Center would usually take more than two hours.
But the faster commute isn't the only thing that has fans excited. Turns out that just like MSG itself, the 2014 Liberty roster is also significantly upgraded from the past few seasons.
Just a few weeks ago, the team traded for center Tina Charles, the 2012 league MVP. Charles provides a dominant inside presence, which New York hasn't had in years. During one possession late in the third quarter of Saturday's game, Charles caught the ball on the right block, and Chicago immediately sent a double-team. The former UConn star quickly fired a pass out of the double, and the Liberty ended up with a wide-open shot on the weak side of the floor. "Her presence is going to help everyone on the floor," Smith said. "Just how the defense has to keep an eye on her, or sink in to help, that is going to open things up for us."
Charles also happens to be a native of the area, as is guard Essence Carson, who is back on the court after tearing her ACL at the beginning of last season. Carson is from Paterson, New Jersey. Second-year head coach Bill Laimbeer also brings some star power to the sideline; he played in the Garden for many years as a member of the Detroit Pistons' "Bad Boys" teams of the 1980s.
In addition, Charles and guard Cappie Pondexter now provide a fantastic one-two punch. Pondexter has been the team's most recognizable name since 2010, when she was acquired from the Phoenix Mercury. Pondexter, along with Charles and Carson, now calls New York City home.
"We have so many players who understand the city and are proud of this city," Smith said. "And trust me, they aren't at a loss for words for how to express how they feel about New York. We have all kinds of connections now to this city, and I think that will add up for the fans. I think little girls can come to the games and look at Tina Charles and say, 'That's me -- that could be me.'"
In the moment before tipoff, Carson walked to center court to address the crowd. She was wearing a black shirt emblazoned with the slogan, "We stand for Liberty." Many in the stands were wearing the same shirt. Carson jotted down a few notes but mostly spoke from the heart. She finished her speech by saying, loudly, "We're ba-ack!"
For the WNBA, this is fantastic news.