With the New York Liberty since 1997, Sue Wicks is a WNBA veteran. What's more, she has played overseas in four countries and continues to use the foreign league to hone her court skills.
A three-time Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year while at Rutgers in the mid-1980s, this 6'3" center/forward won the 1988 Naismith Award and remains her school's all-time leader in career scoring average (21.1 ppg), rebounding average (10.8 rpg), steals (287), and blocked shots (293).
This season, Wicks gained a new distinction, being named recipient of the WNBA's 2001 Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award. In this Q&A, Wicks shares her definition of sportsmanship, explains what aspects of professional ball rookies are most surprised by, and how her game has changed since her early days.
Gball: Competition for slots in the WNBA is fierce. How have you managed to stay with the same team for five seasons without being traded?
Wicks: It takes a commitment to yourself as a basketball player. Every year I try to keep in excellent shape and improve some part of my game. I play in the offseason overseas to keep my game tuned up and hopefully improve a little in some area.
As you've progressed throughout your career, how has your game changed?
I definitely started my career as very self centered and an offensive-type of player and person. But as I get older, I value the team play and the defensive end of the court more and try to be more of a leader--to work on team chemistry and the atmosphere around the team. Those things have become more important to me.
Although you're not a starter, you play a large portion of every game. How do you view your role on the Liberty?
As far as starting or not starting, that means more to some players than others. And if it means more to someone else, I think you should let them start and just go out there and do your job when it's your turn.
For me, being a starter doesn't matter. Of course, I'd like to be in at the end of the game, to be a big part of the team, and to play as many minutes as I can play. But starting and coming off the bench are two different challenges. And I like doing both. You can come in and be a spark or you can start and add stability to the team. But your role changes as coaches ask you to increase your role or diminish it. And depending on how you look at it, either can be a positive.
That's really good advice, because some young players feel inadequate if they're not part of the starting five.
Right, and that's the first question people ask you. "Do you start? Are you an All-Star? How many points do you average a game?" We ask young players that question too often, and then they see starting as the only value in the sport. So I think it's good to talk more about the team atmosphere, chemistry, and leadership, because not everyone is cut out to be a star.
Players should know that if you can't make the contribution of the winning shot, that your attitude every day when you come to practice, or the positive contribution you make through cheering and keeping up team morale, is just as important in the overall picture. So you shouldn't just work on your jump shot. You should work on being a better person, a better teammate, and a better friend.
So what is your goal when you come off the bench?
Even at this age, I'm still a very energetic person. And sometimes when I come into the game, it really helps my teammates who are tired. If I go out there with a lot of enthusiasm and energy, a willingness to go after loose balls on the floor, and just give a little extra to help them, it boosts the whole team's energy. And it's fun for me to go out there like that. So when I come off the bench, I'm looking to add energy, and then I play defense and rebound. Also, at the end of the game, I have the experience to go out there and help us win.
This year you won the WNBA Sportsmanship Award. How meaningful was that to you?
It was kind of a shock. Sportsmanship and why I play the game has become very important to me in the last seven years--things like giving back to the people around me, giving advice, setting a good example, and being grateful for the opportunity that the WNBA gave women. I try to never lose sight of what a special time it is to be a women's basketball player and to never get used to it or take it for granted.
But I was surprised I won the award because I've always been a very aggressive player and I earn my share of fouls on the court. I play rough, and because I'm an older player, of course I use tricks on the younger players. And sometimes people think that if you're always helping people up and never hit someone with a hard foul, you're automatically a good sport. And I don't believe that. So I was very pleased that the positive things about me and my game outshone the aggressive style of play I use.
I would never tone that down, because I believe in that style of play, and I believe that you can play rough on the court and still be a good sport. It's not to hurt anyone, but basketball can be rough. So I was happy that it showed how much I love and respect the game.
So how do you define playing with sportsmanship?
