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.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Guru's WNBA Musings: "Bad Boy" Bill Laimber Broadway Bound Back To The WNBA

By Mel Greenberg

Until some 48 hours ago, if someone used the phrase "the light at the end of tunnel" to fans of the WNBA New York Liberty, they might take that reference as Secaucus.

That's where the world becomes bright again on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River when one travels from Manhattan on commuter rail lines to the Prudential Center in Newark.

The venue, a move that has cost the Liberty thousands of fans reluctant to make the trip and thus impacted WNBA overall attendance, has served as the temporary home of the franchise. The regular home, Madison Square Garden, has one more summer of three overall to undergo a major reconstruction.

However, the phrase referenced in the first paragraph took on a new meaning late Thursday afternoon when the Liberty dropped a bombshell that "Bad Boy" Bill Laimbeer was returning to the WNBA as the coach-general manager of the New York franchise.

The former member of the NBA Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" championship era steered the former Detroit Shock to three titles as coach-general manager.

At the same moment, the Liberty also announced the exit of coach-general manager John Whisenant, who had held similar status with the former Sacramento Monarchs.

Hired by the Liberty in the winter prior to the 2011 season, Whisenant came East to guide the New York fortunes, which this past season had been more of misfortunes even though the injury-riddled squad at 15-19 made the playoffs to be swept by the top seeded Connecticut Sun 2-0 in the first round of the Eastern semifinals.

Whisenant's hire came on the heels of the firing of longtime Liberty vice president Carol Blazejowski, a Basketball Hall of Famer, and the departure of coach Anne Donovan, another basketball legend and famer, to Seton Hall in the rugged Big East conference.

The person, who pulled the trigger on Blazejowski, was MSG's Scott O'Neil, president of Madison Square Garden Sports, who abruptly departed near the end of the Liberty season in early September in what was alluded in reports to be a falling out with Garden chairman James L. Dolan.

In hearing that news at the time, the Guru here had wondered whether there might be a change on the Liberty sidelines considering the front office change as well as the fact that Whisenant's wife is in a tough battle with cancer.

There's also the fact that Whisenant is a West Coast guy who never got totally comfortable with the hustle and bustle of the Metro area that resulted in numerous traffic incidents and other travel difficulties getting from airports or the Westchester training center up north near White Plains to the Prudential Center.

"I think John, who's a great guy, and the franchise came to a mutual agreement and his departure happened once the buyout terms were to his satisfaction," said a longtime WNBA observer who has had numerous dealings with front offices in the league.

"It is unusual to get both those announcements on the same day."

The moves are the latest in a string of October surprises, as they say in presidential election campaign lingo, that have occurred after the playoffs, including the departures of former presidents Val Ackerman and Donna Orender from the WNBA, the demise of franchises such as the former Houston Comets and Laimbeer's Detroit Shock, which won a slew of championships, and blockbuster offseason trades.

The Shock still exist, but they do as a team that moved to Tulsa three seasons ago and was tranformed to resemble an expansion outfit after a bunch of Detroit stars opted out against moving to Oklahoma.

By then Laimbeer was long gone, having moved to the staff of the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves that lasted until it was ousted after the 2011 season.

Since then, Laimbeer, one of the NBA Detroit Piston "Bad Boys," who won several titles, has been getting bored in Florida with fishing rods and golf clubs, though he has maintained his entertainment by keeping a close eye on the WNBA from afar.

It is unknown whether the Washington Mystics, who are looking for a general manager and coach in either combination or two hires, was aware of Laimbeer's desire to return to the league.

But the path back through the WNBA may have come through Kristin Bernert, vice president of marketing and operations for the Liberty who was director of operations in Detroit during the Laimbeer era.

Also, NBA New York Knicks assistant general manager Allan Houston, who oversees the Liberty, is a former teammate of Laimbeer's in Detroit.

Furthermore, it is believed that former teammate Isiah Thomas, who is no longer the Knicks general manager, is still allowed to whisper to the ear of Dolan.

In fact, Laimbeer, while still with Detroit, was considered for the Knicks coaching vacancy that existed at the time when Thomas was in charge.

Should that occur again down the road while Laimbeer has brought back the Liberty to prominence or even the first title for a franchise that launched with the WNBA in 1997, he would be inside the Knicks' MSG family to be considered.

