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As of Tuesday morning, the WNBA's New York Liberty didn't have a president of basketball operations, with senior VP Kristin Bernert acting as the team's top-ranking decision-maker. The Liberty are owned by the Madison Square Garden Corporation, chaired by one James L. Dolan, who has in the past shown a very defined preference when hiring basketball executives. So Tuesday's news shouldn't come as a shock, even though it remains absolutely stunning:
Sources: Isiah Thomas has been named President of the New York Liberty of the WNBA. Thomas will also have part ownership of the team.
— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) May 5, 2015
I mean ... he's just never going away, is he?
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Dolan announced the move after Broussard's report, saying that he'd been discussing a role with the Liberty with Thomas since the fall, and trumpeting Thomas as "an excellent judge of talent [who] is committed to using his considerable expertise to help further develop the Liberty, both on and off the court."
"To me, basketball is basketball," Thomas said in the team's statement. "These women are outstanding athletes who want to compete for a championship in New York. I look forward to this challenge — not just to win a title, but also to help broaden the team’s fanbase.”
Dolan, however, apparently jumped the gun in announcing Thomas' part-ownership stake in the Liberty, according to WNBA President Laurel Richie.
"The Madison Square Garden organization announced that Isiah Thomas has been named president of the New York Liberty and that he will take an ownership interest in the team, pending WNBA approval," Richie said in a league statement. "New owners are approved by our WNBA Board of Governors, and this process has not yet begun."
While the ownership stake remains unresolved, the fact that Dolan has given Thomas reign over the Liberty seems especially eyebrow-raising, given Thomas' troubling history with female employees at MSG.
A jury ruled in October 2007 that Thomas had sexually harassed former Knicks vice president of marketing and business operations Anucha Browne Sanders, and that the Madison Square Garden Corporation, led by Dolan, had improperly fired Sanders for complaining about Thomas' unwanted advances. MSG was forced to pay $11.6 million in punitive damages in the case, during which Browne Sanders claimed that Thomas had referred to her as a "bitch" and a "ho."
Thomas denied having cursed at Browne Sanders, but said during a videotaped deposition that while "a white male calling a black female a bitch is highly offensive," it was "not as much" if a black man said the same thing. Thomas maintained his innocence after the case's resolution, and was never found personally liable for any damages.
Despite his role in that debacle, the Liberty's Bernert said she had no qualms about the Knicks bringing Thomas in to run the Garden's women's team.
"I asked questions about what happened and am comfortable with MSG's position on the trial," Bernert told Doug Feinberg of The Associated Press. "I tend to take people for who they are now and my personal dealings with them."
Madison Square Garden issued a strongly worded statement in reference to the sexual harassment suit and in support of Thomas on Tuesday afternoon.
"We did not believe the allegations then and we don't believe them now," the statement reads. "We feel strongly that the jury improperly and unfairly held Isiah Thomas responsible for sordid allegations that were completely unrelated to him, and for which MSG bore responsibility. In fact, when given the opportunity, the jury did not find Isiah liable for punitive damages, confirming he did not act maliciously or in bad faith.
"We believe Isiah belongs in basketball, and are grateful that he has committed his considerable talent to help the Liberty succeed."
Jane McManus of ESPN New York and espnW noted the potential issues that could arise when the WNBA's Board of Governors considers his legal history in the ownership-approval process:
NBA ousted owner Donald Sterling last year over racism allegations. How well will a finding of sexual harassment fly with WNBA owners?
— Jane McManus (@janesports) May 5, 2015
There is female ownership from three teams on the WNBA Board of Governors. Thomas' stake goes through them.
— Jane McManus (@janesports) May 5, 2015
Even if you set aside the sexual harassment suit and attendant claims, though — and I don't believe you should — there's plenty of purely-basketball-specific cause for head-scratching and concern on this hire. Thomas was an amazing basketball player, a Hall of Fame point guard who dominated despite being the smallest guy on the floor. He was Chris Paul before Chris Paul. Since hanging up his high-tops, though, his hoops career has been an unqualified disaster ... and yet, Dolan just keeps calling his number.
As part owner and general manager of the expansion Toronto Raptors, Thomas oversaw a 67-179 start and rifled through three coaches in three seasons before failing in an attempt to buy the team from the majority owner and resigning 10 games into the 1997-98 season. In August 1999, he bought the Continental Basketball Association for $10 million; a year and a half later, after Thomas had cut player salaries and rejected an NBA offer to buy the longtime feeder league from him for $11 million plus a percentage of future profits, the CBA folded.
