The Liberty Try to Make Westchester Feel Like Home

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — After Tina Charles and Maya Moore exchanged go-ahead baskets in the final minute of the Liberty’s home opener against the Minnesota Lynx on May 25, a high-ranking W.N.B.A. official sitting courtside proudly remarked, “Who says women can’t play basketball?”

That question was tongue-in-cheek. But a more serious question emerged as Charles and Moore, both Olympic gold medalists and former league most valuable players, dueled inside the Westchester County Center in front of an announced crowd of 2,319.

What constitutes a proper environment for women’s basketball?

The Liberty are searching for that answer as they attempt to create a professional sports atmosphere in a facility that has a sliver of the resources and reputation of Madison Square Garden, their previous home.

“I can’t disrespect M.S.G. and say the County Center is close to it,” said Charles, the Liberty forward who grew up in Queens attending the team’s games at the Garden. “I’m not going to say that.”

In November, Charles and her teammates learned the Liberty, one of the W.N.B.A.’s original franchises in 1997, had been put up for sale by Madison Square Garden company, which has owned the team since its inception.

When a buyer was not found by February, the Liberty were relocated to Westchester, in a building that is not ideally laid out to accommodate basketball. That is evident from the limited sightlines from the upper deck and from the elevated wooden stage and maroon curtains behind one of the baskets, a platform usually used for concerts or judging local cat shows.

The game-day trek is difficult for longtime fans like Maria Patterson, who bought Liberty ticket plans for 20 of their first 21 seasons. Traveling to the home opener via bus and then Metro North train from Manhattan took Patterson about two hours, including public transportation delays. From Grand Central, the travel time is supposed to be around 35 minutes.

Patterson spent the second half standing in the upper deck because she couldn’t see the entire court from her seat.

“It’s really, really sad,” said Patterson, who mentioned she did not see many familiar faces at the first game. “I want to support the team, but it’s very difficult.”

She has not been to another game and said she has decided not to renew her ticket plan.

But some local groups have latched on to the Liberty (3-6), who are 2-3 here entering Tuesday’s game against Atlanta. After a group from the Throgs Neck Thunderboltz girls basketball team attended as a group for the opening game, some players returned with their families for the following home game on May 29. Girl Scout troops have repeatedly been in attendance early in the season.

Keia Clarke, the Liberty’s chief operating officer, said one of the reasons Westchester was chosen was that it presented a more feasible long-term business model for the franchise.

“I feel playing in a smaller arena presents us an opportunity,” Clarke said. “Playing in an N.B.A.-sized building is a challenge in itself. Even when we had dynamic nights and it was loud and strong, you get this sense it wasn’t 20,000 people.”

The announced attendance for Liberty games at the Garden hovered at around 50 percent of the arena’s nearly 20,000-seat capacity, and ownership has said that half of those tickets were given away.

In Westchester, the seating configuration allows about 2,300 spectators, with an option to expand to accommodate as many as 4,500. Clarke said it was “a pleasant surprise” how businesses, community leaders and youth groups in Westchester had attended games and embraced the idea of hosting a women’s professional sports team.

“I get the feeling they want the Liberty there,” Clarke said.

On game days, the county center is decorated with a more Liberty-centric theme than what had been put up at the Garden, which also houses the N.B.A.’s Knicks and N.H.L.’s Rangers. Large murals of Liberty players adorn the center’s lobby.

Adding to the ambience is the crowd noise that resonates in the smaller setting, assisted by bass-heavy music. In the rare moments without this soundtrack, you can hear sneaker squeaks.

“It’s a basketball player’s kind of dream to have everybody right on top of you, the energy, the music,” said Katie Smith, the Liberty’s first-year coach.

Some touches from the Garden remain, like performances by the Timeless Torches, a senior citizen dance troupe. Their presence drew a hearty laugh from James L. Dolan, chairman and chief executive of the Madison Square Garden Company and owner of the Liberty, who was sitting courtside at the home opener next to his friend Isiah Thomas, the team president.

According to Clarke, the Liberty are having “productive discussions with several ownership groups,” but Westchester is not being treated as a temporary location.

“In order to maintain excitement and motivation and our level of professionalism,” she said, “we have to operate as if this is a long-term viable solution.”

If Westchester became the Liberty’s permanent home, Clarke acknowledged, upgrades would be necessary.

Before the game on May 25, Cheryl Reeve, coach of the defending champion Lynx, said, “I’m not even going to comment on the facilities.” Then she pointed out the subpar lighting coming from rows of yellow-tinted bulbs on the ceiling.

When Bill Laimbeer, a former Liberty coach, visited the team’s new home last week as the coach of the Las Vegas Aces, he said, “The back of the house is terrible.”

Players observed other challenges. To reach the locker rooms, they have to climb four flights of stairs. The visitors’ metal stalls resemble the kind commonly found in high school locker rooms, and the Liberty players did not have name plates above their wooden stalls for the first few home games.

After the Lynx defeated the Liberty, 78-72, the visiting players slithered around a meal table propped up in the center of their tight confines, trying to find room to eat, get undressed or conduct postgame interviews.

“It’s beyond everyone’s control,” Reeve said before the game. “It’s like everything that women do. We’re resilient. Regardless of what we think of it, we’re going to do what we always do.”

But she added: “Just because we’re resilient doesn’t mean you should do it to us.”

Reeve said she hoped the Liberty’s fans would support the team because “this is the time that they need it the most.”

Lynx guard Tanisha Wright, who played two seasons with the Liberty, was saddened to see her former team relegated to suburbia.

“Is the situation ideal?” Wright said. “Absolutely not. But is it the situation, is it the reality of what’s happening? So let’s just try to make the best of what it is.”

Laimbeer did compliment the Westchester center for its intimacy and its “nice” floor.

“You don’t need 8,000 to have an exciting, intimate game for the fans to get involved,” he said after the Aces and the Liberty played in front of a crowd of 1,419.

The Liberty are not the only W.N.B.A. team downsizing. The Chicago Sky this season moved from the suburbs to a new, smaller arena downtown. Next year, the Washington Mystics will move from Capital One Arena, home of the N.B.A.’s Wizards and N.H.L.’s Capitals, to a 4,200-seat building in the southeastern section of the city.

W.N.B.A. President Lisa Borders said the league had been pleased with the fan response to the Liberty’s move.

“This move to a smaller venue has created an intimate and exciting environment for the passionate fan base,” she said. “Madison Square Garden, one of the world’s most coveted — and arguably most expensive — venues at which to hold games and events, was no longer an ideal location to play a full season of Liberty games given the economics.”

Smaller facilities may lead to more profits and louder crowds, but the perception that W.N.B.A. players are being disrespected is hard to ignore.

On June 5, the Liberty played at the Garden, one of two 11 a.m. games there this season to draw groups from schools and summer camps. Their 80-74 loss to the Phoenix Mercury drew 7,215.

“Our mind-set is the Westchester County Center is our new home,” Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous said. “Being in the Garden was amazing and we have to get past that.”

Asked if the team was looking to prove to current or potential owners that the Liberty deserved to be in a more spacious arena, Zellous demurred.

“I think years after years after years we’ve proven that we should be in the Garden,” she said. “We’re a professional team.”

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