Meanwhile, Cheryl Reeve, his former assistant on the Shock and a graduate of Philadelphia's La Salle University, got a team of her own in 2010 as coach of Minnesota with some help from Laimbeer in the hire and led the Lynx to their first WNBA title last summer.

Their attempt to repeat this time around, however, was cut short in the championship round by the Indiana Fever, who last Sunday got their first chance to sip the bubbly after a long history of playoff failures.

Detroit was reeling in the summer of 2002 on a 13-game losing streak and was said to be in danger of total collapse until Laimbeer convinced ownership that he could turn things around.

After he took over, Detroit played .500 ball the rest of the way and the following season executed a worst-to-first reversal dispatching the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Sparks in a deciding Game 3 in the championship round.

"He's going to go in here one day," the late Pistons Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly once quipped to the Guru at an induction weekend in Springfield, Mass. "But it's certainly not going to be for anything he did for me."

In the WNBA, Laimbeer became a fierce competitor and a lightning rod for opposing fans who either jeered his antics or were not enamored of the Shock's rough, physical style of play.

"This may be the be the best thing the Liberty has ever done from a public relations perspective," said Bruce Levy, a longtime player agent since the launch of the league in 1997.

"The most important thing is he is respected by the media. He is perfect for New York and you might see coverage take an upswing," Levy said.

"And as for players, I've already been approached by several with free agent status who would like me to get them to New York because they know of his competitive fire."

On his teleconference Thursday Laimbeer spoke of the Liberty needing an identity and giving a new meaning to the phrase started in this post by saying the fans, who will see a return to The Garden in 2014, need to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Who knows? Maybe at some point in the future a headline may proclaim Broadway Bill if New York returns to the stature of its early years in the league.

When the Liberty inched into the playoffs one game ahead of Chicago on the final days of the regular season, it was said that in afterthought the Sky made out better than the Liberty because in the lottery they landed the No. 2 pick -- likely to be Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, unless they go for Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, or unless Baylor's Brittney Griner is bypassed by the Phoneix Mercury, who have the No. 1 pick and decide to take Delle Donne.

But with Laimbeer on the scene, New York has similar value in hope for the future as the teams holding the top three picks.

Furthermore, if Tulsa wants to deal Australian sensation Elizabeth Cambage, the second-year pro and overall No. 2 pick of the 2011 draft who bypassed the season to prepare for the Olympics on the front end and then declare a sort of burnout afterwards, one can envision Laimbeer ready to talk shop.

The Liberty hold the No. 5 overall pick and Laimbeer could certainly use that as part of a package with with pieces that would help Tulsa continue its revival. The Shock also hold the No. 3 pick and will have back former Texas center Tiffany Jackson, who missed this past season due to pregnancy.

Homage to the Rutgers alumni association on the Liberty might end with one exception -- All-Star Cappie Pondexter, who said the right things publicly during Whisenant's two-year stay running the team.

However, those who who know Pondexter well said the scoring ace was not totally found working Whisenant's "White Line" defensive schemes, which did result in Sacramento winning the 2005 title.

Pondexter, who re-signed near the end of this past season, is likely to be approached by Laimbeer, who could be using the Book of Swin Cash in their initial conversation.

Cash, a former UConn All-American now with Chicago was a rookie not accustomed to losing before Laimbeer took over. The first thing he did was call Cash into his office, promise her things will get better and he said he was going to build the team around her.

The following winter Lsimbeer picked up former Notre Dame star center Ruth Riley out of the dispersal draft and then grabbed former Louisiana Tech center Cheryl Ford, who is out there at the moment as a free agent, though she has had battled knee problems.

And then it was on to three titles in 2003, 2006, and 2008, and annual contention in between.

If Cambage has upside and lands in New York, the inside-outside attack of her and Pondexter could be deadly, especially if Laimbeer has enforcers in the frontcourt to help the Australian.

Kara Braxton and Plenette Pierson, currently Liberty frontcourt attackers, were valuable commodities for Laimbeer in Detroit.

Incidentally, it is not known if Laimbeer, whose appetite might have drawn him to Dinosaur Barbecue in Syracuse when his daughter played for the Orangewomen, is aware another franchise in the chain opened last May next door to the Prudential Center.