In October 2000, Thomas took over an Indiana Pacers club fresh off a 56-win season, a trip to the NBA Finals, and five Eastern Conference finals trips in seven years. Indy bowed out in the first round in each of Thomas' three seasons on the bench, before Larry Bird returned to run the show and brought in Rick Carlisle to replace Thomas. The Pacers won 61 games and returned to the Eastern finals under Carlisle.
In December 2003, Dolan hired Thomas to be the Knicks' president of basketball operations, kicking off one of the most dismal stretches in franchise history. The Knicks suffered five straight sub-.500 seasons led by five different coaches — including, for the last two, Thomas himself — with Isiah in charge. Thomas made brutal now-for-later trades, headlined by Stephon Marbury coming home in exchange for a package including a first-round draft pick that would become Gordon Hayward, and Eddy Curry imported in exchange for a package including picks that would become LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah, and Steve Francis imported in exchange for a package that included rising two-way talent Trevor Ariza.
Thomas made financially crippling deals, showing an insatiable appetite for high-priced vets on long-term contracts. He "spent about $45 million in salary and luxury-tax payments to employ [Jalen] Rose for eight months," took on nearly $22 million in future salary to bring in Malik Rose, added $10 million in future salary for Maurice Taylor, and so on. He made poor free-agent signings, like $30 million for Jerome "Big Snacks" James on the strength of one good playoff series, or $30 million for Jared Jeffries on the strength of playing at Indiana and being pretty good at defense.
After Dolan brought in former Pacers architect Donnie Walsh — at then-commissioner David Stern's suggestion — Thomas was "reassigned" within the Knicks organization and banned from contacting the team's players. One year later, he took over as the head basketball coach at Florida International University; one year after that, he courted a "consulting" job with the Knicks that the NBA shot down due to obvious conflict-of-interest issues, which in no way reduced Thomas' desire to return to New York after being fired by FIU following (you guessed it) three unsuccessful years on the bench.
None of that bad history has done anything to dissuade Lord Jim from wanting to be in the Zeke business; as Kelly Dwyer wrote three years back, "too much Thomas is never enough for Dolan." Even a teensy bit is too much for New York basketball fans, though, as Dolan acknowledged in the fall of 2013 in a rare interview with Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post:
MV: Do you still consult [Isiah], too, about basketball ideas?
JD: Not really. For Isiah, I don’t know that he’ll ever be able to work in New York. I just don’t know that he’ll ever get a fair shake, going forward in New York.
MV: Do you think that’s unfair? He did lose a lot of games here.
JD: He lost a lot of games! OK. Do I think he deserves another shot? Yeah. It just can’t be here. And I think he’s talented. I think he’s particularly talented at finding basketball talent. But I think he’s probably dismayed at this point. But I don’t see him coming back to New York. I couldn’t do that to him, and I couldn’t do that to the organization. He would probably do it as my friend but I couldn’t do it to him or his family. And you know what the press would do here. We’re interested in getting better and that situation would be such a distraction that it would actually hinder our ability to get better.
Knicks general manager Steve Mills struck a similar note months earlier, saying Thomas — whom he hired in his first stint working under Dolan — "will not be coming back to the Knicks." Thomas seemed to be in the same frame of mind, telling the Post's Marc Berman after Dolan's interview that he'd "moved on" from thinking about rejoining the Knicks.
And, to hear the man himself tell it, that's not what's happening here:
Isiah Thomas tells Daily News he's "excited" about his new gig with Liberty. As for a role with Knicks: "I'm not involved with the Knicks."
— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) May 5, 2015
Asked Isiah Thomas what he'd tell #Knicks fans who believe he'll have a role w/NYK: "I'm excited to be working for the New York Liberty."
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) May 5, 2015
“I work for the New York Liberty,’’ Thomas told Berman of the Post. “Phil [Jackson] works for the New York Knicks.’’
You'll forgive Knicks fans for being skeptical that the man who never goes away will stay on his side of the arena. You'll forgive New Yorkers in general for being skeptical that the guy who has turned every organization he's touched to ash — who is also the guy behind the $11.6 million sexual harassment verdict — is the right guy to lead the Liberty to the promised land. Forgiving Dolan for going back to this poisoned well once again ... well, that might be too much forgiveness for us sinners to muster.
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