Mercury Battles Liberty in Meeting of Flagship WNBA Franchises

When the Mercury and Liberty take the floor on Saturday to decide a spot in the 2016 WNBA Semifinals, it will be a matchup of inaugural franchises, and teams whose early-year legacies could’ve been a lot different were it not for the dominance of the Houston Comets.

Phoenix lost to Houston in the 1998 WNBA Finals, New York had a front-row seat for those Comet celebrations in 1997, 1999 and 2000. And while the Mercury can do something only those Comets have done by winning a fourth WNBA title this year, the Liberty are in search of that elusive first banner and the completion of an impressive two-year rebuild.

What’s on the line has everything to do with history. So there’s a degree of poetry to the fact that these two original franchises will meet in the playoffs for the first time since the league’s first postseason in what was the first playoff game for either franchise.    

This year (for the first time in more than a decade) it’ll be decided by a single-elimination tilt, just like Aug. 28, 1997. And just like 20 seasons ago, the winner will move on to play the top seed and title favorite.

Much has changed, too. The final score of that game (the winning team was in the 50s) might be the halftime score of this one.  The athletes are even more skilled, the shot clock is just 24 seconds, and the generation that watched the first game (or perhaps was too young to) will play in this one.

Teams don’t survive 20 seasons of a start-up league without fan support, and the love affair that exists with fans in these two markets — and indeed the sustained success of both franchises — is a direct result of those early days. A passionate fandom born with Cheryl Miller, Jennifer Gillom, Michele Timms, and Bridget Pettis is a big reason Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree play in front of packed houses. Likewise with Teresa Weatherspoon and Rebecca Lobo for Tina Charles and Sugar Rogers.

So, history is on the line Saturday at 4 p.m Phoenix time on NBATV and ESPN3. It’ll either be another step toward a fourth title, or one toward a long-awaited first. They will be foes for 40 minutes.

But since it’s not yet 4 p.m., it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge that — win or lose — their respective histories makes these two teams everything that’s good about the WNBA in its 20th season.