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.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

WNBA: NY Liberty on Auto Pilot For Now

By Mel Greenberg

For better or worse in the 14-year history of the WNBA the New York Liberty has had the added pressure of being the anchor franchise whose success or failure also reflected on the overall perception of the women's pro league.

That has come with the territory of being housed in the nation's largest media market.

Game day ambience could look fantastic in places like Seattle where the Storm just won their second WNBA title or at the Mohegan Sun Arena near New London where women's basketball in the state of Connecticut is a religion.

But judgements from the casual fan or skeptical media types who don't follow the WNBA have been based on visits to Madison Square Garden, the home of the Liberty.

In the early years in the late 1990s and into the front part of the last decade New York held its end of the deal in terms of individuals outside the regular fan base.

Game after game celebrities in Manhattan for performances in Broadway plays, rock concerts or visits to network television shows could be seen in front row seats on any given night.

NBA stars, especially from the brother New York Knicks, have also been in the spectator spotlight in the Garden.

Heck, one year during halftime the entire place became extras for a movie scene starring Denzel Washington as a coach of a New York City high school team.

All the New York papers also had regular beat writers, including the Times, thus breeding familarity with the team when providing season-long coverage.

If this scene wasn't repeated in a lesser market, who really knew.

"That's right," one WNBA coach said early this season about a budget cut that had been taken by a team. "If you are going to mess up, do it in a place that no one knows about. But don't do it where everybody can see you."

Since the real glory days, though not the total fault of the Liberty, media coverage in New York has dropped because of the state of the print industry across the country. Many regulars who cover the beat have been the first victims of layoffs and budgets cuts as editors determined what sports would still receive consistent coverage.

When the season started, because of the acquisition of former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter and the presence of former stars of the nearby Scarlet Knights, the Liberty was under pressure to do well -- in part because however the Garden seemed to the outsider, the individual would in turn apply it to their perception of the WNBA as a whole.

New York met the test, though it took a great drive after the All-Star game to get the job done.

The Guru has noted the backdrop above as reference in light of MSG Sports' announcement Monday implying the firing of longtime general manager and basketball legend Carol Blazejowski. The move is also coupled with the coaching vacancy caused by Anne Donovan's departure to Seton Hall.

Back in the home office of the WNBA, the league is gingerly backing off from the events of this week, at least publicly, not wanting to be involved with internal matters of the Liberty though officials will be helpful with the job searches if asked.

But right now the Liberty team page directory on the internet is devoid of listings for general manager, coach and assistants.

In short, while the crew of players who helped keep the franchise running on the court are still in place, the cockpit is missing the pilots.

It's immediately after the season so it is a normal time when everyone takes a quick break.

But very soon agents need to know who they are dealing with in New York. Plans have to be made to scout colleges for the next draft.

And in light of the Liberty moving to Newark, N.J., across the Hudson River for the next three summers, a new profile needs to be built in terms of marketing sooner rather than later.

MSG officials must quickly decide what executive model will work best -- in part also so potential candidates can see whether its worth the effort to pursue the vacancies.

In private talks Wednesday with team officials around the WNBA who requested anonymity so they can discuss situations freely faced with the Liberty, most agree that two indivduals need to be hired in any event because of the market the team is located.

By the way, WNBA opponents next summer will be landing at Newark Liberty Airport to play the New York Liberty.

Blazejowski had total control and final say over all aspects including the presentations that featured the Liberty Torch Patrol dance team.

Incidentally, New York also needs a media liason because Casey Sherman departed just before the playoffs. As of now Amy Scheer, vice president of marketing and communication, is the lone direct media contact, although MSG may want their own media staff handling inquires over the hires.

Looking at some other models around the league Seattle coach Brian Agler handles the team and also personnel matters -- thus having the major say in the draft as well as trades. Another person handles the business side of things.

When Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve was with the Detroit Shock in its final season in 2009 before the franchise moved to Tulsa, she was an assistant coach and general manager primarily dealing with player personnel matters.

In Washington Angela Taylor handles personnel matters as general manager of the Mystics and in consultation with coach Julie Plank. Greg Bibb, as chief operating officer, handles the fan and other business-related operations.

During games in Washington, both Taylor and Bibb can be seen spending as much time dealing with the fan base as observing the team.

Meanwhile reaction continued Wednesday, mostly in private, in the wake of Blazxejowski's exit.

Some believe MSG wouldn't mind parting ways with the Liberty. During the season there was some chatter in the media room from from writers familiar with the New Jersey scene who have suggested the NHL Devils management woudn't mind having a WNBA team of their own.

So in some ways if any of this is true the next three summers will be an audition that could result in those events coming to pass.

Although the Liberty won't be back in the Garden, women's basketball will still have a place in the famed arena in the winter.

UConn, Ohio State, Rutgers and Texas A&M will play in the annual Maggie Dixon Classic in December while UConn will meet St. John's in a Big East matchup at 9:30 p.m. several weeks later.

-- Mel

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