Off the Court with the New York Liberty

Words by Rachael Roth, Photos by Elizabeth Bick

You might associate New York City basketball with the Brooklyn Nets or the New York Knicks—but there’s another team carrying a torch for the City: the New York Liberty. That torch appears on their uniforms, standing in for the letter i in “Equality,” which is emblazoned across the front of the “Rebel” edition of the team’s jersey. Like their male counterparts, the Liberty are flush with star power, and commentators are paying attention. ESPN celebrated Betnijah Laney’s 2021 breakout both in a profile and on Twitter. Bleacher Report’s Jackie Powell noted the team’s rise into the pop culture sphere after Laney and teammate DiDi Richards were photographed with Jay-Z following a Nets game. Both women have been empowering younger players by visiting local schools throughout New York City this off-season. Richards is also working with Nike’s Game Growers, which inspires seventh- and eighth-grade girls to pursue the sports they love.

The New York Liberty’s presence is not new. They became one of eight charter members of the WBNA in 1996, with Madison Square Garden as their original home court. The team has produced some of the biggest stars in WNBA history, including Teresa Weatherspoon, Becky Hammon (the first female NBA full-time assistant coach) and Tina Charles. These days the 12-player squad, led by new coach Sandy Brondello, takes on opponents at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

For the players, representing Brooklyn transcends their time on the court. We caught up with All-Star guard Betnijah Laney, the team’s top scorer, and fellow guard DiDi Richards, a 2021 rookie who has made her name as a defensive stopper, as they visited their Brooklyn haunts together (along with their dogs) and talked about Liberty life off the court.

"New York City is very dog friendly, especially around here, which is nice. You’re able to take your dogs pretty much anywhere." —Betnijah Laney

"My dog, Evy, is 7, and DiDi’s (Echo) is a pup. Echo is very energetic. Evy is pretty chill." —Betnijah Laney

How has it been living in New York City since you started playing for the team?
Betnijah Laney:
My great aunt, before she passed away, lived in Brooklyn, so I was always here for the holidays, for summers. I used to go to the Fulton Mall with her when I was younger. She spoiled us, and we would go to Coney Island a lot. We loved getting on the rides, go-karts, just walking up and down the boardwalk, going to Nathan’s. It was a lot of fun spending summers here. During the holidays we’d go to the Macy’s [Thanksgiving Day] Parade and different museums, Broadway. I’ve been doing a lot of what I used to do as a kid. To be here as an adult and see some of the familiar places is really cool.

DiDi, you moved to Brooklyn from Cypress, Texas. Did you experience a culture shock when you came here?
DiDi Richards:
Oh my god, a huge culture shock. It was not only in pace of life, but also in hospitality. Southern hospitality is a huge thing, and so [in NYC] I’m walking by people, smiling. And everyone’s looking serious. I’m like, OK, maybe I shouldn't smile. I love it now, but at first, I definitely did not like it.

I get that. I've visited some friends in Houston and am shocked by how nice people are.
DR:
It’s so sweet. People hold doors for you. I got slapped in the face by the door multiple times when I first got here.

But once you get to a certain point with New Yorkers, they're nice; they just have a tough exterior.
DR: [Points to Betnijah] That’s her.

Tell me more about your friendship. How do you support each other as friends and as teammates?
BL:
It's very “us,” but it works. As DiDi said, I’m more serious and have a dry, sarcastic sense of humor. DiDi is so bubbly and very energetic. She’s somebody you need to have around; she just makes you feel good.

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DR: Aww, she doesn’t say this to me often.

BL: I do not; it’s only because I’m being asked. I don’t tell DiDi this to her face. But she’s always herself, regardless of what’s going on in the environment.

DR: I feel like I need a “B” [Betnijah]. I’m so rainbows and sunshine—like she said—24/7. Every now and then you need someone that’s like, “DiDi, shut up,” and I’m like, “You're right. I am doing a lot.” She’s like New York—hard on the outside, but she has a nurturing, caring side as well.

What does it mean to be part of New York Liberty and represent the City, specifically Brooklyn?
BL:
Family means a lot to me, so to be so close and to have my family be able to come up here for every home game—it’s just a familiar, comfortable environment for me. And then it’s New York. I probably wouldn’t choose to live here if I didn’t have to, but being here, it’s absolutely something I love, especially in the summertime. Just being able to experience all the different cultures, all the different food.

DR: In Cypress, we were still trying to establish a culture. Then I came to New York where the culture is so rich, and it’s special to rep New York on your jersey. Sometimes I’d be like, “Mom, I’m really from New York.” She goes, “No, you’re not.” People are proud to be from here. I want to be proud to be from here too.

"You got to keep your nails looking cute." —Betnijah Laney

You’re both interested in modeling and beauty. Are you able to express that side of yourselves on the court?
BL:
I think it just shows that you can be tough, you can be physical, but you can also have that feminine side. We express that by having our nails and stuff while on the court, by getting our lashes done, making sure that our hair is done. But we’re able to still go out and kick ass and be these badass women while looking cute. I think it kind of goes hand in hand if you want it to.

Were there any obstacles to overcome as women basketball players to get where you are today?
BL:
I think there are a variety of different things, whether you want to talk about the pay gap or the resources that our male counterparts have versus what the WNBA has. I will say that our organization does a great job of closing that gap. We’ve made a big jump from where the league started to where we are now, but we still have work to do. It’s been very progressive since I entered the league in 2015. Even with those obstacles, I still love what I do and show up every day and just give it all I have.

DR: Girl, that was a great answer.

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Who are some women you admire, athletes or otherwise?
BL:
I always mention my mother because she’s so near and dear to me. She was very much an athlete [Yolanda Laney led Cheyney State to the very first women’s NCAA title game, in 1982], and she paved the way for me and continues to support my journey. When I think about Black history and strong women, I always think about my mom for everything that she’s done for me, just both on and off the court, the support and love that she’s exhibited.

DR: Every paper I write on this topic has also been on my mother. As an adult, I appreciate the things she went through to make sacrifices for me. I didn’t really appreciate it growing up; she was so underappreciated in our household. It hurts me to think of that now, so I go out of my way to show my appreciation for her, show how much I love her. Now it’s like, “Mom, you’re like my freaking life. Without you, I don’t know what I would do.”

"Los Dos Hermanos is a low-key Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn. They have really good tacos and margaritas. —BL " for the restaurant

"Los Dos Hermanos is a low-key Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn. They have really good tacos and margaritas." —Betnijah Laney

The New York Liberty open their 2022 season on May 7, at Barclays Center. Find tickets for home games here.


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