Sidney Spencer took the time for a phone interview Thursday on the team bus en route to Connecticut for an exhibition game against the Sun on Friday. As the bus rolled into the Lincoln Tunnel, Spencer warned of a possible disconnection and promised to call back. But the connection held and the former Lady Vol forward from Hoover, Ala., spent the next half hour chatting about playing overseas in Slovakia, the trade, the adjustment to a new team, the current Tennessee team, the upcoming Liberty season, the proximity of a Wal-mart in New York and social media.
Los Angeles, which had drafted Spencer late in the second round in 2007, traded the 6’3 sharpshooter to New York for its 2010 first round draft pick. The Sparks then sent the pick and Raffaella Masciadri to the Minnesota Lynx in exchange for Noelle Quinn, a former UCLA guard and native of Los Angeles.
By surrendering its future first-round pick the Liberty signaled that it wanted Spencer in the fold this summer. Spencer felt the acceptance as soon as she arrived.
“I really have,” Spencer said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the team and the staff. They really care about the players. They care about the well being personally on and off the court. It’s been an amazing experience and very welcoming. It’s been quite a transition, and they’ve made it really easy.”
Spencer had finished her season with Maxima Broker Kosice in Slovakia – she hit 49.1 percent of her threes (26-53) and averaged 14.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game – on April 26 and had returned home to Alabama for a week before departing for the Dominican Republic with Shanna Crossley, also a former Lady Vol, in early May.
Spencer had just finished a basketball clinic and was getting ready to go to dinner with Crossley and the other missionary participants, when the lead organizer of the trip got a call on his cell phone from Spencer’s agent, who wanted to let her know firsthand about the May 5 swap.
The way Spencer saw it she was in the perfect place to learn about career-changing news.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else but where I was,” Spencer said. “The whole reason why I was there was to share the message about Jesus to the people and so my perspective was just totally on wherever God would have me, and I knew that he was in total control and if he wanted me in New York that was fine. I was around people that could pray for me and encourage me. I wouldn’t have wanted to find out any other way.”
Spencer returned to Alabama and instead of packing for a trip to the West Coast to be reunited with the Sparks and former Lady Vol teammates Candace Parker and Shannon Bobbitt, she prepared to go to New York to join Loree Moore, another former Tennessee teammate.
Spencer had mentioned last summer that one drawback of Los Angeles – the beach was a big draw – was the lack of a nearby Wal-mart. The closest one required a lengthy trip on southern California’s clogged freeways. So, she was delighted to find one close to the team’s training facility in White Plains, N.Y.
“The hotel shuttle can take me right to it, if I needed,” said Spencer, who is staying in a hotel since she just arrived in the city.
Her personal greeting came from Moore, who welcomed her former teammate to the Liberty. Spencer and Moore overlapped for two years at Tennessee – she was a freshman when Moore was a junior.
“It’s so nice,” Spencer said. “She totally understands what’s going through my mind. She knows how I think. We have that connection at the basketball level, just that knowledge because we come from the same program. It’s been nice to have her on the team.”
Spencer has been with her new team for less than a week – she played 14 minutes in the exhibition opener against Washington on Thursday and was 1-2 from the field with one rebound – with another exhibition game scheduled for tonight at Connecticut. The Liberty has 14 players on the roster, and 12 logged minutes Thursday with Moore and first round draft pick Kia Vaughn sitting out. The regular season for the Liberty opens June 7 in Madison Square Garden against Connecticut, and rosters must be trimmed to 11 with no injured reserve.
“There is not a whole lot of job security, especially this year with the spots being dropped to 11,” Spencer said. “You’ve just got to keep doing what you do and hopefully you’ll be here.”
The players did have a brief break between overseas and WNBA seasons, unlike a year ago when training camps were moved up, so as to start the season sooner to accommodate the break for the Olympics in Beijing. Spencer and Crossley made the trip to the Dominican Republic, excursions they had done in the past when both were in college.
“Fortunately the season got pushed back by two or three weeks so we actually had a window of time and it worked out perfectly,” Spencer said. “The overseas season and the beginning of the WNBA season they (often) overlap so once you finish overseas you have to go right to your team to begin camp or your season. Fortunately, because there’s a little bit of a time gap hopefully we can go back to doing it every year. That’s the goal.”
Spencer won’t be able to practice next fall with the Tennessee team, as she had occasionally done in the past, because she has less than two weeks between the end of the 2009 WNBA season and when she is due back in Slovakia.
“That was my first year overseas,” Spencer said of the just-completed season. “I had a blast. It was a challenge, especially being so far from home with the time difference. I had to get adjusted to international play and how they do things. I enjoyed it. I lived in the center of a small city so I could walk everywhere if I wanted to. I met some great American people there and I had a great (rapport) with my teammates. It was cool. I don’t have any complaints.”
Spencer used the Internet and a Slingbox – a device that allows the user to remotely watch their home television – to keep up with the Lady Vols this past season.
