Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Guru's WNBA Report: Garden Looks Ready to Re-Grow WNBA Attendance

By Mel Greenberg

NEW YORK and WASHINGTON --
There was disappointing news and promising news Thursday morning where the New York Liberty was back in its real home to stay in fabled Madison Square Garden after a three-year hiatus across the Hudson River in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., while the Garden underwent a series of summertime renovation projects.

Next Wednesday afternoon in a symbolic gesture to mark the reverse migration the Liberty will take a speedboat ride from the shore of the Garden State back to Manhattan where fan activity will occur on the pier in New York City after the team arrives.

The disappointing news for the locals in a second preseason tilt with the Eastern Conference rival Connecticut Sun was the performance of the Liberty whose offense has yet debut in terms of the 60-44 loss that was even more dreadful in the first half with the Sun racing to a 36-13 lead at the break.

Connecticut, which won a franchise-worst 10 games last season, also took Sunday's tilt 75-54 back in Uncasville at the Mohegan Sun Arena, where the same two teams will launch their respective seasons on Friday night when the WNBA lights the cake to year number 18 dating back to the 1997 inaugural summer.

Connecticut rookie Chiney Ogwumike, who became the overall No. 1 pick on draft day out of Stanford last month earning a Sun uniform as the prize franchise reward for the summer of discontent, had 16 points and six rebounds.

It was the native Texan's first trip to the Big Apple and she marked the occasion to sample the fare at one of successful Shake Shack stands that dot the East Coast.

Ogwumike's bubbly personality is going to make her an instant go-to quote and WNBA marketing star win or lose on game days as the league turns a page from the successful Three-to-See focus on 2013 rookie sensations Elena Delle Donne, the top newcomer out of Delaware with the Chicago Sky; Brittney Griner, the number one overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury of the former Baylor star; and Skylar Diggins, the former Notre Dame standout who went third overall to the Tulsa Shock behind Delle Donne.

Former Rutgers star Essence Carson, who grew up in Newark and was a Rutgers all-American, had 11 points for New York showing a full recovery from a knee injury early last summer that doomed the Liberty's playoff hopes under first-year coach Bill Laimbeer, who made the former Detroit Shock a powerhouse in the middle of the last decade before heading back to the NBA.

New York had the easy excuse of missing its two explosive stars just returned from overseas in former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, and the recently arrived Tina Charles, the former UConn great who was swapped to the Liberty in a mega draft-day deal that brought second-year pro Kelsey Bone, one of the top 2013 rookies who was picked by the Liberty out of Texas A&M, to the Sun.

The same transaction enabled Connecticut to gain New York's fourth overall pick last month, Alyssa Thomas out of Maryland.

Bone and another Sun newcomer in former WNBA pro Yelena Leuchanka, who starred at West Virginia, have yet to make it to the Connecticut camp, which must dispatch two players by next Thursday to get down to the newly-expanded WNBA roster limit of 12 players, one more than in recent seasons.

New York was also without Kamiko Williams, who the team announced Thursday suffered a season-ending knee injury at practice, veteran Plenette Pierson, who has an injured right knee, while former Tennessee star Nicky Anosike did not get into the lineup.

Despite the absences, Laimbeer wasn't ready to shrug off that effect on his team's play.

"We need to have our offense show up," Laimbeer, a former star with the famed NBA champion 'Bad Boys' of the Detroit Pistons, said.

"We have 50 points not here yet; still the first half was just disgusting offensive-wise. I’m playing a lot of young players and there is a tremendous amount of game slippage from practice to the game right now, but we need to overcome that," he continued.

"We have a post driven offense but our post players can’t score right now because they’re not Tina Charles or Plenette Pierson. Hopefully we get it worked out by the start of the season.”

However, Laimbeer is in no rush for the 2014 launch to arrive.

“We’re not ready for the season," he said of Friday's start followed by Saturday's start of the home schedule when Chicago visits. "Our offense is driven through the post and we don’t have post scorers right now. We don’t have a scorer on the outside like Cappie (Pondexter). With this group we can’t score more than 50 points right now, but we still should have scored more than 13 points in the first half.”

Second-year Connecticut coach Anne Donovan, a former Liberty coach before spending three seasons back the college ranks across the Hudson at Seton Hall, near Newark in South Orange, had an obvious more positive spin on the way things went for the Sun.

