Why the Isiah Thomas hire is worse than you think

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Thursday, May 14, 2015

If you thought the Isiah Thomas-as-Liberty-president decision smelled bad, guess what? It stinks even worse the more you think about it.

The news last week about Thomas' taking charge of New York's WNBA team prompted disbelief, outrage, you've-got-to-be-kidding satirical jokes, and disgust. It once again brought up the details of the 2007 sexual harassment suit brought by Anucha Browne Sanders that Madison Square Garden lost in court, and which Thomas was at the very center of, despite the recent claims otherwise by MSG and him. MSG paid Browne Sanders, currently the NCAA vice president in charge of women's basketball championships, $11.5 million.

It's also been established that Thomas has failed business (the Continental Basketball Association bankruptcy) and coaching/general manager ventures (Knicks, Florida International) in his rearview mirror.

Furthermore, it's not as if Thomas or his patron, MSG head James Dolan, are following the standard "redemption" playbook: apologize, talk about personal growth, ask for forgiveness, then hope that enough people either buy it or don't care.

Had Thomas and Dolan offered even the slightest degree of mea culpa, this would still be stomach-turning. But it's all the more odious because of the smirking, smug, absolute denial that Thomas ever did anything wrong, despite the jury's verdict and MSG's multimillion dollar payout.

You've heard of jury nullification? This is nullification of a jury. Or at least an attempt to do so.

Yet there's a concern that makes all of this even more insidious, if that's possible. Thomas also was made a partial owner of the Liberty, so he must be approved by the WNBA's Board of Governors. And if that doesn't happen, what if Dolan threatens to pull the plug on the Liberty? Sources I spoke to around the league have expressed concern about that.

This could turn into a kind of extortion. It appears the Liberty are a pawn in something that shouldn't even involve them or the WNBA. That's the "game" of getting Thomas officially back into the fold at MSG. Dolan might have decided that this is a sure-fire way to secure that: Use the Liberty as a bargaining chip.

The WNBA said that as of the start of this week, there was not yet a scheduled meeting or conference call for the Board of Governors, because the Liberty hadn't filed the official paperwork about Thomas' ownership stake. But that paperwork was filed Wednesday.

Now will we have to watch the WNBA's Board of Governors, WNBA president Laurel Richie, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and everyone involved with the Liberty -- players, coaches, staff -- hold their noses and go along with Thomas' appointment?

If so, they are essentially saying they don't believe Browne Sanders, despite what the jury found. Or that they do believe her, but it doesn't matter because, you know, it was a few years ago -- and, hey, James Dolan has a lot of money.

They might decide that it's better to accept Thomas than anger Dolan and potentially put the Liberty at peril. Then Liberty fans would face the same dilemma: wanting to stay away in objection to Thomas, but not wanting to hurt the team.

That's what Dolan always counts on, no matter what he's done to anger, frustrate, and insult New York sports fans in the past two decades. He's super-rich, he runs the teams, and he can do whatever he pleases. Even if that might mean taking the Liberty hostage just to get Thomas another job in New York.

Some suggest Dolan thought -- especially with the NBA playoffs going on -- that not many people would pay attention to something involving the Liberty and that he actually wouldn't get much push-back.

More likely, he just didn't care. Dolan already knew that the New York media collectively would rail loud and long against Thomas in any capacity with the Knicks. He said exactly that in an interview less than two years ago with New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro.

Dolan told Vaccaro then, "I don't see [Thomas] coming back to New York. I couldn't do that to him, and I couldn't do that to the organization. ... We're interested in getting better, and that situation would be such a distraction that it would actually hinder our ability to get better."

So Dolan couldn't subject the Knicks to the Isiah Thomas circus, but, hey, what the heck -- why not subject the Liberty to that? Who cares if he hinders their ability to get better?

There are sources close to the situation who insist Dolan is frustrated because the Liberty continue to lose money, and he's decided only Thomas can help, supposedly because he is an "excellent judge of talent" and could draw more fan interest in the team.

How much money do the Liberty lose? It's very difficult to know a lot about the true financial books of any WNBA team. Richie said last year that six teams were projected to make a profit in 2014. But New York -- which hasn't appeared in the WNBA finals since 2002 -- wasn't expected to be one of them.

Yet the Liberty's return to Madison Square Garden last season -- after a three-season exile to Newark during renovations to the Garden -- was expected to help the team improve its bottom line.

But let's just say, though, that we actually believed that Dolan's only concern was the Liberty's financial well-being. It's baffling as to how he could see Thomas as the answer.

