Commentary

Pressure is on Liberty to produce

With star center switching teams, Liberty-Sun rivalry should be even better

Updated: April 16, 2014, 6:08 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Tina CharlesAP Photo/Anthony NesmithThe No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, Tina Charles was the WNBA MVP in 2012.

Maybe we can all agree on wishing for this: peace on Earth and goodwill toward everyone ... with the exception of some harmless drama to spice up things.

That latter can be quite entertaining in sports, as long as it doesn't go overboard. And it's what we likely will get, even more now, when Connecticut and New York meet in the WNBA.

Which is a good thing. Rivalries are a big part of the narrative in sports, and when it involves geographic proximity and a fan base feeling a little scorned, that's a potentially enticing recipe.

On Tuesday -- the day after the WNBA draft and the major trade that brought her to New York from Connecticut -- Tina Charles talked about how excited she is to get to play in her hometown. She is looking forward to having all of this: Madison Square Garden as her home court, a fellow elite player like guard Cappie Pondexter as her teammate, and an intense person like Bill Laimbeer as her coach.

She is not as keen on looking backward at her recently ended days with the Sun, who drafted her No. 1 in 2010. Charles became disenchanted with the Connecticut organization after coach Mike Thibault was fired following the 2012 season, when the Sun had come a victory short of going to the WNBA Finals.

[+] EnlargeLaimbeer
AP Photo/Jessica HillBill Laimbeer's Liberty finished fifth in the Eastern Conference last season, going 11-23.

Charles seemed visibly unhappy last season. The Sun finished with the worst record in the league (10-24) under new coach Anne Donovan, to whom Charles never warmed.

In a teleconference Tuesday with Laimbeer, Charles had positive things to say about her former Connecticut teammates and the Sun franchise, including its support for her charitable foundation.

But she said she is eager to play for New York, a team she feels is on track to compete for a WNBA title. That's something the Liberty -- one of the WNBA's original franchises dating back to the league's inception in 1997 -- have never won.

"Growing up, my mom took me to Liberty games," said Charles, a Queens native. "I would see Rebecca Lobo, Becky Hammon, Teresa Weatherspoon. My AAU team would play [in the Garden] during halftime. So this is just a big dream for me."

Asked about the Sun's contention that she "forced" the trade -- which sent Kelsey Bone, Alyssa Thomas (Monday's No. 4 pick) and New York's first pick in the 2015 draft to Connecticut -- Charles really didn't deny it.

"You're going to have ups and downs with a team; every day is not going to be perfect," Charles said. "Connecticut has great players, but I just looked at the bigger picture."

OK, but would Charles really have sat out this season rather than play for Connecticut?

"I absolutely did consider sitting out," Charles said.

Charles did not want to go into the specifics of her dialogue this past winter with Connecticut vice president/general manager Chris Sienko and Donovan, saying those details were between the three of them.

Did the Sun think they could still convince Charles to stay if they got a top wing player, which they did in signing free agent Katie Douglas in March? Was Charles completely clear even before then that there was absolutely no way she was returning? Was her departure as much about her dissatisfaction with the Sun as it was her desire to play in the Big Apple? If Thibault were still coaching the Sun, would Charles have stayed put?

Those involved likely would have different answers, but at this point, none of that really matters much. The deal is done. Most Sun fans were well-aware that Charles wasn't happy last season. They might have hoped it would work out, hoped that the former UConn Huskies star would have a different mindset about this season with the Sun. That didn't happen.

And so the Liberty get a true superstar center who just turned 25 in December, and all they gave up to get her was young players with potential. Those players could work out very well for the Sun, but Charles seems a lock to be pivotal for the Liberty for a long time.

[+] EnlargeCharles
AP Photo/Jessica HillTina Charles, a native of Queens, averaged 18.0 points and 10.1 rebounds in 2013.
Now, as Laimbeer said, there is more pressure on the Liberty to produce. But isn't that always the case for sports teams in New York?

"When I came to the Liberty, I spent the whole year understanding what they were about," said Laimbeer, the former Detroit Shock coach who was named New York's head coach and GM in October 2012. "And just trying to get a handle on what was necessary for this franchise to move forward to the level I'm charged with.

"It was clear we needed another marquee player. Stars win in this league, [just like] stars win in the NBA."

Charles more than qualifies for that tag; she averaged 18.0 points and 10.1 rebounds last season, and her four-year career WNBA averages are 17.3 PPG and 10.8 RPG.

Last year, the Liberty finished fifth in the East; at 11-23, they were just one game better than Connecticut. New York's top scorer was Pondexter at 16.9 PPG, and center Kara Braxton was the Liberty's leading rebounder at 6.6 RPG. As good as Charles is, the Liberty probably are still not exactly championship-caliber, but they are a lot closer.

It's roughly 130 miles between Mohegan Sun and Madison Square Garden, where the Liberty return this season after their construction-forced exile to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the past three summers. So it is a natural rivalry, based on proximity, between the Liberty and the Sun.

But with Charles switching sides, will it be even more of a rivalry going forward? Probably. Heck, hopefully.

All opposing fans root against Laimbeer, which he loves. As for Charles, some Sun fans might still be annoyed about her attitude last year, others might have sided with her. And while they are certainly disappointed to lose a player who was projected to be the franchise's centerpiece for the foreseeable future, they also know it does no good to try to hold on to someone who intensely doesn't want to be with a team.

It's safe to assume that almost all Sun fans are also UConn fans. How negative will they be toward one of the very best players in UConn history?

We'll see. The Liberty's first preseason game is -- you guessed it -- at Connecticut on May 4. The teams meet in a preseason contest again on May 8 at Madison Square Garden. Then each team's first real game of the season is also against each other, at Connecticut on May 16.

If the Sun's No. 1 draft pick, Chiney Ogwumike, blocks one of Charles' shots, you'll be sure to hear some loud woofing from Sun fans. Charles will be all the more eager to return the favor, and then some.

Hey, this could be fun.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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