Now the oyster is her world.
Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a great surprise, given her family’s legacy on the water. Her father, Bill, was a bayman, her grandfather was a boatbuilder, her great-grandfather was a rumrunner and her great-great-grandfather was a captain. Altogether, she can count at least eight generations of her family having made a living on the water.
She’s the latest — an oyster farmer.
As interesting as that is, Sue Wicks also happened to be one of the best women’s basketball players the United States has produced. Her hoops résumé is impressive: Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame member; 15-year professional playing career, most of which was played abroad; WNBA pioneer with six years playing for the New York Liberty; Rutgers’ most highly decorated player and all-time leading scorer; the 1988 Naismith and United States Basketball Writers Association National Player of the Year; 1987 Pan-American Games gold medalist.
At the conclusion of those days on the court, when her identity as a player ended, Wicks, 55, said she did a lot of soul-searching as she faced post-basketball life. She did some coaching and ran a fitness company for a while.
Then Wicks found something more appealing when she visited an oyster farm on the West Coast. The seed was planted. As Wicks saw it, oysters are Long Island. This is what she wanted to do.
“For all intents and purposes, the Long Island oyster does not exist any more,” she said. “It can’t propagate itself, so therefore, if we didn’t have oyster farmers, if we didn’t have the hatcheries stocking the water, we wouldn’t have this oyster, which is, it’s just Long Island [and] oysters. They just go together. It’s something that’s part of our heritage, like the clams and the oysters are just Long Island, and the fact that our waters can’t or won’t allow them to spawn and their babies to survive, it’s really interesting and troubling. So, that was one of the reasons why I was like, ‘Well, these oysters belong in this water for a lot of reasons.’ ”
“I really did feel like spirits moved me, whether they’re ancestral spirits cheering me on because I didn’t hesitate,” she continued. “I was like, ‘That’s a good idea.’ And I just did it.”
Those ancestors — including Thomas Wicks (1612-1671), who arrived in America from England in 1635 — must be smiling.
Five years ago Wicks opened her oyster farm, Violet Cove Oysters, a short boat ride from her Mastic Beach home.
“The commitment and the risk as a bet on myself that I could do it, it was really substantial,” she said, “and when I look back on it, I’m like, ‘What are you, crazy?’”
Establishing an oyster farm isn’t easy. Wicks went through an arduous permit application process that involved multiple governmental agencies, read plenty of books on the subject, talked to other oyster farmers and even worked on another oyster farm. The commitment, effort, money and time is considerable.
The three acres she leases from the Town of Brookhaven have floating cages that are stocked with bags of tiny baby oysters that are sorted as they grow. She has also started growing sugar kelp alongside the oysters.
The farm’s location is ideal, protected by a nature preserve, next to an ocean inlet with freshwater springs under the farm. “It’s a magical place,” she said.
Wicks said it typically takes about 18 months for oysters to go from seed to harvest, but because of the nutrient-rich waters at her farm, it takes only about five months.
Wicks said she sells her oysters to a couple of restaurants, but deals mostly with wholesalers. “I’m a small business,” she said. “At this point, I’m not ready to expand.”
A typical work day for Wicks starts with her rising with the sun. She said she has a 50-step walk from her home to the dock where her boat is based. By about 7 a.m., she heads out onto the water along with her crew member, Tyler Rochon.
That short boat ride to the farm, she said, is probably the most satisfying aspect of the job. “Every day is different because the sky is different, the water is different, the weather is different,” she said. “I never had two days the same on the water. Everyone’s just staring out at the colors that are happening, you know, the bay, the sun, the sky all wake up. That’s the best part of my day.”
Wicks’ passion for oyster farming may be on par with how she feels about basketball, the sport that captivated her years ago. A beneficiary of Title IX, Wicks donned a basketball uniform for the first time as a 5-foot-9 Center Moriches High School freshman. (She wore the same uniform as a 6-foot -2 senior). She soon fell in love with the sport, watching the Knicks on TV, trying to emulate Bernard King, reading biographies of basketball players.
“When I was in high school,” she said, “I was absolutely, positively obsessed with basketball and becoming a basketball player and knowing about basketball and watching basketball, studying basketball, anything I could get my hands on about basketball.”