“I have a Slingbox on my computer so I tried to record the games and watch them,” Spencer said. “I talked to all the coaches here and there. I came back in March (on a brief trip home) and went up and visited with them for a little bit. I tried my best to keep up with them and to read about them.”
Tennessee lost in the first round in the NCAA tourney for the first time in program history, and Spencer said her reaction was one of sympathy for the entire team.
“I felt for the girls; I felt for the coaching staff,” Spencer said. “I know that they have put in a lot of hard work. Sometimes that’s just the way that things go, and you just learn from it and you move on. Everyone is going to bring their ‘A’ game when they come to play Tennessee. That’s just how it is. That’s just the legacy that Coach has created and what her teams in the past have.
“I think they’re going to grow from it and hopefully go through these growing pains, move forward and they’ll be a better team because of it.”
Spencer has landed on a team that is expected to contend for a WNBA championship this season. The Liberty made it to the Eastern Conference finals last season and fell to Detroit after having the Shock on the ropes. The intro into the team’s website – New York Liberty
– has the slogan, “The March To The Playoffs.”
“They’re this close,” Spencer said. “They’re a step from being in the final.”
For Spencer that means learning the playbook and carving out a role on a new team in a new division in a short amount of time.
“I have been completely overwhelmed since I got here,” Spencer said. “I have been trying to learn the new philosophy and system behind the Liberty and the coaching staff and what they expect so I need to kind of find my role, but I definitely want to win a championship.”
Spencer won the last game she ever played in an orange-and-white uniform for Tennessee. She was a starter and key contributor on the 2007 national title team that beat North Carolina and then Rutgers in Cleveland in the Final Four. There are familiar faces from those teams on the Liberty roster in Erlana Larkins of North Carolina and Essence Carson and Vaughn of Rutgers.
Spencer’s versatility was key in college – she could play inside and outside and hit the three-ball – but the WNBA presents taller and stronger players inside, so Spencer usually plays on the perimeter. She is listed as a guard by the WNBA, but she can also slide to the small forward position because of her ability to shoot the ball. Spencer hit 54 three-pointers in 34 games in her rookie year with the Sparks. With the shortened rosters this season Spencer’s first priority is to earn a uniform.
“My goal is to make the team and from there move forward and contribute any way I can,” Spencer said.
Spencer will line up against her best friend – Crossley plays for the San Antonio Silver Stars – in the third and fourth games of the regular season, one on the road and the next one in New York. The fifth game is at Atlanta, where former Lady Vol Chamique Holdsclaw plays. Holdsclaw took a hiatus from the league and just competed overseas but she now makes her home in the Atlanta area and wanted to return.
“You can always learn so much from players like her, so I am excited she’s back,” Spencer said. “I think she just needed a little bit of time off, a little rest, and now she’s back and ready to go. I think she’ll do well in Atlanta and hopefully they’ll have a better season this year.”
Spencer will face her old team in the Garden on July 9 when Los Angeles comes to New York. Parker, who gave birth to a baby girl earlier this month, could be back by then for the Sparks.
“I was so happy for her,” Spencer said. “She absolutely loves kids. I think she will be an amazing mom. She’s surrounded by a lot of great people in Los Angeles, too.”
Spencer uses “social media” to connect with fans and sincerely seeks contact and input. She has her own website at Sidney Spencer and also writes a blog at yardbarker.com.
“That reminds me I have to send a blog in,” Spencer said. “I do like to keep up with my fans and let them know where I am and what’s going on. I can respond to fans. They find out you’re a real person. Some people see me to be some kind of hero or something, and we’re just normal people and our job is to play basketball. I like people to see the other side of me and basketball is not my identity. It’s something I do.”
When Spencer’s playing days are over – something she is honestly not giving much thought to at the moment, especially with a new WNBA season about to begin and with her overseas team beckoning again next season – she wants to continue her missionary work. She also could consider coaching.
“I would like to go into missionary work using basketball and I would like to go into coaching possibly, but I don’t know,” Spencer said.
She also intends to use her time in New York to explore the city and that will include shopping, restaurants, museums and the literary arts.
“I’ll go see plays on Broadway or go shopping or maybe go to a poetry thing,” Spencer said. “I am willing to explore all areas and atmospheres. Why not? I am in one of the greatest cities in the world, so I am definitely going to take advantage of it. I will not be stuck in my apartment, that’s for sure.”
Spencer said she could either use a car to get to the Garden for games – it’s about an hour drive – or hop on the train, which takes about 30 minutes. The players reside near the train station in White Plains.
It’s already been quite a journey for a humble player from a bedroom suburb of Birmingham, Ala., who earned the nickname “Sidville” in college because of her tendency to drift into her own stream-of-consciousness world. Her professional career has taken her to Los Angeles and Slovakia and now New York.
“I’ve been across the country and around the world,” Spencer said. “I’m growing up, aren’t I?”