A famous WNBA shot you also might remember, like Dearica Hamby‘s
Friday, September 6, Teresa Weatherspoon was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2019 class, and for a couple weeks leading up, NBATV replayed Game 2 of the 1999 WNBA Finals as part of its Hardwood Classics.
Yes, it’s “The Shot”. I’m not spoiling anything here. It has been 20 years since Weatherspoon knocked down the most iconic shot in WNBA history to force Game 3 between the defending champion Houston Comets and the New York Liberty.
So, coming off of Dearica Hamby’s miracle heave at the buzzer with several seconds left, with a break between games, now is as good a time as any to re-watch a WNBA classic and reflect as the game goes on.
Some notes to set this up:
- The Comets (26-6) are the top team in the Western Conference and the two-time defending champions. The Liberty (18-14) are the top team in the Eastern Conference and are back in the Finals, forcing a rematch of the 1997 championship game.
- These two teams split their regular season series, but the Comets won Game 1 of the Finals at Madison Square Garden 73-60 to have two chances at home to win their third-straight Finals. (In this season, the best-of-three Finals started in New York and finished with two games in Houston, who had home court advantage.)
- The game is played in two 20-minute halves at this point, with a 30-second shot clock.
- Mike Breen and Ann Meyers Drysdale are on the call at the Compaq Center.
Okay, let’s get in to it.
First Half, 20:00
First off: the Compaq Center is packed. Even through the slightly-worse quality of the broadcast, the crowd really comes through. The stands are full, and the fans are loud. Looking at the numbers, this was a sellout, with 16,285 in attendance.
There’s a lot of action on offense, Tina Thompson setting a big screen on the left wing, but ultimately the first bucket of the game comes in the most Comets way: Cynthia Cooper, driving hard to the basket, with a left-handed layup. 2-0 Houston.
We get some good shots of the two head coaches in this one. For the Liberty, it’s Richie Adubato, their second head coach, who took over this year after Nancy Darsch failed to get the Liberty back to the Playoffs and moved over to coach the Washington Mystics. And for the Comets, Van Chancellor, their leader through the first two championships as well. It’s a real battle of legends, looking back, as both of these coaches are still top-ten all-time in wins.
The next several possessions move very quickly, and you get a good sense of the two game plans here. Between Cooper, Swoopes, and Henning, Houston has no fear taking the ball straight to the basket from their guards. The other side is quite different: the Liberty in the halfcourt spend a lot of time trying to get good looks for Kym Hampton and Sue Wicks, their two post starters.
The Liberty are really tough inside on defense, Hampton and Wicks getting a couple of blocks and altering shots early, and the Comets defense is really active overall. Henning gets a steal on the first Liberty offensive possession, and between Weatherspoon, Vickie Johnson, Henning, and Swoopes, you’re not going to have an easy time moving the ball on the dribble.
Even Cooper gets a hustle deflection off a Liberty player, leading Breen to comment on her overall game.
“Cooper’s defense is always overshadowed [by her offense]… Her defense is amazing as well,” he says as we near the 16:00 mark in the first half.
Early on the Liberty are leading with 5 rebounds to the Comets’ lone board, but they also have three turnovers and trail 4-0.
First Half, 15:15 (HOU 4-0)
Swoopes gets a nice steal and pushes the ball up in transition. It’s two-on-one with her and Henning leading the break, and she dumps it over to Henning, who misses the bucket. But what a great example of Swoopes’ game on both ends. It’s no wonder she led the league in steals twice and was consistently top-ten in assists.
Going back the other way, Vickie Johnson gets the first Liberty bucket with a jumper in the paint.
Let’s take a moment to recognize the women in this game who are now coaching in the game: On the Liberty side, Johnson and Crystal Robinson are assistants in Las Vegas and Dallas, respectively; Weatherspoon is Player Development Coach for New York; and Becky Hammon is an assistant with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. And on the Comets side, Thompson is head coach at Virginia, Jen Rizzotti at George Washington, and Cooper is back at Texas Southern. And that’s just to name a few.
First Half, 11:20 (HOU 13 – 2)
There has just been very little movement and spacing for the Liberty. Crystal Robinson has taken the only perimeter shots we’ve seen, and the Liberty overall are 1-11 with six turnovers. The Comets are doubling and trapping all over the place, a big reason why New York has just two points almost halfway through the first half.