“I thought we got off to a great start, we were on fire defensively," Donovan said. "I don’t think we were as smooth offensively with the eleven o’clock tip. When you’re not in sync you better play defense and that’s what we did to set the tone.

"We're still trying to get offensive continuity and I think you saw Chiney come alive. We're just looking for more people to get comfortable and play together a little more," Donovan said.

She also praised Thomas.

"She's born for the WNBA with that body and her skill set. She's naturally making that transition. The fact that (coach) Brenda (Frese) put her out in transition at Maryland last season -- it would have been easy to put her in the post -- even I'm putting her in the post because she's going to find success.

"But she's very comfortable facing up, getting the ball off the backboard and taking it herself. She's a natural fit. I have to do a better job using her for the season. Right now she's just getting it done off her energy."

So much for the game details.

Garden Brings Re-Growth to the WNBA

But New York did have one superstar sensation, which was not on the court.

It was the announced crowd of 15,152 persons on what was basically a kids' day late morning matinee (we say announced because one is never sure of the actual reality of the count but trust the Guru, the number Thursday had to be near that total).

And they were loud, much louder then the Guru has ever heard previous school and camp day audiences in the Garden over the years.

New York's return to the Garden is important for the league because when people have taken knocks at WNBA attendance drops in previous years before last season, no one really focused on how much the Liberty move to New Jersey affected the decline.

"I'm a Jersey girl so I'm never going to say bad things about New Jersey," quipped Donovan, who is a native of nearby Bergen.

"However, there is no place like the Garden. This is where dreams are born and there's just no better place to play basketball and that's going to be a good team," she said of the Liberty looking to when the roster gets more loaded.

"We've seen other kids' games but not like that crowd today."

Carson also spoke of playing in the Garden.

"It's a different atmosphere; I mean it's The Garden, that should say it all. There's history here. We are back at the Mecca of basketball," Carson said.

"The fans were great, kids were great and we are looking to give them something to cheer about."

Ogwumike said she had to pretend she was somewhere else because "This was my first time here and it was exciting."

In the early days, stars of the entertainment industry as well as NBA Knicks players and other local pro athletes could be seen regularly occupying courtside seats at Liberty games.

However, turning to the recent move to New Jersey, by the time Laimbeer completed his first year last summer he was glad the Prudential Center was heading to the organization's rear view mirror.

"Just a lot of logistical problems all over the place," he said.

Early in the first season of the relocation, players got caught in traffic jams coming down from where most live in White Plains, N.Y., in the northern suburbs near the MSG Training Center in Tarrytown.

In 2010, the last year before the move, New York, which saw crowds of 14-15,000 average its first three seasons, still showed a robust 11,069 average.

Then, along with the teams not being as stellar as in the past, the numbers plunged to 7,702 in 2011, 6,779 in 2012, and 7,189 last season in the Prudential Center.

Hall of Famer and former Liberty top executive Carol Blazejowski had noted a while back that most of the fan bae came from the city and Eastern suburbs on Long Island.

If one might subract New York out of the equation and deal with just the other WNBA teams as a whole, attendance might have shown a more inclincation of growth.

Another thing that hurt was when Detroit, which had numbers in the hey day of 9,000, was sold to ownership in Tulsa, which was not very good and in its three recent seasons showed averages of 4-5,000, though as the team gets better, that total should rise.

Washington Completes Sweep of Indiana

The Guru in doing travel and the two back-to-back morning games did not get a chance to actually chronicle Wednesday's Mystics game until making it part of this report.

Like other teams, Washington and Indiana are also without players.

The Fever, who will join Chicago, Phoenix and the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in a first-ever preseason tournament this weekend to be played at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., were without veteran all-timer Tamika Catchings, who has a sore back, former Stanford star Jeanette Pohlen, who recently suffered a season-ending knee injury, and Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zeallous, the former Pittsburgh star, who are still getting back from overseas.

Tayler Hill, the fourth overall pick of last year's draft by Washington out of Ohio State, is on medical leave due to pregnancy, former Rutgers star Kia Vaughn just got back from overseas, while Quanitra Hollingsworth and Emma Messerman are also completing foreign play.

