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The Liberty Have Finally Brought Good Vibes Basketball to the Bad Vibes Barclays Center

More than anything, going to Barclays in the summer to watch the Liberty is guaranteeing yourself two solid hours of giddy, air conditioned fun with a relatively low-key crowd that loves basketball. 

The Barclays Center, where actual fun is being had? (Jamilah King / Hell Gate)

There aren’t many redeeming qualities about the Barclays Center. It’s a gleaming eyesore in the heart of Brooklyn that cost the taxpayers of Kings County hundreds of millions of dollars in tax subsidies. City leaders allowed it to cleave through the heart of three historic Brooklyn neighborhoods on the promise of affordable housing, almost none of which has been built during its decade of existence. If we're being charitable, it has possibly earned its place as a reliable home to a middling and maddening professional sports franchise and concerts with very bad acoustics. 

But it's not all bad vibes. This summer, something fun is actually happening at the Barclays Center. The New York Liberty, arguably the building’s least heralded tenant, are quietly putting together one of the best seasons of professional basketball in the city’s recent history—and if you haven’t tuned in already, you're missing out on one of the best NYC basketball stories since 1973. 

The team currently holds the league’s second best record and are cruising towards a run to the WNBA Finals. 

Unlike the Knicks and Nets, they made substantial moves this past offseason, signing free agent and Syracuse native Breanna Stewart (aka Stewie) and star power forward Jonquel Jones. They teamed them both up with homegrown star Sabrina Ionescu and together they're pretty unstoppable, splashing threes and constantly moving the ball. That firepower was on display on national television earlier this month, when the team trounced the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces by more than 30 points.

Though the WNBA has been around for 27 years and the Liberty were one of its original eight franchises, the team’s fortunes have often mirrored the league’s, which, on the whole, haven’t been good. Attendance waned, TV viewership was trash, and the team mostly performed miserably. Rampant sexism in sports media and sometimes in its own ranks didn’t help, but arguably the biggest reason the team sucked was because no one with deep pockets wanted to invest in it. Longtime owner and perennial New York City villain James Dolan showed almost no interest in the team, besides trying to find a job for his friend and fellow Knicks villain Isiah Thomas. Dolan was so petty that during the latter years of his ownership, he stopped letting the team play at Madison Square Garden and instead banished them to a municipal arena in Westchester.

In comes Joe Tsai, the billionaire who bought the Nets, Barclays, and the Liberty in 2019. The general mood seemed to be that women’s sports could be an asset to Brooklyn, with its legions of queer fans and people who absolutely refuse to commute into the city on weekends for any reason whatsoever. Tsai and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai, have invested heavily in the team, doing everything from flying across continents to recruit star players and earning the scorn of other team owners by flying players on chartered planes (a standard practice in the NBA). Couple that with its offseason buying spree that brought in Stewie and Jones, and you get a distinctly fun, hard-nosed brand of basketball with some of the game’s best shooters and rebounders on display. I’d even go so far to argue that watching the Liberty is actually more fun than watching the Nets in recent years, with that team’s perpetually injured and morose former superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and a brief interlude of James Harden, and also all of this

What’s more, the Liberty’s brand of basketball isn’t built around coddled superstars. Its players are, by design and necessity, hustlers. They have to be. The league doesn’t pay its stars enough to live on WNBA salaries alone, a fact that became well-publicized when Brittney Griner was detained for nearly a year in Russia, where she played to earn extra money. So you get players like Ionescu, the first overall pick in the 2020 draft and one of a handful of women athletes with a Nike signature sneaker, who also holds down a part-time job as the "Director of Athletic Culture" at her alma mater the University of Oregon. This lack of parity with male counterparts is laughably sad, but it might help explain some of the scrappiness of the overall experience of going to an actual game. 

And that scrappiness somehow transforms the usually moribund Barclays. The home game environment is charged by plenty of long-time fans who have been going to games for years because it’s a fun, relatively cheap thing to do in the summer. I took in my first game last year, spent less than $100 to sit within several rows of the court, and felt a giddiness I hadn’t had since middle school. Unlike the NBA, where the games are expensive and the fans can be hopelessly bro-y and obnoxious, Barclays Center in the summer feels accessible and inclusive. From the mascot, Ellie the Elephant, who twerks during time-outs, to the always-entertaining Timeless Torch, a dance crew made up of people over the age of 40 that performs at halftime. 

More than anything, going to Barclays in the summer to watch the Liberty is guaranteeing yourself two solid hours of air conditioned fun with a relatively low-key crowd that loves basketball. 

Do yourself a favor and go take in a Liberty game before the summer ends—and tickets start going fast for the playoffs. Because if Barclays has taught us anything, it’s that you’ve gotta catch the good vibes while they last. 

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