Breen comments that Arcain may be “the best bench player in the league.” Of course, there was no Sixth Woman of the Year Award then, but she like would’ve won it. Fittingly, Meyers Drysdale mentions that none of the Comets won individual awards despite the team’s continued dominance. (Yolanda Griffith was MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Newcomer of the Year.) In retrospect, that really speaks to how the Comets were able to be so successful year-after-year: as a team.
After a Swoopes rebound up to Cooper for the assist (her third) over to Jackson for the layup, Adubato calls timeout.
First Half, 9:17 (HOU 17-5)
Sweet relief. Witherspoon gets a layup off a hard cut to the basket and gets the and-one.
First Half, 7:44 (HOU 21-7)
The Liberty have picked up the pace a little bit, capitalizing on a couple of sloppy Comets turnovers and hustling to get whatever they can. They just aren’t making a ton of shots. I think the graphic that just popped up said they’re right around 15% from the field, but then Rebecca Lobo appeared on the screen.
She’s not in the game because of a knee injury sustained in the first minute of the first game of the season. That’s a tough loss for the Liberty, a player who averaged 11.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks the year before.
First Half, 6:31 (HOU 25-10)
Witherspoon has really been the bright spot for the Liberty on offense. Another drive to the rim for a basket, and on a later possession she goes in and gets fouled. Otherwise, the Liberty have had a tough time with the Comets’ press, which they’ve now extended past half court. It’s led to a couple of turnovers and frustration fouls on the other end.
But, even more interestingly, it’s led to the first appearance by Becky Hammon!
First Half, 6:21 (HOU 25-12)
It takes all of ten seconds for Hammon to drive in to the lane and kick out to Hampton for a short jumper. Remember, this is the undrafted rookie out of Colorado State we’re talking about.
First Half, 4:17 (HOU 27-13)
Tzekova drained a long two for the Comets. Nothing flashy, but she has been solid so far. Out of Bulgaria, Tzekova was one of the best basketball players out of Bulgaria, representing them in the 1988 Olympics and playing for a decade in Bulgaria, Italy, and France before being drafted by the Comets tenth overall in 1998. She ended up signing with the Comets and coming over in 1999 for just the one season. She was MVP of the French League in 1999 and 2000, and though she never returned to the WNBA, she played another ten years overseas.
First Half, 3:46 (HOU 27-16)
Hammon drains a three from the top of the arc. I hope she gets a shot in this league.
First Half, 2:06 (HOU 36-19)
The Comets just have so many options. Within the span of two minutes, Arcain fires the crowd up with a drive in to the lane resulting in a hard foul called on Hammon. Tzekova and Thompson, the tallest players on the court at the time, both pop out for threes. How do you guard that while still checking Swoopes and Cooper?
First Half, 0:37 (HOU 37-23)
Hampton posts up and scores off a little spin to the basket with a free throw coming. Watching her reminds me a bit of Courtney Paris with the Seattle Storm. An imposing body on the inside with good post moves to score. I guess that’s why Hampton was an All Star that year, averaging 9.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in what would be her final season in the WNBA. By this point she had already announced her intention to retire after the season due to wear and tear on her body.
Halftime (HOU 37-23)
It’s incredible looking at this score, knowing how this game is going to end.
Second Half, 19:44 (HOU 37-26)
Another jump ball to start the second half, another difference from today’s game. This time the Liberty win it and get a quick foul on Swoopes on a Robinson three. She was not pleased with the call. You have to defend Robinson’s three, though. She shot 43.7% from beyond the arc in 1999 and is to this day the Liberty’s all-time leader in made threes with 400. Next closest is teammate Becky Hammon, who had 331 in New York.
Robinson is a newcomer to the WNBA, but she’s not new to the professional game. She was 1997 ABL Rookie of the Year and an All Star with the Colorado Xplosion. She is one of many who moved over to the WNBA in 1999 after the ABL folded.
Second Half, 19:20 (HOU 37-29)
Weatherspoon drains a three before the Comets can get their defense set up. Getting warmed up for later…
Second Half, 17:20 (HOU 39-29)
Meyers Drysdale mentions Kim Perrot, who had passed away just weeks before after a battle with lung cancer. You wouldn’t know it by watching them play, but it could not have been easy for the Comets to keep going without the heart and soul of that team.
Second Half, 15:59 (HOU 39-34)
The Comets look out of sorts, and Robinson has come alive for the Liberty. Back-to-back buckets off a screen toward the baseline, and you get the sense she’s far from done.