Having played against boys while growing up, Wicks thought she was less than average, but playing against girls for the first time, that was a different story. She said, “I was thinking, ‘I think I could be good at this,’ and I kept practicing and getting better and better.”
Wicks recalled an interview with her high school newspaper as a senior when she told the reporter she would play professional basketball one day. When the puzzled reporter politely noted that there was no pro women’s basketball league at the time, her response was, “There will be.”
Mark Herrmann, 66, a retired Newsday sportswriter and lifelong Center Moriches resident, has known the Wicks family for more than 40 years. His career and hers had run along parallel courses. They share quite a bit in common. Both were inducted into the inaugural Center Moriches High School Athletic Hall of Fame class in 2012 and Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame (Class of 2020). Like Wicks, Herrmann attended Rutgers. He has seen Wicks play at the high school, collegiate and professional levels and has written about her over the course of her playing days.
Herrmann saw a quiet, shy girl emerge into a formidable player. In a high school playoff game during Wicks’ senior year against a renowned Wyandanch team, Center Moriches eventually lost, Herrmann said, but gave Wyandanch “a heck of a game. They took Wyandanch to overtime or something, and it was pretty much mostly her.”
“She was just a natural, and [for] someone who didn’t grow up playing basketball, she had an instinct of what to do on the court at all times, including handling the ball for someone that big,” he said. “She wasn’t a point guard, but she could have been. She just knew what to do at every stage and she just had a knack for scoring.”
The heavily recruited Wicks went to Rutgers, where she turned in a career the Scarlet Knights haven’t seen before or since. The three-time Kodak All-American holds Rutgers career records for nine statistical categories, including points, rebounds and scoring average. She is the only Rutgers woman to have her uniform number retired. “I feel so at home even now going back there,” she said.
While in Atlanta in 1988 for a ceremony honoring her as the national college player of the year, Wicks became involved in a conversation with the Boston Celtics’ former legendary coach, Red Auerbach, who took an interest and talked to her about her career. Wicks was weighing professional playing options at the time and ultimately decided on going to Italy. It was the start of an international career that saw the 6-foot -3 forward go on to play in Japan, Spain, Israel, Turkey, Hungary and France.
Then, an opportunity opened up for her to return to the U.S. and play in the newly formed WNBA in 1997.
Wicks said she met with every WNBA general manager that had a draft pick before the draft. She knew where she wanted to play: New York.
“So when Utah said they were going to draft me, I said, ‘You’re going to waste your draft pick because I’m not coming to Utah,’ ” she said. “Nothing against Utah — I wanted to be in New York.”
“That was my dream place,” she said. “I grew up a Knicks fan. Madison Square Garden was the center of the world for me and just to be able to go in that building and play on that floor, to have a locker room in that building — that was really magical. I’m sure it would have worked out fine in Utah, but there’s nothing like New York. It’s the sports center of the world.”
And so, Wicks found herself drafted by the Liberty, the No. 6 overall pick.
Playing in the basketball mecca, the Garden, was a dream come true for Wicks, whose humble basketball beginnings can be traced to small high school gyms in places like Bridgehampton, Greenport, Shelter Island and Southold.
Wicks vividly recalled her first Liberty game at MSG. “The first time they played the national anthem in Madison Square Garden, I’m standing there with my hand on my heart, hearing my national anthem and I’m crying,” she said. “The game hadn’t even started yet.”
Wicks’ name is among seven in the Liberty’s Ring of Honor. She twice helped the team reach WNBA finals, although the Liberty fell short of a championship each time. “The pain of those losses was very real and took a long time to get over,” she said.
Some of Wicks’ best basketball may have been played overseas.
“I almost feel bad for her because had there been a WNBA when she was coming out of college, she could have been the best player in it,” Herrmann said. “I mean, she could be like Sue Bird is now. Today I don’t think a lot of people outside of our little part of the world realize how great she was. She was the best player in the country in college, and that’s really astounding.”
When Wicks’ basketball-playing days ended, she may have felt a void. It’s hard to match the rush of playing pro ball at the Garden.
“There was always a burning fire when I played,” she said. “Playing basketball was just my identity. It really was who I was. I was a basketball player and I loved doing that, so now I’m just a former basketball player.”
Now she’s an oyster farmer.