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The Essence of It All: WNBA Rookie Lands Far from Rutgers Controversy

With a name derived from one of Americas most recognized landmarks, the New York Liberty has a rich past. One of the eight original teams to begin the WNBA in 1997, the team has retired basketball greats such as Teresa Weatherspoon and Rebecca Lobo, and has graced the WNBA finals four times. The women’s league, however, still struggles for attention. Neither history nor media has been kind to women’s sports. But for New York, newcomer Essence Carson might just be the attention grabber the Liberty needs.

As the WNBA celebrates its twelfth year of play, Carson makes her transition from Rutgers Scarlet Knight to her post as rookie for the New York Liberty. Carson, 22, spent her collegiate years playing under C. Vivian Stringer, renowned head coach of the Scarlet Knights, and was picked seventh overall in the 2008 WNBA draft. Carson’s teammate Matee Ajavon was selected fifth overall by the Houston Comets.

“I was able to be drafted by the New York Liberty and stay close to my hometown of Paterson, New Jersey,” Carson told the Women’s Media Center. That, she said, “has made my transition to the WNBA a lot easier than most.”

Today Carson can take an optimistic approach to her draft experience—embracing her new city, coaches, teammates and title as rookie—but her days on the court have not always been so positive. In April 2007, shock jock Don Imus stunned the nation when he referred to the lady Scarlet Knights as “nappy headed hos.” The team, as members later made clear, was in mental disarray, feeling disrespected and insulted by Imus’s contemptible outburst. Coach Stringer encouraged her players to forgive and forget and focus on the task at hand, their game. If the lady Scarlet Knights were bothered by Imus’s comments, they never once let it show on the court. Carson, who played a leadership role with the press for her team, took the controversial media attention and turned it into something helpful.

“I feel my experiences at Rutgers prepared me well for any type of media spotlight as a pro. Being at the center of the media market helped me become comfortable with speaking,” Carson said.

Although Imus’s type of shock-jock commentary threatened to diminish the game, Carson didn’t let the irresponsibility of the media affect her transition to the WNBA. She has a fresh start with a fresh perspective.

“Even with the history of ‘controversy’ surrounding Rutgers, I don’t feel singled out as a player,” said Carson. “My encounters with people in the pro ranks thus far have yet to make me feel uncomfortable. Everyone has been nothing but encouraging,” she said.

Carson met her former teammate Matee Ajavon on the court June 6 at Madison Square Garden for the first time since the draft in April, and the Liberty slipped past the Comets 81 to 73. Coach Stringer watched from the stands as her former players faced each other as rivals—their bond formed by the Rutgers drama intact.

Imus’s crack at the Rutgers players sparked a debate across America, which forced, in addition to Imus’s all-too-short withdrawal from the airways, a consensus that such repugnant commentary, often directed at women, could no longer pass as humor. Under pressure by advocates from the civil rights and feminist communities, including the Women’s Media Center, the media acknowledged some excess but stopped far short of any long-lasting attitude adjustment. A deeper analysis at the time might have tempered the media backlash against women in powerful roles that has tarnished coverage of both Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama in the political arena.

Hardworking WNBA players, and other professional women athletes, have created a solid fan base, but nothing compared to that of their male counterparts. Carson’s ability to surpass the controversy at Rutgers and shine on one of the largest and most well known athletic stages in the country can only help attract more ardent admirers.

Meanwhile, Essence Carson is banking highlights, which so far this season include logging 15 points off the bench May 30 against Connecticut, followed by her first start of the season on June 3, when the Liberty stormed past Seattle 77 to 63 at the Garden. Her jump shot June 11, with 56.6 seconds left in the game, gave the Liberty the lead against the Atlanta Dream, which they held for an 81 to 77 victory.

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