Teresa Weatherspoon and Trena Trice-Hill are still doing what they love, turning a lifetime of passion for the game of basketball into a lifelong profession. It is also no coincidence both continue to hone their craft in New York City, where their dreams of playing professional basketball in the United States finally became a reality in 1997.
With the New York Liberty closing in on the start of its 20th WNBA season, Weatherspoon and Trice-Hill recently got together on the campus of Columbia University, where Trice-Hill now serves as an assistant coach, while Weatherspoon is set to begin her second season as the Director of Player Development with the Liberty.
Even nearly two decades after they last played together, the chemistry between the two was unmistakable, a remnant of that first Liberty squad that came within one win of capturing the WNBA title.
But while the years since their playing days have taken both all over the country as coaches and mentors who continue to teach the game of basketball, they were asked to go back to that time in the mid-1990’s when the WNBA was coming into existence, and what the creation of the league and playing for New York meant to them all these years later.
“It was very exciting. I remember when Renee Brown came to Europe and she told the players that a league was about to formulate in America,” said Trice-Hill. “We were all just excited to be coming back to America and give our family the opportunity to see us play.”
“When we played overseas it was a sacrifice that we had to make because we didn’t have a professional league in America at the time,” added Weatherspoon. “We were all scattered across the world, playing the game, and sharing our gifts with others. But we wanted to play in America and the moment that we got the chance to play, everybody was ready to hold that hand up and swim across the ocean to get home.”
It was in October 1996 that the Liberty was identified as one of the charter members of the WNBA. By January of the next year, Weatherspoon was one of the first players added to the team, along with center Rebecca Lobo, and Trice-Hill was selected in the third round of the inaugural WNBA Draft in April.
That Liberty squad went 17-11 during the regular season, qualified as one of four teams, in what was then an eight-team league, for the postseason. At that point it was only a single-elimination tournament and New York lost at Houston in the first WNBA Championship game, 65-52.
To hear Weatherspoon and Trice-Hill talk about that team all these years later, it was no fluke they came so close to the pinnacle in the first year of loaded WNBA. The team gelled immediately, and the respect all of those great players shared for one another transferred into their play on the court.
“When you talk about us playing, and coming together as a unit, it was the most fun we’ve probably ever had,” said Weatherspoon. “What mattered was us playing together as one, as a unit, trying to accomplish the very same thing, and that’s what made it so special.”
But the Liberty season was atypical for a number of other reasons. In addition to shouldering the pressure of playing in the very first WNBA game in Los Angeles, the team called Madison Square Garden their home, a fact that was not lost on the team.
“Believe it or not, it was like a culture shock because we were in America, finally playing something that we all enjoyed doing, in our own country,” said Trice-Hill “And playing at The Garden in New York City, I mean the World’s Most Famous Arena, I mean that was exciting enough.”
“That was a great deal of respect, stepping into that arena every night,” said Weatherspoon. “But you wanted to perform, you wanted to give the people a great performance. We weren’t just basketball players, we were performers and we were entertainers and you have to be that to play in New York City.”
Now 20 years later, the WNBA has expanded, the Liberty continues to dazzle crowds at Madison Square Garden, and a new generation of young people are inspired by the feats they see from some of the best players in the world.
Weatherspoon and Trice-Hill are pioneers. They played the game of basketball across the globe for nearly a decade before being able to finally come home and share their skills and passion with family, friends, and American fans.
They set the stage for today’s players and league, but both stressed the importance of recognizing all of the trailblazers that came before them – those who sacrificed so much for so many years to ultimately make the dreams of the next generation become a reality.
“For us, it was more the Janet Lawrence’s, the Cheryl Miller’s – we each had our role models and they were very positive role models,” said Trice-Hill. “They were really the pioneers and they deserve to have played in the WNBA. They didn’t get the opportunity and sometimes they are unrecognized.”