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Thank (or blame, as your sympathies lie) the Republicans for creating a unique opportunity to see a sporting event in one of the most beautiful non-sporting venues in the world.

New Yorkers of all parties are already heartily sick of the preparations for the upcoming Republican National Convention, which is playing havoc with the movement of everyone who has to pass through Midtown Manhattan. But fans of the WNBA's New York Liberty (www.nyliberty.com) have their own personal bone to pick with the GOP. By taking over the Liberty's home arena, Madison Square Garden, for six long weeks (including preparation time -- MSG is now officially closed until the RNC begins) in the heart of the season, Lib fans spent a fair portion of the winter wondering where their team would play before and after the Olympic break.

Count me among the nay-sayers when the team officials announced that the owners of the Liberty and Madison Square Garden had settled on ... their other Manhattan venue, Radio City Music Hall. ("Nay! Nay!" I said. "What about the Meadowlands?") What a stupid idea! Radio City has only one-third the seating of MSG, and, well, a giant proscenium stage, and the Rockettes! What kind of basketball game can you play there?

As it turns out, a spectacularly entertaining one.

The Liberty didn't just throw a few things in the overnight bag as though they were camping out on a relative's sofa while the apartment is being painted, they made the most of the move, and embraced the theatricality of a great theater.

They packed up their parquet court (it comes apart, like a jigsaw puzzle, and is assembled before every game at MSG) picked out some new set pieces and special effects, and added the ol' razzle dazzle to the hook shots, fast break and three-pointers

The gorgeous Art Deco landmark that anchors Rockefeller Center is a treat to visit any time, still gleaming after a 1999 renovation (you can take a backstage tour even if you aren't attending an event). If you've only seen it on television as the site of the MTV Awards, Grammies, Tonys or other award shows and concerts, you can't really appreciate the lush design and detail (or the excellent Ladies Lounges). And at a low-end price of $8 for Liberty tickets, a visit during the upcoming sporting events won't break the bank the way, say, $100-plus tickets to see Diana Krall or Tony Bennett would.

The crowd that attended the inaugural game was welcomed with loud rock music pumping as they came up Sixth Avenue and out of the subway (Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll," rocker Jett being a courtside box seat holder). Uniformed ushers seemed nonplussed by the thousands of hoops fans (including many children) who turned up in jerseys with their favorite players' numbers; bearing and wearing flags, hats and posters to see the Libs meet defending WNBA champions the Detroit Shock. We were given programs as well as the familiar lineup cards, and a souvenir paperweight (there's always a giveaway or souvenir, ranging from a pencil case to a stuffed animal and everything in between).

The three-story lobby rang with the voices of fans exclaiming over its beauty (and the number of stairs to the third mezzanine), as costumed jugglers, clowns and balloon twisters urged us ever upward. The glass-covered souvenir stands offered commemorative shirts as well as the usual Liberty souvenirs (which I won't buy until the last game of the season when they cut the price).

Up in the third mezzanine (you think travel editors can afford courtside seats?) we sank into the comfortable chairs and gazed down on the arch that surrounds the Great Stage. This is a really beautiful auditorium, the space arcing up and out in a scalloped pattern designed to bring what happens onstage up to the highest row, both visually and aurally.

The court is set onstage with a basket at stage right and stage left, and the two benches facing outward toward the audience. A large scoreboard has been mounted centerstage on the back wall, with massive orange-and-white WNBA ball logos on either side.

Everyone stood for the national anthem, played on the saxophone ("Look! It's Lisa Simpson!" I whispered to my sister, who shushed me). The Liberty brought their "Passing the Torch to the Future" ceremony with them, in which all the players march out to center court to present basketballs to small children, with lots of hugs, high-fives and handshakes. After seven years, I still find the ceremony touching.

Then the auditorium darkened, and a large screen attached to a replica of a subway car was lowered from the flies. Each New York player stood behind the screen, lit from behind into a huge silhouette. As she was introduced, each one busted a move (or attempted to), then disappeared, reappearing through the door of the "subway." Metallic blue streamers were shot from the boxes on the side, and the adult and children's dance teams (The Torch Patrol and the L'il Torches) urged the crowd to cheer even more.

Ah, Broadway, it's a quiet little neighborhood.

The crowd noise sounded quite different than in the Garden: the gorgeous acoustics damped the applause and cheers coming from the crowd, and amplified the squeak of sneakers on the court, shouts of the players, and thud of bodies colliding and landing hard.

Once the ball was tossed up, certain questions were quickly answered: Was it possible for a player to fall off the stage chasing a loose ball (Yes! As Detroit's Swin Cash discovered). How far can an errant pass go into the audience? (About five rows, as New York's Crystal Robinson found out).

At halftime, the Rockettes did their patented high-kick dancing, switching their trademark fedoras for Liberty hats toward the end of their routine. The other timeout activities remained the same: contests in which fans of all ages shoot baskets, hop around in potato sacks, drive little pedal cars, and are wrapped in cellophane tape and asked to roll around on a wrestling mat in a quest for train tickets.

The Liberty won a hard-fought contest with the Shock, and acknowledged their new home once more by marching to the front of the stage to wave and take bows. Elena Baranova (the 6'5" forward) and rookie Shamika Christon decided to do a high-kick dance off the stage. It's nice to see the girls are comfortable in their new digs.

If you'd like to see one of the remaining Liberty games and/or the U.S. Olympians vs. WNBA All-Stars, you can purchase tickets in person or by phone at the relocated Madison Square Garden box office (33rd St. and 7th Avenue; tel. 877-WNBA-TIX) or at the Radio City box office (6th Avenue between 50th and 51st St; tel. 212/247-4777), or by phone or online from Ticketmaster (tel. 212/307-7171; www.ticketmaster.com). Ticket prices range from $8 to $229 (which would be for onstage seats under each basket).

This is the schedule for the remaining games at Radio City Music Hall:

  • Thurs., Sept. 2 vs. Charlotte Sting, 7:30 pm
  • Fri., Sept. 10 vs. Connecticut Sun, 7:30 pm
  • Sunday, Sept. 12 vs. San Antonio Silver Stars, 4pm
  • Thursday, Sept. 16 vs. Indiana Fever, 7:30 pm

The Liberty return to MSG on September 19 for the final game of the regular season. And of course the playoffs.