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Original Issue


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."

More than anything else, it is the Liberty's hard-nosed play
that separates New York from the rest of the WNBA. Through
Sunday the Liberty led the league in fewest points allowed per
game (59.1) and opponents' field goal percentage (33.4%) and was
tied for first in steals per game (10.85). "Someone is going to
have to play a near-perfect game to beat this team," says Starzz
coach Denise Taylor. "They're not invincible. But close."

To be sure, New York's play, like that of other teams in the
league, can vary from exhilarating to embarrassing on just about
any trip up the court. The Liberty has struggled on offense,
shooting only 41.3% from the field in its first seven games.
Last Saturday's meeting with Utah, in which the Starzz shot 8 of
37 from the field in the first half, was marred by 45 turnovers.
But New York's passion, fueled by Weatherspoon, keeps the energy
on the court from waning to the somnolent levels found in many
regular-season NBA games. "Most of our games are close, but this
team's poise just takes over, and we beat people with attitude
and aggressiveness," says Darsch.

Some of the Liberty's players come by that New York attitude
more naturally than others. Wicks, a native of suburban Long
Island and a Rutgers graduate who played the last nine seasons
overseas while waiting for an opportunity like the WNBA, is
happy to be back home. "When you score 40 points a night in
Italy and you lose and you're alone, it's an empty, ugly
feeling," she says. "The veteran players on this team don't want
to be stars anymore. We just want to win. We've all been holding
out as long as we could to go out winners in this sport. And
nobody on this team is going to blow that opportunity."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Marquee player Lobo has shown drive and a new appetite for physical play. [Rebecca Lobo and opponent in game]

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER As aggressive as any New Yorker, Weatherspoon, a.k.a. Tea Spoon, loves to stir up the action. [Teresa Weatherspoon in game]