The New York Liberty have been a staple of the WNBA since its inaugural season in 1997.
They played in the first-ever game against the Los Angeles Sparks at the Great Western Forum on June 21 of that year and went on to produce some of the game’s greatest players such as Rebecca Lobo, Kym Hampton, Becky Hammon, Teresa Witherspoon, Swin Cash, Tina Charles and Vickie Johnson, who helped to carry the women’s game into prominence.
Fast forward to the present day and a super team composed of Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, Breana Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones is looking to bring glory to the Big Apple. The Liberty are still searching for their first WNBA title and many are anticipating that with this current roster, their chances will be greater than ever.
A lot has happened in the past 26 years and much of that history was captured in the new documentary “Unfinished Business,” directed by Alison Klayman. The film’s title perfectly summarizes the journey of the Liberty, as they have done everything there is but have never been able to walk away with the ultimate prize.
For Klayman, a huge Liberty fan since the beginning, this was a passion project.
“I grew up in Philly and to be the New York Liberty was the closet home team for the WNBA,” she said. “I remember when the WNBA first started and I was a middle schooler who loved playing basketball and it was like ‘about time.’ I feel like the excitement of that time was imprinted on me and the ups and downs of the last 26 years fueled me. The New York Liberty was such a perfect team to go through that journey with because they are still in search of the championship.”
She ended up finding old ticket stubs from 1997 and during filming she found one of her old Liberty T-shirts.
The film follows the early years of the team to the 2021 season, when they were vying for a playoff spot. In that season, Ionescu was in her second year, they drafted Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards, and they got off to a good start with a 5-2 record in May.
Then, as the summer progressed, they had to deal with some tough losses, plus the Olympic break that occurred due to the Tokyo games being rescheduled. As a result, they found themselves on the bubble of the postseason with not many giving them a chance.
Eventually, they secured the No. 8 seed with a 12-20 record before losing to the eventual conference champion Phoenix Mercury in the first round.
In the documentary, the legends and the newbies each talk at length about not just the Liberty per se but about the WNBA. Weatherspoon, Lobo, Laney, Ionescu, Richards and others have been on similar paths, as each have been able to achieve their dreams of playing professional basketball in America.
Challenges around the issue of pay still permeate the league and many players feel compelled to go overseas to supplement their income, which is captured in the film. In addition to that, criticism of the league and ups and downs in attendance and television ratings speak to the journey of women’s sports in America.
“It tells the story of not just what’s on the court, but the trajectory of the league, “said Klayman. “The WNBA can also stand in for the challenges that face women’s professional sports in America.”
Even against the backdrop of struggles that have been decades in the making, the team maintains a united resiliency that provided Klayman with a great experience.
“They’re so cool,” she said. “I feel like they live a really intense schedule. It is really hard to have a spot in this league so there is a lot of pressure. They take what they do very seriously and they are really like a family.”
Among the more touching moments was the love and affection the present generation has for Weatherspoon in particular.
She is the one who made that legendary half-court buzzer-beater during Game 2 of the 1999 Finals against the Houston Comets, which evened the series at 1-1. The next day the Comets won their third consecutive title and left Witherspoon with feelings of guilt that she could have done more to feed off that moment and lead the Liberty to the title.
Klayman says that the bond the team has with Weatherspoon had already been established before the film’s completion and what she ultimately had to say struck a chord.
“She does take on the spirit of the team and the striving and camaraderie,” Klayman said. “Before they saw what she said in the film, they had that connection to her and she is such a motivator. That really stuck with the younger players and the fact that she is still a factor in the basketball world only keeps her very high esteem in their eyes.”
In anticipation for the upcoming season and with the expectations for the Liberty to win being higher than ever, Klayman is looking forward to what lies ahead as a fan and hopes that the film can set the right tone in terms of what the Liberty’s ultimate goal is.
“It is still unfinished business,” she said. “I am so excited for this season and I got my season tickets shortly after Tribeca. I am really excited to be there. I think that it only makes the movie more relevant than ever because if you want to understand the stakes and the drama, it builds up the foundation of what we show.”