Second Half, 15:22 (HOU 39-37)
Chants of “DEFENSE” cry out from the Houston fans, but it’s no match for Robinson right now. She drains a big three and it’s just a two-point game. (Mike Breen must not have “BANG!” in the arsenal yet, because that was a BANG-worthy shot.) Houston has yet to make a shot from the field in the second half.
Second Half, 12:34 (HOU 40-37)
It’s been a slog over the past few minutes, as both teams are trying to make something happen, but tough defense on both sides is preventing anyone from getting an easy bucket, if they even get a look at the basket.
Watching this game in the middle of the 2019 season really gives you a nice look at how post play has changed over the past 20 years. The players inside, like Sue Wicks, Hampton, Jackson, and Tamika Whitmore, are not incredibly mobile. They are content to hover around the paint on offense and defense. Really only Whitmore, who played ten more seasons in the WNBA after this one (including an All Star year with the Indiana Fever in 2006), developed a three-point shot in the later part of her career, making 70 of 216 from 2006 to 2008.
You get even more of an appreciation for Tina Thompson, who was already breaking that mold, making three of four from beyond the arc in this game while just as easily getting inside to score or draw a foul. All the while she’s defending post players like Whitmore inside.
Second Half, 11:41 (TIE 42-42)
Robinson is still on fire, but Arcain takes the ball back down the court and answers to keep the game tied at 42 apiece with a free throw coming.
Second Half, 8:59 (HOU 52-43)
Swoopes has really put the Comets on her back to extend Houston’s lead back out to nine. Her play defies position; a couple of offensive rebounds, tough buckets inside, a ten-foot jumper, and the Comets seem to be in control again.
Hammon is back in for the Liberty, and you can already see the promise of her passing ability (1,708 career assists) at this point. Her creativity rocketed the ball inside to Wicks for a short jumper, but it was a little too hot for her to finish cleanly.
Second Half, 8:22 (HOU 52-48)
Vickie Johnson is tough. After a three from Hammon, Johnson battled inside to get a rebound and put the ball back up for two. Back to just a four-point lead for Houston.
Second Half, 6:17 (TIE 52-52)
It’s been a struggle for Cooper. Not much production since early in the first half; the Liberty clearly keyed on the league’s leading scorer over the past three seasons. A double-team thrown at her resulted in an errant pass and a jump ball between Swoopes and Hammon.
Second Half, 4:10 (NY 58-57)
A lot of action back-and-forth over the past two minutes, but this game is coming down to free throws. Houston has made 29 of 38 (76%) and New York has made 15 of 21 (71%). The Liberty are in the bonus and taking advantage, to Chancellor’s discontent. An unnecessary foul from Arcain is probably the first time we’ve seen him visibly upset on the broadcast.
Second Half, 3:54 (HOU 60-58)
“This place is waiting to explode,” Breen comments, after Swoopes drains a three to get the lead back. Three-point shooting was never the best part of her game, but clutch is clutch.
Second Half, 1:15 (NY 63-62)
Hampton has looked uncomfortable most of the second half, but that doesn’t stop her from nailing a 15-foot jumper to get the lead back for the Liberty.
Second Half, 2.5 seconds (HOU 67-65)
Thompson drains a little turnaround shot over her opponent. Have I mentioned how ahead of her time she was? She has scored from every level on the court in this game.
No timeouts for the Liberty at this point. You can see streamers flying in the stands already. This crowd believes they’ve won. But of course you know the game isn’t over. Just watch the rest for yourself, even if you’ve seen it before:
The reactions all-around are priceless. Meyers Drysdale can’t help but let out a “OH!” on the microphone, Breen’s volume level is at a game-high, and the Liberty dog-pile on Weatherspoon.
The Liberty get the win they needed to force Game 3.
Robinson (21 points) and Hampton (10 points, 9 rebounds) led the Liberty, while the Comets were led by their Big Three: Thompson (15 points, 3-4 from three), Swoopes (14 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists), and Cooper (12 points, 10-12 FT, 6 assists).
One day later the Comets would avenge that loss with a 59-47 win to get their third consecutive championship in what would be four total in as many years. An unmatched dynasty still today.
It’s truly a joy to be able to watch a classic game like this. Whatever it takes, the WNBA and NBA TV should make it a point to get more of these games on the air so new and old fans alike have the opportunity to see the legends of the game again.
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