By GERRY deSIMAS, JR.
Connecticut Sports Online
HARTFORD, May 23, 2001 --- It's been nearly 29 months or 2½ years since a women's professional basketball game has been contested on the hardwood of the Hartford Civic Center.
A pair of Dale Hodge's foul shots enabled the New England Blizzard to snap a four-game losing streak and hold off the expansion Nashville Noise, 80-76 at the Civic Center on a cool December afternoon on Dec. 19, 1998. Within days, the American Basketball League folded nearly a quarter of the way through its third season.
Thursday night, the Civic Center and Connecticut fans will get a small sampling of women's pro basketball today when the WNBA's New York Liberty host the Washington Mystics at 7 p.m. in the final exhibition game of the season for both squads.
t will be a professional homecoming the Liberty's Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn star and the first draft pick in Blizzard history in 1996, who has missed the last two WNBA seasons with knee injuries.
New York, champions of the WNBA's Eastern Conference in 2000 and 1999, won 13 of its final 14 games last year to finish 20-12. The Liberty lost in the finals to Houston. Led by guard Teresa Weatherspoon, center Tari Phillips and sharpshooting forward Crystal Robinson, the Liberty are healthy entering the season for the first time in three years.
Lobo probably won't start. She is still fighting off two years of inactivity after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in the opening game of the 1999 season. She has played about 15 minutes in each of New York's two exhibition wins over Los Angeles.
Vicki Johnson, a 5-foot-9 forward from Louisiana Tech, is averaging 17.5 points after two games with Robinson (13.5), Weatherspoon (12.5) and Phillips (10.0) each averaging in double figures.
They'll be challenged by an up and coming Washington Mystic team led by former Tennessee All-American star Chamique Holdsclaw, Olympic star Nikki McCray, the first MVP in the ABL, and rookie guard Coco Miller, the squad's first-round draft pick from Georgia. The Mystics (14-18) earned their first playoff berth a year ago but were swept in two games by the Liberty in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Back in the days of the ABL, the Blizzard led the league in attendance all three years, averaging 8,857 in 1997-98 and played host to four of the five biggest crowds in league history including a record 15,418 in January 23, 1998 against Seattle.
Is this game a tryout for a potential Hartford franchise?
Not according to the Liberty, who scheduled the contest.
"We wanted to broaden our fan base and given the rich basketball tradition in Connecticut and in Hartford, it was a natural place to start," Liberty general manager Carol Blazejewski said. "Madison Square Garden manages the Civic Center so it was a perfect fit."
The WNBA, which began with 10 teams in 1997, has grown to 16 teams all in cities with NBA teams. The league charter specifically states that WNBA teams can only play games in NBA arenas.
However, in what is probably just a move to sell more tickets, a Liberty news release promoting the game earlier this month said, "Here is what may be our only opportunity to show the league that Connecticut can support the WNBA."
WNBA President Val Ackerman didn't address Hartford during a conference call earlier this month but said expansion is on hold for the moment.
"There is no timetable for future expansion. We are in a holding pattern at 16 teams," she said. "I guess it is ironic that we are a national league without teams in some of the major markets and it's our hope that we will be someday in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston and other cities as well. I'm pretty confident that will happen at some point."
AROUND THE RIM: New York did play an exhibition game in Storrs in 1998. ... Weatherspoon had six of her game-high 21 points in OT Saturday as the Liberty topped Los Angeles, 101-95. Robinson had 18 points and Johnson had 20 for New York while speedy rookie guard Grace Daley from Tulane added 14.... Holdsclaw, who led the Mystics in scoring a year ago with 17.5 points, showed up for training camp 16 pounds lighter. ... The Mystics are led by Australian Tom Maher, the WNBA's first foreign coach. Washington guard Martkita Aldridge played three of 13 games for the Blizzard in late 1998. ... This is Washington's second and final exhibition. The Mystics beat Cleveland, 65-55 on Sunday behind 19 points from Holdsclaw and 15 from McCray.