Wicks reflects on satisfying career
Former Liberty, Rutgers star part of Women's Basketball Hall of Fame's 2013 class
Sue Wicks hesitated when trying to describe the most profound feeling she had about playing basketball. What could she say? Nothing would adequately convey it.
It's a bit like when you have a dream that suggests a kind of existential euphoria -- a reassurance that everything, ultimately, is connected and makes sense. But when you wake up with the gossamer wisps of the dream floating away in your consciousness, you can't quite explain why it made you feel that way.
Still, Wicks -- who along with five others will be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., this weekend -- gave it a try. The feeling? It was at its most intense during her six seasons in the WNBA with the New York Liberty from 1997-2002.
"It was the communication -- not just with my teammates, but the other team, the officials, the fans," Wicks said. "I don't have the words for how magical that felt. That flow, the energy ... how it all becomes one thing. It didn't really occur like that in any other part of my life, so I really miss that a lot.
"When people say, 'Do you miss playing?' I give a short answer: 'No, I played enough.' But I do miss that flow. It was holistic; it was everybody inside the arena who was part of the whole package."
She laughs, a little self-consciously.
"I have to tell you I've never really said this before," she said. "It sounds wacky."
After all, this is no-nonsense Sue Wicks, native New Yorker and spare-me-the-B.S. pragmatist. She has that look like she could be a character in a Robert Altman movie, someone streetwise and tough, yet soft-hearted and a bit quirky at the same time.
And what she's saying isn't wacky at all. That "flow" or "connection" that Wicks speaks of is what those who give themselves over to something they love hope to feel, even if only fleetingly.
For Wicks, the feeling was at its peak when she played in Madison Square Garden with teammates like Teresa Weatherspoon and Vickie Johnson, and against foes like Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson.
She knows they all felt it. In those early years of the WNBA, so much seemed groundbreaking and even breathtaking.
"I think you just experience it, and you don't know how to really talk about it," Wicks said. "But even now, if I see Spoon or Vickie -- they know exactly what it is, and we don't say anything. Or even Cynthia or Tina. There's a great deal of love there, and respect, even between fierce competitors. Because it brought something out of each one of us."
WICKS' TAKE ON THE LIBERTY
Sue Wicks says the Liberty's path to success isn't to try to "recapture" what it felt like in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the franchise.
Wicks thinks New York's focus has to be about the personality of the players and coaches there now. The Liberty, under new coach Bill Laimbeer, shouldn't try to replicate what belongs to the past.
"I don't think you can repeat that; if you want to be great at something, you have to be yourself," Wicks said. "Our Liberty team had a lot going for us: People were excited about the start of the WNBA, and we had a lot of charisma on that team. It was really a fun group -- whether it was Rebecca Lobo, Becky Hammon, Kym Hampton, Spoon [Teresa Weatherspoon], Vickie [Johnson] -- fans identified with us as individuals and loved the team."
The Liberty's last WNBA finals appearance was in 2002; that's a goal that Laimbeer hopes to reach again. And, even more, to win a championship.
Asked how she would have reacted to playing for Laimbeer, Wicks said, "I would have loved it. When I with the Liberty, there was a lot of self-monitoring about what your role was and embracing that, because we were veterans and we knew that's how a team worked.
"When you have a coach who does that, especially with a lot of younger stars -- he's able to get players to do things they're best at, and make it their own. That's his signature, and he's a coach that I really like." -- Mechelle Voepel
Wicks will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with fellow players Jennifer Rizzotti, Annette Smith-Knight and Peggie Gillom-Granderson, and coaches Gary Blair and Jim Foster.
They all could put into perspective the growth of women's basketball and the struggles the sport still faces. They represent different personalities and parts of the United States. But this weekend, all will share the commonality of trying to wrap up so many thoughts, memories and thank-yous into at least a semi-concise speech.
When Wicks has thought about what she will say, her mind goes in many different directions. In part because she was essentially three different players during her college and pro careers.
"At Rutgers, they'll remember me as a great scorer," said Wicks, who had 2,655 points with the Scarlet Knights from 1984-88. "With the Liberty, I was a role player who focused on defense. And in Europe, I was something else between those two.
"And for myself, I always just loved to play. Whether I was star of the team or a role player, it felt the same in a lot of ways. The energy of being on a team meant something to me. Especially as I got older, I felt it more intensely.
"It was heightened in the WNBA, because everybody was so engaged in what they were doing and passionate. We felt part of something really important. We had veteran players, the Liberty front office, the ticket sellers -- everybody put forth their best efforts. There was a really positive vibe."
After retiring from professional basketball, Wicks coached for a while, including at her alma mater, Rutgers. But now she's part of a business called Fight 2B Fit, a youth-fitness program that works with schools and other organizations in the New York area.
Wicks talks about how inner-city children, in particular, face many obstacles in establishing physically healthy lifestyles. Schools have cut back on physical education, and many kids have very little in the way of even safe spaces to play outside.
"When I was a kid in the summer, it was out of the house at 8 in the morning and don't come back until lunch," said Wicks, 46. "And then don't come home again until dinner. Other than that, we were outside all day. We created our own games.
"Kids need to move, they need to play. Or else they act out in different ways. Once you stop moving, that becomes a habit."
Wicks said she is thrilled to see the elite youth athlete, the person much like she was. Yet, she finds herself even more drawn to work with the opposite: the child who doesn't participate in sports.
"The ones you can tell who don't even feel comfortable in their bodies," she said. "I want them to know that health and fitness belongs to them, too. Or the kids who, as they get older, stop participating. Maybe they try out for a team and get cut, and then they more and more think of themselves as not athletic, and they give up all those benefits of being active."
Wicks is thankful that athletics is something that always felt so natural to her. Thankfulness is, in fact, a recurrent state of mind lately for her. This weekend, she wants to show her gratitude to everyone who has been part of her journey, from former Rutgers coach Theresa Grentz -- "She was so patient with me when I didn't know what the heck she was talking about" -- to her family, friends and teammates.
"In terms of the speech, it's been all over the map," Wicks said. "I've been telling myself, 'You've really got to rein this in and get focused.' Because I've thought about when I played in high school, playing against my brothers, being at Rutgers, going to Europe, playing in the WNBA. As far as making it one condensed thought, I'm not sure what it's going to be."
There is no quick way to fully sum it up. But maybe Wicks could connect it all in this moment: Just before the Liberty's first game at the Garden in 1997, hearing the national anthem, soaking it in that -- after all those years playing so far from home overseas -- this was really happening.
"For me, being a New Yorker, I couldn't believe where I was standing," Wicks said. "Even the uniform I had on -- I was so in love with how it looked and how it felt. Being there with my teammates and knowing a lot of the emotions I was having were flowing through them as well."
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