"I hate preseason games," second-year coach Mike Thibault smiled, about how much lab work gets done in terms of evaluating players for making the roster and doing things that wouldn't be done once the season begins, besides the annual slow start in camp because of overseas commitments.

Nevertheless, after beating Indiana on the road in a Tuesday morning game, Washington ralled from a 17-point deficit to eclipse the Fever on the last play 81-80 as rookie Kayla Thornton from UTEP hit two foul shots with less than a second remaining in regulation.

The sweep kept rookies Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley, the former UConn all-Americans, alive on personal winning streaks of 48 games.

"I keep asking people how many close games were those two involved in their four-year careers at UConn," Thibault said.

"The Notre Dame games, Baylor, and probably not much more. So there are a lot of plays involving end-of-game situations they have not had to deal with, so this is good for them."

Dolson said of the two-game experience so far, "The pace is faster. It's definitely something I have to get used to. I think I'm being overly -- I have to get used to the way the refs are going to call the games.

"I'ts a new game and a new league. It feels great. Gone into these games you just want to go out and play hard. So it's good to get these wins."

Hartley said, "It was cool to come back and see that group win that was out there. It's a lot more physical and faster but when we get a few more games under our belt, we'll be all right."

Neither player knew that their former coach Geno Auriemma along with UConn men's coach Kevin Ollie and several other men's notables were across town at the Pentagon on a panel discussing leadership.

Tianna Hawkins, the former Maryland star who came with draft pick Hartley from Seattle, while former star Crystal Langhorne, who also played at Maryland, was sent to the Storm, had a team-high 18 points and Jelena Milovanovic had 15 points.

Dolson had four points and five fouls, though Thibault said he didn't think two were miscues.

Hartley had five points in 13 minutes as Thibault sought to evaluate others on the bubble of making the final roster.

Thornton and former Kentucky star A'dia Mathies had eight points each ad did former North Carolina star Ivory Latta, who came to the squad last season from the Tulsa Shock.

Marissa Coleman, another former Maryland star who played for the Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks, had 21 points for Indiana, which also got 12 from another ex-Terrapin in Lynetta Kizer, and 13 from Layshia Clarendon and 11 from rookie Natasha Howard out of Florida State.

"That's a concern that we're not rebounding well," Thibault said, though he said some of it will be shored up when the veteran posts return. "Tianna was better in the second half. Stefanie is struggling a little bit.

"I wasn't going to play our starters to try to win. Those kids down the stretch played really hard. It might have proved a point to the veterans that you can't just show up and think you're better than everybody else on talent alone.

"Ivory (who is also an assistant coach at her alma mater) and Kara (Lawson, who also works for ESPN in the winter) are a little bit rusty because they haven't played overseas," Thibault said.

"Next week will be a good test because we're playing a good team in Chicago in a sold out building so there should be a lot of energy."

Washington and Chicago will play at the University of Delaware Tuesday night in a preseason game that will highlight a homecoming for Delle Donne in the Bob Carpenter Center in the Newark, not to be confused with the one mentioned in the Liberty items at the top of this report.

As of two days ago a Delaware source categorized the ticket situation as "slim pickings" in terms of what is left as the place experiences its first sellout in the 5,000-seat arena since Delle Donne concluded her sensational collegiate career.

That is that for the moment. Washington hosts Minnesota in a season opener Friday night. Kayla Goldman, the Florida-based blogerette in the Guru's evolving staff, just graduated and moved back to Tampa offering the best of both worlds.

She will handle the WNBA action at Disney this weekend while next season will offer coverage from the next host city for the Women's Final Four in Tampa.

Rob Knox will be at Washington's opener on Friday while the Guru is at Connecticut Friday and New York Saturday -- a game with an 8 p.m. tip.

Also in D.C., look for former George Washington star Megan Nipe, completing a degree in strategic public relations as a graduate student, to be on hand for Mystics coverage this summer.

The Guru will have a special feature on Megan's final season with a story not many have known of the native Minnesotan.

Incidentally, two other names that have been thrown into the hopper of potential candidates for the next CEO of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association are Danielle M. Donehew, who heads women's basketball at The American Conference and once was operations staffer for the WNBA Atlanta Dream, and Karen Bryant, who will be departing in July from a long stint in the front office as president and CEO of the Seattle Storm and also was an executive with the former ABL Seattle Reign.

-- Mel --








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