Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, September 20, 2010

WNBA: Blazejowski's Exit From NY Liberty A Mystery

By Mel Greenberg

The New York Liberty announced Monday the departure of longtime president and general manager Carol Blazejowski in a manner suggesting her exit may not have been something on her mind across several sunrises in the previous 48 hours.

Blazejowski, a native of Elizabeth, N.J., who turns 54 on Sept. 29, could not be reached for comment.

The Liberty announcement did not say whether or not Blazejowski had resigned but one source with ties to the organization said she was told her contract was not going to be renewed but was not offered a reason.

"I had no idea at all that was going to happen," said former Liberty coach Anne Donovan, who guided New York to a turnaround season and first-place tie in the East before departing to become the new coach of the Seton Hall women.

Washington Mystics general manager Angela Taylor, who had been visiting on the West Coast, was stunned to learn the news which she received in a series of text messages after getting off the plane on her return home.

"The last time our teams played each other we congratulated each other on our successful seasons and talked a little about the challenges ahead in 2011," said Taylor, whose Mystics tied the Liberty at 22-12. Both franchises set season records for wins.

A source familiar with the New York coaching search said in the last few days Blazejowski was making inquiries to agents about potential candidates to fill the vacancy, another indication she had not been considering departing the organization.

"I was in shock when I heard the news," Katherine Goodman, co-owner of the Los Angeles Sparks, said Monday night. "I got a note from (general manager) Penny Toler, `Do you know about this?' I don't think she knew either."

The nature of the press release from the Liberty was rather terse considering Blazejowski's legacy as a Hall of Famer and prolific scoring sensation at Montclair State in the late 1970s.

The New York Liberty announced today that Carol Blazejowski, the team’s President and General Manager, is leaving the team.

“Carol has been an integral part of the Liberty from the very beginning,” said Scott O’Neil, President of MSG Sports, in a release. “We thank her for her many years of passion, commitment and dedication to the team and the entire WNBA.

"Carol is a true professional and a class act and there is no doubt that she has more success ahead of her. We wish her the very best in her future endeavors.”

The team said the search for a new president and general manager would begin immediately. Blazejowski joined the Liberty in January of 1997.

The releaase also noted Donovan's departure, an announcement she made prior to the start of the WNBA season. She was allowed to coach New York before moving to South Orange, N.J. After a slow start she molded a group of predominately new additions, including former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, into a playoff participant which lost to the Atlanta Dream 2-0 in the Eastern finals.

After mentioning Donovan, the release then profiled Blazejowski's background.

Blazejowski’s playing career included All American honors in 1976, 1977 and 1978 at Montclair State. She began her professional career at Adidas where she worked for 10 years before moving to the NBA where she served as Director of Licensing, Director of Women’s Basketball Programs and finally as the WNBA’s Director of Basketball Development.

According to one owner, who requested anonymity, it's possible that MSG executives may have been talking to coaching candidates on their own and could have someone lined up who wanted to have both titles, including general manager.

John Whisenant, who had both titles with the former Sacramento Monarchs, could be a potential candidate. His name also has been speculated for the coaching vacancy with the Chicago Sky.

One source indicated Monday night that former LSU coach Pokey Chatman may be the frontrunner for Chicago, which has her former Tigers star Sylvia Fowles.

Atlanta Dream assistant Carol Ross, a former Florida and Mississippi (her alma mater) coach, could be one of the leading candidates for New York, the source said.

Besides replacing Donovan, the team for the next three summers will have to deal with attracting a fan base to the Prudential Center across the Hudson River in Newark, N.J., which will be a temporary home while Madison Square Garden undergoes renovations.

Some speculation on the internet suggested the Liberty may not return to Manhattan if things go well, a move that Blazejowski would be extremely against.

"It will be nice but it's still not the Garden, there's just a special magic and energy here," she said recently before the first game at home against Atlanta.

Depending what direction New York takes, the ambience will certainly be different than the past 14 seasons dating back to when Blazejowski moved from the NBA headquarters to assume the Liberty job when the league launched in 1997.

Val Ackerman, who moved from NBA Commissioner David Stern's legal aide to become the first WNBA commissioner, had mixed feelings at the time of Blazejowski's hire because of her value in the league's home office.

"I said to them, `What are you doing to us,'" Ackerman related back then. "But then I thought, `It will be ok because she'll be perfect for New York.'"

Blazejowski is a contemporary of WNBA Commissioner Donna Orender, who was a rival at Queens College, notably in a game in which Blazejowski set the MSG scoring record for both men and women at 52 points in a game in 1978.

Orender had said she held Blazejowski to 14 in the first half and then was switched off to defend someone else.

O'Neil, the president of MSG sports, could fill both vacancies with one person or he might hand some of the business and marketing operations to someone and then leave player personnel and coaching matters to Donovan's replacement.

But it might be wise to have two persons, considering the tough New York-New Jersey metro market.

"Scott O'Neil had been around the NBA and WNBA forever," Goodman of the Sparks said. "He can get someone in a minute to handle the marketing side of things.