When I played in Japan, I learned some things about sports through their philosophy on life. In the U.S., we grow up learning so much about how to respect your team and teammates, and to have pride in your team. But there, they emphasize respecting all 10 players on the court and respecting the game. They taught me that it isn't just your side you should respect and that it isn't just us against them. It's about all of us playing. And that really changed my perspective about how to play the game.
So I think sportsmanship is knowing that it is a game, that we are only as a good as our opponents, and whether you win or lose, to always give 100 percent. And I even believe if you're killing a team, you shouldn't stop. You should respect your opponents enough to play 100 percent the whole time. And by the same token, if you're getting killed by the other team, you should never quit.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Obviously it's been being part of the WNBA--playing my first game in Madison Square Garden, going to the finals, playing in the All-Star game, winning the Sportsmanship Award. Every year, something new comes along and enriches my whole experience. But the overall experience of feeling like a professional athlete in America has been really special. Having young girls who come up to you and tell you that they're basketball players and watch the team all the time is exciting. And it's fun to be part of that, because when I was young, we didn't have that. And to be on television and have my nieces and nephews see me, and seeing them wear my shirt to the games and be proud, it's so sweet. It's been a very positive experience, and sometimes it feels like it's just a dream. Then when I see these young girls who are dreaming the dream that I'm living, it's very very exciting and it puts a big smile on my face.
When you were a youngster, there wasn't the coverage of women's basketball seen today, so who did you look up to?
There were female basketball players, but we only caught glimpses of them. And their games weren't televised. You just knew their names. I knew of Carol Blazejowski, Nancy Lieberman, and Ann Meyers. I didn't get to see those women play, and I didn't even know what they looked like because you rarely saw a photo of them. But they were names and that gave me a goal to point to and try to reach--that there were women's basketball players and I could be one. And then Cheryl Miller came along and we could see her on TV, and she was like the biggest star in women's basketball, ever.
I was also a Knicks fan since I was a kid, so those players were my real idols. I grew up watching the guys play all the time.
How did you get started in the game?
It was a neighborhood thing. We used to all play baseball because my neighborhood was very into sports. But nobody played basketball except one guy down the street. And I went down there one day, we started shooting baskets, I fell in love with the sport, and I went out for the j.v. team when I was in 9th grade.
Has the game changed very much since your high school and college days?
Definitely. When I was in high school, I think my father was the only person who came to the games. It was him, the referees, and the scorekeepers. That was it. There was no interest at all.
When I went to college, we had a very good local following, but stations only televised two or three NCAA games a season. And when I went to Europe, once in a while we had a good crowd, but usually not.
When I look at things now, I see so many college teams with great followings and getting great press. They're signing contracts with ESPN to televise all these games, which is very exciting. And plus you can see WNBA games three times a week on national television. It's a huge change from when I couldn't even see a picture of Carol Blazejowski to now being able to see women's basketball players all summer long.
Have the players changed, too?
The skill level has definitely risen in the WNBA just in the last five years. The players coming in are outstanding and great talents, like Chamique Holdsclaw, Betty Lennox, and Jackie Stiles. They are taking it to the next level.
But rookies are also coming in from college programs as big stars. Whereas when we came in, we were just happy to be there. We were happy to be playing in a big gym, to be on television, to be playing in America. These players, though, have been dreaming about the WNBA for the last five years, and for them, playing on TV is great, but they also want to know, "Where's the money?"
And people ask me about that issue all the time. For me, the money isn't a big issue. I'm at the end of my career and I'm just happy to play. But I think their interest in salary is great. I think that's what's going to take this game to the next level. You have to demand things and believe your worth more. And once you do demand them, you're usually going to get them. The players who first came in were very humble because we came from obscurity. Today's players, on the other hand, have a sense of entitlement. But that's great. I think that's going to take basketball to the next level as they negotiate for new contracts with the league. It's the ugly part of sports, in my opinion. But it's the catalyst for growth. And there's a lot of room to grow, and the women who believe they're worth it are the ones who are going to make good things happen during the next period of WNBA growth.
As a veteran with the Liberty, do rookies look to you as a mentor?
