April 30, 2014
TARRYTOWN, N.Y.-The beginning of training camp comes with an up-spike of anxiety. It's a two and a half week mixing pot of high-hopes, nerves, excitement and opportunity. A sentiment not only shared by the players but also the staff as well. On April 28th at 9:30 AM, I arrived at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility, muscled open the heavy steel door at the entrance of the gym, and made my first steps of the season onto the practice court.
Warm smiles, and various versions of "Ros! Watup!" greeted me. And just like that the nerves I felt earlier vanished, replaced by curiosity. I wondered, "What's up with these ladies? Who's in shape? Did they have a chance to see kids or family between the overseas and WNBA season?" One of the reasons I enjoy covering the Liberty is because the players manage to balance their on court persona and talents with who they are as a person off the court. Yes, they can hoop, but they are also women with unique, beautiful and imperfect stories.
Essence Carson welcomed me with a hug and flattering words, "Ros! How you been? You look good, have you been training? You look fit!" I was shocked into a smile- now that's the way to start a first day of practice, with a compliment! Essence went on to explain, "and I'm not just saying that to say it- you've trimmed up some". And I believed her. First because I actually had been working out more but more importantly, because Essence Carson is a genuine person. As someone working in the role of reporter for the New York Liberty over the past two seasons I would wholeheartedly vouch that Essence is the type of person who doesn't say anything she doesn't mean. A prime reason she, along with Cappie Pondexter and Tina Charles, will be looked to for leadership of the team.
Carson could not hide her enthusiasm to be back on the court after suffering a season-ending ACL tear on June 9th of the previous season. Unprompted she gushed, "I'm so excited to be back on the court. I've been running in full court games for some time now and I'm cleared to do all drills in practice. I am expected to practice in both practices when we have "two-a-days". Obviously I'll be smart, but I do not have limitations".
Carson attacked rehabilitation with ferocity and commitment while also rationing time towards her music career as a writer, producer, rapper and musician. Standing on the baseline of the court preparing to jump in the first drill of the day, Essence reflected of the realization of her hard work with the clarity and poetic of a musician, "I believe things happen for a reason", she said. "I used to be quiet. With the injury I've spent the season at home working in the community and sharing more of myself with the fans. I'm talking. I'm talking not only to fans but to the team, too. I'm not just happy to be on the court, I'm happy to be on the sidelines, talking, teaching and helping". In the first day of training camp Carson looked confident, moved with energy and participated in all drills. In competitive drills Carson hit a few sweet midrange jumpers. While Carson is not yet at the same level of athleticism and reaction time that she put on display during training camp last season, she is improving daily.
14 players were present for the first day of training camp with eight of those 14 being new and fresh faces to the team. All players were dressed and healthy. Cappie Pondexter, Tina Charles and Anna Cruz will join the team later. Delisha Milton Jones arrived in New York for her physical and will join the team in practice soon after. The training camp itinerary consisted of fast moving drills and intense teaching sessions. On some days players commute back and forth to the Training Center for challenging two-a-days. Usually the first practice of a two-a-day is for teaching while the second is used mostly for scrimmaging, however, in this early start of the season, I expect both time slots to be used for teaching opportunities.
Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer set the tone for training camp with an upbeat and deliberate approach to practice. Laimbeer evaluated from the sidelines often injecting with a mashup of grumbling, sarcastic wise cracks, and specific teaching points. Usually credited with being rough around the edges, Laimbeer practiced patience while explaining defensive strategy on "pick-on-ball" situations. This season the Liberty will look to use more of the "Triangle" offense and Laimbeer wasted no time teaching options out of the offensive scheme. He joked, "We ran some Triangle last year, but maybe it didn't look like it". He continued, "This year we have better post players who can pass well and make good reads; that will help". Bill's messages were hammered home by new player-to-assistant coach convert, Katie Smith. Katie Smith displayed a hands on approach often jumping in a drill to demonstrate.
The day's itinerary started with stretching, "weave" drills, "shell" defensive 4-on-4 drills, position work, defense and offense strategy, half court 5-on-5, and ended with a fun shooting competition. Bill Laimbeer rallied the team in a circle at the end of the first day of practice. The big guy offered a moment of understanding in his closing statements to the team, "I appreciate the energy from everyone today; everyone did a good job with that. First practice everyone has nerves, misses shots and can be a little out of sorts. You should focus on continuing to get in shape and carrying over the lessons from one practice to the next. There will be slippage from day to day but that is why we practice and drill things over and over again. Don't get discouraged, we may reach out to you one-on-one to help you and tell you exactly what to concentrate on." On the receiving end of the head coach's message were big saucer eyes from the rookies and knowing head nods from the veteran players. It was a good start to training camp. "Day 1, Practice 1" was over and the tone had been set.