The New York Liberty’s opening night victory was overshadowed by the past of their new team president, Isiah Thomas.
Madison Square Garden released a statement on Friday afternoon, just hours before the game, in response to protests from the Women’s Sports Foundation regarding Thomas’ guilt in a sexual harassment lawsuit in which The Garden paid out $11.5 million.
It read as follows: “The Women’s Sports Foundation has continued to rely on erroneous and exaggerated media reports regarding Isiah Thomas and MSG. They are misinformed. In fact, the case was never concluded.
“Anucha Browne Sanders voluntarily dismissed her complaint. Ms. Sanders accepted that MSG and Mr. Thomas did not admit guilt or concede any wrongdoing. MSG agreed to forego any additional legal action and agreed to a payment covering past and future salary and legal expenses. Isiah Thomas did not pay anything.”
Thomas said last month that “people will have their questions for me, but I hope they focus on the players.” How he is reconciling that with the statement the team released on Friday afternoon, “I think all of you here and I hope that you’re all here to see the players and I hope you enjoy the game and I hope that you watch the players, they have very interesting stories. I hope that you cover their story as well as you cover mine. When you have a chance to go inside the locker room after the game, please talk about their stories also, and enjoy the game, because that’s what this is really all about.
“I’m not here to talk about the past, I’m only here to talk about the New York Liberty. The statement speaks for itself,” said Thomas.
Putting the statement out three hours before the season begins takes the focus away, does it not? “I think, as I said, I’m not here to talk about the past. The statement speaks for itself.”
When asked about protests outside, Thomas said again, “The statement speaks for itself.”
“If you have Liberty basketball questions, that would be great,” said Thomas.
Thomas was then asked what his experience has brought to his new job as team President, and he said, “If you look at the players that we drafted, also the players that were here, some of the veteran players that have stuck around, I think we have a nice group, a nice blend of youth and veteran leadership on this team. And I’m excited to see how they perform tonight. Atlanta’s one of the best teams in the conference, so this is a big test for us.”
On how he and Head Coach Bill Laimbeer, also his former teammate on the Pistons, have worked together to impart their knowledge to the team, Thomas said, “In terms of our intellectual knowledge, when we put the team together, we talked about basketball I.Q. We wanted smart players, we wanted tough-minded players, players who could sustain concentration, and players who had been well-coached in college. When you look at the players that we drafted, we drafted from very good coaches in college, great basketball institutions.”
Thomas was referring to Kiah Stokes from Connecticut and Brittany Boyd from California.
On the saga of Head Coach Bill Laimbeer, who was fired in October and then re-hired in January, Thomas said, “At the end of the season, he was fired, and I started working with the team in the past couple of months. And I thought the job that he had done, once we re-evaluated everything. and he had really done a nice job in terms of where we were trying to go, and I thought he was the person to lead us. And I also thought adding Herb Williams to his coaching staff would also be good, Katie Smith and Teresa Witherspoon. I look at it as we have four head coaches, even though Laimbeer takes the head coaching role. The four coaches are all capable, very knowledgable in their experience in the game of basketball, 50, 60-plus years of basketball knowledge and experience on that coaching staff.”
Thomas continued, “A lot of times when a coach is let go and you always look at the record in terms of wins and losses, because that’s how we judge coaches. However, in a lot of situations, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. When you look at the intellect and his basketball knowledge, and his winning pedigree in terms of what he’s done as a player and also championships that he won in the WNBA, you say to yourself, ‘overnight, he didn’t forget all of that,’ so it’s a matter of finding the right team and giving him the right pieces to work with and I think we’re in the process of putting together a good team that fits his personality and coaching style.”
Kiah Stokes and Tina Charles likely would fill the same space on the floor, and Thomas said of reconciling that, “Well, the good thing is I don’t have to design the offense. I’m sure that they’ll figure out what is the best way. When we drafted Kiah, the thing that we looked at and the thing that I was very intrigued by is that, and her dad’s here tonight by the way if you want to track him down, but the thing that I was intrigued by was her basketball IQ. She played at UConn, Geno’s (Auriemma) a very tough, demanding coach, she’s had championship experience, she’s had big-time game experience, so the bright lights of New York won’t bother her. So, she was someone that we really targeted. Then, you look at her defensive ability. Everyone talks about the offense, but to really win games, you have to defend. Kiah blocks shots, she rebounds, then the other thing is, okay, can she score? We believe that she will be able to develop that skill and she shoots the ball, she has shot the ball extremely well in training camp and practice, so that skill is there. Can we give her the confidence to step out on the court and make shots? Tina’s Tina, I mean, she’s a double-double, you close your eyes, you mark it down, she’s probably our most consistent player in terms of scoring and rebounding, so she’ll be in there every night.”
There are reports that Thomas would like to own a part of the Liberty, and he was asked if the team is profitable, and he said, “On the ownership side, I wish I could answer questions along those lines, but I’m not at liberty to speak about that right now. I can say that we have the full support of MSG and being under the umbrella of Madison Square Garden and all its resources, we will try to use everything we can to make sure that we are well supported.”
Thomas was asked if he is worried that people will not buy tickets or merchandise because of his presence with the team, and he said, “No, I think I’ll wait on that” before his voice trailed off and laughed to close the press conference.