When you're an older player, that's part of your job--to give a little mentoring, give a little advice, and to help the players. Because they can be a little intimidated or overwhelmed, especially when they're coming to New York City. I think you owe that to people, to share your experiences and help them through the transition. It's funny, 'cause it seems like just yesterday that I was the youngest player just starting out. But now there are young players all over the league, and they'll ask me questions about playing overseas or finding an agent. It feels funny that most of the time I can go "Hey, I know the answer to that! Yes, I can help you."
But I really enjoy the young players--their attitudes, their spunk, and their fight. They're players with a lot of ambition.
What aspects of the WNBA are rookies most taken aback by?
One concept is the fact that your job is YOUR job, and you have to fight for it every day. We're a team, but in preseason and camp, everybody is fighting for their jobs. So when new players come in, they sometimes expect the older players to say "Welcome to NY. Welcome to the Liberty. Welcome to the League." But the fact is there are only 11 spots on the team, and the new players coming in are going for your job. So whether you are a second year or fifth year player, you're fighting for your job. And I think it might frighten some of the rookies, how hard we'll fight for that job.
So in preseason camp, there are no friends. One young college player came into our camp, she got beat up on the court, and she got cut early. And later she told a player who did make our team, "I don't know how you can play with them. They're so mean. They are the meanest people I've ever met." Well, if she had stayed a couple of more weeks, we would have taken care of her and all been great friends. But when newcomers arrive trying to take not only your job, but maybe your best friend's job, you work together to try to help each other. So everyone is an outsider until you're given a uniform.
Are there other responsibilities that rookies are unaware of?
Yes. Dealing with fans is one. When we leave Madison Square Garden, it probably takes me another hour to get through the fans, signing autographs and stuff. On a typical game day, you get to the gym a couple hours early, you play the game, after that you do the media, and then you take your shower, get dressed, meet your family in the green room. After all that, the last thing you want to do is another hour of signing autographs outside the building, especially when you're starving. But that is part of your job--to be friendly, show personality, and to give a little bit back, because those people have been waiting a couple of hours for you. And that's a part of the job that rookies wouldn't expect.
Another thing is that most rookies don't play. And they've probably never had to keep themselves in shape. So they think, "Well I'm on a professional team, why would I have to do extra workouts." But because you don't play and there's so much traveling, it's very easy to get out of shape. And a lot of rookies neglect to go to the gym, lift weights, ride the bike on their own, or work on their skills to catch up to the other players' skill levels. So that's another responsibility when you're a rookie. You have to do a lot of extra work just to try to catch up with the people who are there.
Now that you are coming to the end of your career, what aspects of the game come easiest to you, and what aspects do you have to work most on?
Like anything, once you know what to expect, it gets easier and easier. And now I know what I have to do to prepare for each season and what to expect through each season. However, now it's harder to recover after games and from long trips. Because no matter how hard you work out and keep in shape, when you get older, it takes a little longer for an injury to heal or get over fatigue. So I have to work hard to keep in shape, eat right, and take care of myself.
What are your plans for this offseason?
I'm probably going to play overseas, but it's really up in the air right now. I might just stay home and do PR work for the Liberty. And there's lots of charity stuff that I can do. There are actually a million things to do here, but it would be very hard for me to stop going overseas, because I've been doing that for longer than I've been playing in the WNBA.
What is the value of the European experience?
Number one, if you love to play it's a chance to continue playing. And for anyone to go outside of their culture and experience another culture is a great thing. It really enriches your life to be able to say I lived in Italy for a year, or I studied Japanese, or I was there for this political crisis. It's great for you not just as a basketball player, but as a person. So I would recommend it for any player.
When you do decide to wrap up your pro career, what do you hope to do?
I'd like to coach the Liberty. That's my dream. But maybe I'd coach a college team. Either way, I'd like to stay involved in sports and to coach.
Interview conducted by Gball Assistant Editor Shelly Wilson.
Check out last year's q&a's by clicking here
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