"I think we're all (WNBA teams) going to be curious as to what they do."

One person who could become a general managerial candidate is Linda Bruno, the former commissioner of the Atlantic 10 who has also worked at Iona College and the Big East.

She called the Liberty's business aspect "interesting," but said she would have to get more information as to what MSG management desires.

Fordham women's coach Cathy Andruzzi has a long history of success in the business world, notably as the executive director of the host committee that set an NCAA record for fund raising when the Women's Final Four was held in Philadelphia in 2000.

Over the years there have always been whispers of discord between Liberty coaches and Blazejowski when it came to making draft picks, which more often than not failed to yield returns.

The fan base became outraged last year when New York acquired former Tennessee player Sidney Spencer from Los Angeles for the 2010 first-round draft pick, which the Sparks then dealt to Minnesota.

The uproar occurred when the choice became the overall No. 1 pick, which Minnesota dealt to the Connecticut Sun, which then grabbed former UConn star Tina Charles, the New York native who became the 2010 rookie of the year.

In fairness, though, at the time of the deal New York had come off a close elimination by Detroit in the playoffs and no one expected at the time the Liberty would become so dismal the rest of the summer.

Furthermore, one still has to credit the squad Blazejowski assembled this season in which she was able to help trigger the mega three-team deal that landed Pondexter from Phoenix while Chicago's Candice Dupree, a former Temple star, moved to Arizona. The Sky got Shameka Christon and Cathrine Kraayeveld from New York.

Blazejowski also signed free agent veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin to provide some leadership and picked up former Stanford star Nicole Powell, a three-point shooting ace, off the dispersal draft of the Sacramento roster when the team was extinguished last winter.

Former Connecticut star Kalana Greene was acquired at the top of the second round of the draft in April, while Plenette Pierson, a former Detroit Shock, was acquired early in the season from the franchise which relocated this season to Tulsa, Okla.

Besides Pondexter, the team has a previous dash of Rutgers flavor in recent draft picks Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn.

Blazejowski's coaching hires have had a history of warm welcomes and less than pleasant departures.

Her first hire was Nancy Darsch, the former Ohio State coach who is now an assistant with the WNBA champion Seattle Storm. She was let go two years later when the Liberty just missed making the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

The basketball legend then set what became a trend, dipping into the ranks of former NBA coaches and hired Richie Adubato. He was let go before the midpoint of the 2004 season when the Liberty went on a losing streak.

Patty Coyle, a former Rutgers star and graduate of Philadelphia's West Catholic High, was elevated from her assistant job and held the job until early in the 2009 season when another losing streak caused her WNBA demise.

Donovan, the coach of the 2008 Olympic gold medalists who had been hired as an assistant, was then promoted.

One could argue over Blazejowski's methods and temperament, but still credit her lifelong passion as a fierce competitor.

"Growing up (in Bergen, N.J.), women's basketball in New Jersey and Blazejowski were synonymous," said Donovan, who played at Bergen Catholic. "She was the dominant star out there."

The Mystics' Taylor, a former Stanford star who was with USA Basketball as an official during the famed gold medal run in 1996 at the Atlanta Games, recalled her first awareness of Blazejowski.

"In 1995-96, she was one of the NBA people who were always around," Taylor recalled. "And then she became part of the WNBA with the Liberty and there's no question her role helped the growth of the league to become successful."

New York's early teams were built on defense, a trademark that more or less for better or worse stayed as the Liberty identity over the years.

The first team consisted of former Rutgers star Sue Wicks, Kym Hampton, and former Connecticut star Rebecca Lobo on the inside, while two former Louisiana Tech stars -- Teresa Weatherspoon and Vickie Johnson became fan favorites in the backcourt. Former Maryland star Jasmina Perazic, who now teaches in Washington, was also on that squad.

Several years later the Liberty picked up another defensive backcourt ace with perimeter shooting ability in Crystal Robinson, who had been one of the top players in the former American Basketball League.

The Liberty also signed what is perhaps one of two all-time walk-ons in the WNBA, Becky Hammon, who became an All-Star guard out of Colorado State and now plays for the San Antonio Silver Stars.

The other was Kim Perrott, who played for the Houston Comets the first two seasons before she succumbed to cancer.

The Liberty under Blazejowski has undergone a revolving door in terms of team media representatives though other teams in the WNBA have had their share of changes also in public relations positions.

Blazejowski had final say over practically all aspects of the New York operation including Maddie, the shaggy and lovable mascot dog.

On game day she took a seat about a third way up the stands across from the Liberty bench and besides evaluating the peformance of the players, such entities as the time-out fan promotions and routines of the Liberty Torch Patrol dance team also came under her scrutiny.

Blazejowski's departure leaves two persons from the original Liberty organization. Melissa Abbe, a graduate of George Washington who worked with Blazejowski in the NBA, is director of marketing and ticket sales promotion.

Lisa White, a graduate of Stony Brook on Long Island, is head athletic trainer and also director of basketball operations.

-- Mel


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