Stern Shipping Out The Guru addressed this item in his twitter account @womhoopsguru but for those of you yet to become followers -- 28 more hits the 2,000 milestone -- he observed that when longtime NBA commissioner David Stern announced he will be stepping aside in 2014, the ensuing coverage in major news organizations and papers didn't contain one sentence about Stern helping launch the WNBA and being one of its strongest advocates.

It is hard to imagine or there would have been such a league had he not been in charge or that the league would have been able to last this long considering the honeymoon ended quickly with some NBA owners who had WNBA teams.

Stern when noting the WNBA has always jested that he had to see the league start of "Val Ackerman and Carol Blazejowski would have killed me."

Both worked in the NBA home office under Stern in New York before the league launched -- Ackerman, a former Virginia star as a staff lawyer, and Blazejowski in marketing.

Whither The Mystics? It is now a month since Washington fired general manager-coach Trudi Lacey and her staff and not a stir has arisen from the front office in the nation's capital, which might still be reeling from the shock of having the worst record in the league, but getting stunned in the lottery when the Mystics landed the fourth overall pick, one below the slots that will be filled by the superstar collegiate senior trio of Delle Donne, Griner and Diggins.

Sheila Johnson, who heads the Mystics, promised transparency to the fans as the search is executed to find either one person to fill both jobs or individual hires for each.

Former Houston Comets and 2004 gold-medal Olympic coach Van Chancellor would love to get involved, but has not had any contact.

There was an unconfirmed rumor that Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, one of the stars of the Comets' four title run (1997-2000), applied for the coaching position in Washington.

She had been coach of UNC Wilmington but left after last season to return to the Lone Star State to coach at Texas Southern after a previous stint when she launched her collegiate coaching career at Prairie View A&M.

While not having knowledge of any discussions, several contemporaries have said off the record that they believe Cooper would want to return to the WNBA.

It is not known if Chicago assistant Jeff House, who was an aide to Richie Adubato in the past in Washington, has been contacted or made contact.

Connecticut assistant Scott Hawk during the playoffs said he had no interest in the position.

Marynell Meadors, the former Atlanta Dream general manager-coach fired after the Olympics during the ongoing flap with All-Star Angel McCoughtry, served as an assistant in the past in Washington.

"Marynell can put teams together," said DePaul coach Doug Bruno, who serviced with Meadors and former Mystics aide Jen Gillom to UConn's Geno Auriemma during the run to last summer's London Games and a fifth straight Olympic gold medal.

The College Scene -- Sometime Saturday, unless it is already out there, the 37th Associated Press preseason women's poll will flash across the wire with defending NCAA champion Baylor, led by senior Brittney Griner, expected to be No. 1 after going wire-to-wire in voting by the nationwide media panel in 2011-12 and 40-0 on the court.

Connecticut, which has been to five straight Final Fours, is likely to be No. 2 with four starters back and the nation's top recruiting class.

Questions at the hour of this post, though some of you will have already learned the answers, include how low will Tennessee be ranked after losing all five starters.

The Lady Vols for the first time since the poll was launched in November, 1976, will be without Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, who stepped down after last season and becoming coach emeritus during an ongoing battle with early onset dementia, Alzhemier's style.

Hall of Famer and former Lady Vol Holly Warlick, a longtime associate head coach to Summitt, has stepped up to succeed her.

In all 36 previous preseason polls, Tennessee has missed the Top 10 only twice, being omitted entirely in the first-ever poll and ranked No. 14 in the 1984-85 preseason vote, where they later dropped out and were unranked for 10 weeks.

Tennessee has been in every poll since and has missed just 14 overall.

When in the poll, the lowest they were ranked, prviously, was 20 in February, 1982, when the rankings only listed 20 teams.

Since the early 1990s the weekly list includes 25 schools or a few more depending on ties. In 2009 as defending champions, Tennessee fell to 19th in the next-to-the-last vote, finished 18th and then were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament, unprecedented for the program.

Summitt remains the all-time leader in coaching appearances in the poll, but Georgia's Andy Landers, a Tennessee rival in the Southeastern Conference, now tops the active list.

Delaware, with Delle Donne leading the Blue Hens, is likely to be in its first-ever preseason poll after debuting last season and rocketing all the way to the Top 10.

The Guru will have all the numbers and trivia out of the master database of poll history late Saturday. So that is it until then.

-- Mel



- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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