The Liberty already have coach Bill Laimbeer, the driving force behind the Detroit Shock teams that won three WNBA titles. And there's senior vice president for business operations Kristin Bernert, a longtime WNBA executive who also previously worked with the Shock, the Sparks, and the league's front office. In regard to personnel decisions, what is Thomas going to add?

Admittedly, Laimbeer and Bernert have spoken positively about Thomas, but what else do we expect them to do? Stand in opposition to Dolan? Also, they might actually believe that since Thomas and Dolan are such good friends, they will have a more direct connection to the "king," and therefore a better chance at implementing their plans for the team.

Maybe you call that "survivor mode." Hey, Laimbeer probably doesn't want to get fired again and hired again before this season starts, as happened last October-January.

As for the idea of Thomas helping make the team more popular, how will that happen when he's toxic to most Knicks fans and Liberty fans? What demographic is going to attend Liberty games specifically because of him? And how does that compare to the longtime WNBA fans who now might not show up for that very same reason?

I don't believe any of this is truly about what's best for the Liberty. It seems to be about Dolan wanting something regardless of how absurd it is, and then as a bonus, getting to thumb his nose at the jury's decision in the process.

People in Dolan's position of wealth and power rarely think they should have to explain themselves. To the contrary, seeking an explanation from MSG and Dolan about anything always has been like pursuing a meeting with the Wizard of Oz: It probably won't happen, and even if it does, you'll just get smoke and mirrors.

Dolan's relationship with the Liberty reminds me of that between a rich, distant father and the child who wonders if her dad would remember her birthday if a designated employee didn't remind him.

For the first 14 years of the franchise, one of women's basketball's pioneers, Carol Blazejowski, was general manager of the Liberty. She was visibly at the front of the organization, and the Liberty and the WNBA were clearly her passion. New York appeared in the inaugural 1997 championship game, and then was in the WNBA finals in 1999, 2000, and 2002.

No doubt, the Lib fans at times flame-broiled Blaze for some of her decisions, but they generally acted exactly as you would expect from New York fans: They were demanding, irascible, all-knowing, confrontational, profanely humorous -- and exceedingly loyal. They loved the Liberty.

Blazejowski was let go after the 2010 season, when then-coach Anne Donovan also left for Seton Hall. Here's a snapshot of who was in charge in the vacuum after those departures. When I called the Liberty's front office to seek an opinion about then-Lib star Cappie Pondexter not being on the U.S. team for the 2010 world championship, the person I was directed to had no idea the world championship was even going on, let alone anything about Pondexter's involvement.

John Whisenant then was hired as coach and general manager, a position he was in for two seasons until Laimbeer took over those roles for 2013-14. Then last October, Laimbeer was let go. I requested an interview with someone -- anyone -- with MSG to discuss what they were looking for in a new coach. I was told they "did not want to discuss it at this time."

"This time" then stretched into January, when Laimbeer was -- tah-dah! -- re-introduced as coach, but not GM. At that time, I asked Bernert if she was now the GM, and she gave an answer that seemed oddly vague: She was not officially the general manager, but would be doing some of those duties.

Now, this is my theory: Dolan probably considered making Thomas the Liberty's coach, but that was too much hubris even for him. Bernert sought out some other candidates for the job late last year, and then Laimbeer was brought back.

Then it was a matter -- we now know -- of waiting for the other shoe to drop: announcing Thomas in an executive role. And Dolan probably thinks no one will be able to tell him, "No."

However, there has been objection and voices raised in concern. For example, the Seattle Storm's ownership group released a statement last week that read, in part, "The sports world is finally beginning to address issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault, all of which have been inadequately addressed for far too long. The WNBA belongs in a leadership role in addressing these sensitive issues."

Donovan, now coach of the Connecticut Sun, told The Hartford Courant's John Altavilla on Wednesday that the decision to hire Thomas as Liberty president, "comes out of left field."

Donovan also said if she were still with the Liberty, or in a similar situation, "It would be hard for me to gear up and go to work every day and feel good about it."

Imagine how the Liberty's fans feel. Even during the three years' trek to Newark, they stuck it out. Now their thanks for that is being forced to accept a team president whom a jury believed created a hostile environment for a female employee; ateam president who still denies any of that even happened, no matter how much money it cost his company; a team president who failed pretty miserably with the same organization's NBA team.

A team president whose hiring might even be quid pro quo for MSG continuing to own the Liberty, whichmeans rejecting Thomasmight force the league to find a buyer or go on without a franchise in New York.

That really might be the choice that Dolan will present to the WNBA: If you accept Thomas, we won't leave the Liberty.

If so, that's a Faustian bargain. And those don't ever end well.