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On Tuesday night the New York Liberty, having established their best-ever regular season record, beat the Washington Mystics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Then they doused the Indiana Fever in game one of the Conference Finals…the next night. That’s the way it works in the WNBA post-season.
The heart of the Liberty is tenacious defense, a hallmark of Coach-of-the Year Bill Laimbeer, who won three championships coaching the Detroit Shock before coming to New York.
But at a first round playoff Liberty game, fans were concerned with matters other than defense and three pointers. The baggage team president Isiah Thomas had brought to his job when he was appointed in May was still on Alison Durham’s mind.
"I don’t agree with how he’s still involved in the WNBA," Durham said. "I think it’s disgusting. I have no other words. It’s disgusting."
"It’s all about us. We focus on us and what we can do to improve our game and be a better team."Avery Warley
In 2007 Thomas, who’d been the President of the New York Knicks as they tumbled into obscurity, lost a sexual harassment suit brought against him by an employee of Madison Square Garden. A jury awarded her $11.6 million.
The Liberty declined to make Thomas or other front office personnel available for comment on this story, but it’s a measure of how well the team has been playing that attendance, which had been off at the start of the season, has rebounded. Should Isiah Thomas get credit for the team’s success?
"He definitely should," said Marc Berman. "He’s the president."
Berman has been writing about Thomas and the Liberty for the New York Post.
"It’s a bottom-line business," he said, "and if you want to debate whether it’s still appropriate that Isiah Thomas is running a woman’s basketball team, you can. But if you want to debate, should Isiah Thomas get any credit for the Liberty’s historic season, I mean, to me it’s not even an issue."
Liberty players are inclined to celebrate everybody’s contribution to their success, at least publicly. Though Berman reports that the players had meetings at the beginning of the season to discuss Thomas’s transgressions, now their minds are on winning a championship.
"This year the entire organization worked together," said Liberty player Essence Carson, "and it seems like it’s been a successful season for us."
Carson has been with the Liberty since 2008. She was asked whether she and her teammates saw much of Isiah Thomas.
"We see him," she said.
And that was that.
Howard Megdal, who’s been writing about the WNBA this season for VICE Sports, feels people who attribute the Liberty’s recent achievements to Thomas fail to understand who built the team. He credits Basketball Operations Director Kristin Bernert and coach Bill Laimbeer, who also worked together in Detroit.
"The idea that you need someone to oversee, you know, a couple of people who have had great success and have worked hand-in-glove for the better part of a decade and a half here in the WNBA defies belief," he said. "Isiah was working hard to just get up to speed on the league."
As Howard Megdal has noted, Thomas could hardly fail to understand the reaction he provokes in fans, even as the team over which he presides has flourished.
"I mean, there was a remarkable moment. They honored Becky Hammon, the trail-blazer and former Liberty star," he said. "Isiah, in a very smart PR move, came out with Becky Hammon’s parents. He still got booed just the same, but he had plausible deniability. He could claim that perhaps New York didn’t like Becky Hammon’s parents."
It has been suggested that the success of the Liberty this season may help Thomas to put behind him fallout from the sexual harassment suit as well as his previous front office failures. It may be more realistic to think the team’s performance will render Thomas irrelevant, as center Avery Warley seemed to suggest when she was recently asked to account for the Liberty’s success.
"It’s all about us," Warley said. "We focus on us and what we can do to improve our game and be a better team."
These days, they’re better than they’ve ever been. That’s indisputable. And for the Liberty’s players and their coaches, sustaining that condition will remain much more important than who gets the credit, at least as long as there are still games to be played.
This segment aired on September 26, 2015.
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