June 13, 2024

LAS VEGAS — Becky Hammon’s official ties with the New York Liberty ended April 4, 2007. She was traded to San Antonio, which ended up being a boon to the rest of her playing days and then her coaching career. But it’s not as if she just stopped caring about the team with whom she spent her first eight years in the WNBA.

Sometimes, she would still check in on the Liberty from afar, watching the Liberty’s ups and downs, and wondering about the team’s decisions, how the organization seemed to lose touch with fans, and if they would ever put all the pieces together to win a championship.

“I’ve always said it’s good for the league when New York does well,” Hammon, now the Las Vegas Aces coach, told ESPN from Michelob Ultra Arena, site of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC). “I played in New York; I get it. But having said that, now I have to try to beat them. Still, it’s good to see that franchise back.

“When they did so well in the offseason with the players they got, I texted [Liberty coach] Sandy Brondello and said, ‘This is about to be fun.'”

For the first time since 2002, New York is in the WNBA Finals. It is the last active original WNBA franchise to not win a league title. While that doesn’t necessarily seem to weigh on the current players — none of whom have been with the team more than four seasons — longtime fans at last feel like happy days are here again. It’s been quite a wait.

The Liberty will face an Aces team that moved to Las Vegas in 2018 and saw almost immediate success, winning its first title last year in Hammon’s first season as coach.

How did the Aces and the Liberty make it to this much-anticipated meeting for the WNBA championship? It’s a combination of improved ownership, strong coaching hires, No. 1 draft picks and free agent signings.

These franchises have two of the best players in women’s basketball: two-time MVPs A’ja Wilson (Vegas) and Breanna Stewart (New York). The Aces (34-6) and Liberty (32-8) also had the top records in the WNBA and garnered the “superteam” nickname.

“Brick by brick, it’s taken time,” said Aces guard Kelsey Plum, the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2017. “So when people talk about superteams, it’s hard for me to acknowledge. Because there were years that weren’t super. Those of us who are homegrown players, every year we’ve seen the growth.

“And the thing about sports is, a lot has to go right. We had the pieces, but it’s about putting them in order.”

play

2:46

Battle of the WNBA superteams: Will the Liberty dethrone the Aces?

Monica McNutt previews the WNBA Finals between the Liberty and Aces with a comic-book style spin.

Consider the Aces, who have made the WNBA Finals three times in the past four years, and then the Liberty, who last appeared in the Finals when most of today’s players were in grade school or younger. Yet both know what it’s like to hit the bottom as a franchise. In fact, you could say they did it the same year: 2017.

The Aces were still in San Antonio then as the Stars and had posted the league’s worst record for the third season in a row. They were no longer wanted by the Spurs’ ownership — which had brought the WNBA franchise to Texas in 2003 from Utah, where it began in the league’s inaugural year of 1997.

At least the Stars found a buyer quickly, in Las Vegas. The Liberty also went up for sale in 2017, when MSG’s James Dolan announced he was leaving the WNBA after 20 years as an owner. But they remained on the selling block until January 2019, when Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai stepped in to keep the team in the city.

The sale — and the move from Manhattan to Brooklyn — started a new era for the Liberty, who had played for the first WNBA championship in 1997 (when it was one game, not a series) and made the WNBA Finals in 1999, 2000 and 2002. Back then, famous fans such as Penny Marshall and Joan Jett were in the crowd at Madison Square Garden. The Liberty were the team that the new league hoped would be a flagship franchise.

“There was so much energy in that building. We were engaged with fans, big time,” Hammon said of playing for the Liberty during that time. “We were a blue-collar team, we played really hard, and New York loved us. There were several older players who had this great camaraderie.”

But over time, the Liberty’s core players began to retire or, like Hammon, were traded. After finishing first in the Eastern Conference three times in the WNBA’s first six seasons, they went 13 years before being first again.

In 2015, then Bill Laimbeer’s third season as Liberty coach, they had the best record in the East and needed one win to return to the WNBA Finals. Instead, they lost two in a row and the series to the Indiana Fever. That’s as close as New York has been to the Finals, until now.

In 2020, the pandemic halted the team’s move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Then, New York selected Sabrina Ionescu No. 1 in the 2020 draft, but she sat out the season after three games because of an ankle injury. New York ended the 2020 season as the worst team in the WNBA’s COVID-19 bubble in Bradenton, Florida, at 2-20.

New York improved to 12-20 and returned to the playoffs in 2021, but it wasn’t enough for coach Walt Hopkins to keep his job. Around the same time, the Phoenix Mercury parted with Brondello after eight seasons.

“I had a feeling I wasn’t going back to Phoenix, and it was probably time to leave,” Brondello said of her eventual move to New York. “I had heard rumblings about New York, and was excited. I thought, ‘This is a team I’d really love to coach.'”

She got the job and the Liberty finished 16-20 last season, losing their first-round series to the Chicago Sky. Then came the offseason that really changed everything for New York.

In free agency, Stewart returned to her home state after winning two WNBA titles in six seasons with the Seattle Storm. Courtney Vandersloot left the Chicago team that she had been with for 12 years and led to a title in 2021. Jonquel Jones pushed for a trade from the Connecticut Sun, with whom she had been to two Finals.

“When it came to my free agency, this was where I have roots,” Stewart, who grew up in Syracuse, said. “The feel, the energy, the excitement of the city is just different. And knowing the Liberty had not won a WNBA title, I wanted to bring a championship to New York.”

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1:43

Inside the Las Vegas Aces’ record-breaking regular season

Monica McNutt brings you through the 2023 Las Vegas Aces’ journey to history.

Meanwhile, the Aces largely drafted their way to the top, with three successive No. 1 picks: Plum in 2017, Wilson in 2018 and Jackie Young in 2019. The trio helped the Aces make their first Finals appearance in 2020, where they were swept by Seattle.

Laimbeer had left the Liberty to take over the Aces when MGM Resorts International moved the team to Las Vegas in 2018. Then in January 2021, Raiders owner Mark Davis purchased the Aces from MGMRI.

Davis saw the value in linking the current team to its past in both Utah and San Antonio, inviting former players from both teams to Las Vegas. And in September 2021, Hammon came to an Aces game to see her No. 25 jersey being retired.

Hammon said she previously had been approached by other WNBA teams, including the Liberty, about considering a return to the league to coach. She had never pursued the idea, focusing instead on possibly rising in the NBA.

But everything about the Aces’ situation appealed to her: Davis’ commitment, the team’s personnel — which also included guard Chelsea Gray, who arrived in 2021 as a free agent — and the chance to win a championship.

“Everything about the timing was right,” Hammon said. “It felt like this was where I was supposed to be.”

The trajectories of the Aces and Liberty are meeting at the perfect time for the WNBA to have this kind of rivalry. The Liberty are trying to give New York City its first basketball title since the Knicks won in 1973. Or the Aces might become the first team since Los Angeles in 2001-2002 to win back-to-back titles.

“You’ve got to have the right ownership, the right front office, the players to grow it, the fan base that wants to come see us play,” Gray said. “That’s happened for us and now New York. It’s been cool to see it.”

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