March 9, 2022
What the Liberty’s $500,000 fine means for the franchise
Much has changed in a short time for both New York and the league
Last week, our own Howard Megdal broke the news of a WNBA story — a $500,000 fine issued by the league to the New York Liberty — that a few years ago might have looked absolutely inconceivable. Why inconceivable? All it took was an outdated Liberty photo of Tina Charles that accompanied Megdal’s radio segment about his story on the Takeaway.
That photo has since been changed to one of Natasha Howard, but the photo of Charles in her seafoam green jersey with accents of blue and orange and the Liberty’s original logo brought back the old realities the Liberty faced back from memory lane. The two years in Westchester affected the health, respectability and visibility of the New York Liberty franchise.
It’s truly remarkable to examine the franchise four years ago from today juxtaposed with its current reality. Four years ago, New York wasn’t a top landing spot for free agents. And why would it be? The team didn’t play in a professional arena and was in the process of executing an ownership change.
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Four years ago, the Liberty didn’t have enough space to get dressed and shower without feeling cramped. The Westchester County Center is usually used by high schoolers. Four years ago, the Liberty weren’t known to take pride in or have any sort of player development infrastructure. Bill Laimbeer wasn’t particularly known for developing players and at one point Katie Smith only had one coach on her bench alongside her in Herb Williams and then former Director of Player and Franchise development Teresa Weatherspoon. (Smith’s other assistant, Charmin Smith, had accepted a head coaching job at Cal-Berkeley and a replacement wasn’t named. The WNBA had yet to implement its rule that allows three assistants as long as there is one coach who is a former player. )
Four years later, New York has landed four top players in free agency. Four years later, the Liberty have a brand new state-of-the-art locker room that’s spacious enough for players to make TikToks. Four years later, the Liberty have begun to develop young players and aim to have resources in place that will allow their veterans to also improve. Remember: DiDi Richards shot one three in her entire college career and then made 10 in her first professional season.
All of these stark changes are a result of new ownership in Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai and their ability to invest in this team like it hadn’t been invested in before. But the Tsais’ forward thinking eventually led to a cost. The New York Liberty’s transgression, violating the CBA by using charter flights to travel to games after the Olympic break, represents on a macro scale where the WNBA is now. The league is in a very different place than it was in 2018 when the Liberty played games in a remote location and were left hanging by James Dolan.
Let’s do the time warp for a moment and take a jump to the left. How exactly did Liberty players view their situation in Westchester? It was clear they didn’t prefer it, but the way they spoke out was more measured. Charles was frank and explained how comparing the County Center to MSG would have been insulting to the historic arena. Shavonte Zellous clearly wasn’t pleased with the situation, but communicated with a disheartened acceptance.
“Our mind-set is the Westchester County Center is our new home,” Zellous told Seth Berkman in 2018. “Being in the Garden was amazing and we have to get past that.”
In 2022, the way Liberty communicate about the issues that impact their franchise has changed considerably. And this is a microcosm of a larger discussion in the WNBA about how the league has transformed into one that’s built on the players’ leadership and voices. A league full of players that are no longer just happy to be here but instead aren’t satisfied until the league they play in is better for future generations.
They don’t hold back if what they say might be against the disciplinary actions of the league. Younger players in Richards, reigning Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere and former number one overall pick Sabrina Ionescu didn’t hold back.
What a joke😂😂😂 https://t.co/SdedaL1vyN
— Sabrina Ionescu (@sabrina_i20) March 1, 2022
Aye, Napa was a dope vibe though ! Grateful for the experience 🙌🏾
— Jazmine Jones (@Jazmine_Jones4) March 1, 2022
And even former Liberty guard Jazmine Jones expressed publicly her gratitude for an experience she had with the team in the Napa Valley, an amenity the Liberty provided that also broke the rules of the CBA.
Meanwhile, more veteran players on New York such as Sami Whitcomb and Stefanie Dolson posted to their Instagram stories images of tweets that others had made expressing frustration with league fining the Liberty. While their responses weren’t as forthcoming as their younger peers, their views were still clearly communicated.
Speaking of Dolson, after spending five seasons with the defending champion Chicago Sky, what made her move on from a team desperate to run it back and definitely still in contention for another championship?
Dolson explained to SNY’s Maria Marino one of her reasons she joined the Liberty shortly after she signed with New York. “The entire franchise, you can tell they just really care about their players,” Dolson said. “They care about the level of basketball they put out on the floor, which we can produce the best when we’re not really worried about the other stuff, like where are we going to practice, how are we traveling, what’s the schedule, just all that other stuff. When we can focus on just basketball, we can put out the best product.”
So what did that mean exactly about her former employer? Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun Times explained that the Sky have a reputation for “being in the bottom tier” when it comes to how much the franchise invests into player experience and other amenities. And the Liberty presented their case as the contrapositive to the Sky when they put Dolson up in a five-star hotel looking out on the Brooklyn waterfront. And who knows if anyone inside the Liberty franchise knew Anthony Ramos, an actor who was in Dolson’s favorite musical “Hamilton.” He was at Barclays Center on the same night that both Dolson and Betnijah Laney were during the negotiation period of free agency.
And if Dolson’s experience being pampered and courted by New York isn’t enough, the Liberty were the only other team outside of the Seattle Storm that Breanna Stewart agreed to meet with. Stewart ended up re-signing with the Storm on a one-year deal for what’s presumably Sue Bird’s final season. When asked about her future beyond this season with the Storm, Stewart explained that “the biggest priority is we’re going to focus on what happens right now,” and that opens the door for the only other team that got to speak to her in January 2022. The Liberty can strike when Stewart becomes an unrestricted free agent again in 2023, and their meeting might have planted a seed, similarly to how the Las Vegas Aces previously courted point guard Chelsea Gray.
Since Katie Smith was relieved of her coaching duties after the 2019 season and not extended, New York has hired two different head coaches since. Walt Hopkins was hired in January 2020 to install a more modern style of basketball and help jumpstart general manager Jonathan Kolb’s initiative to become a team known for developing its players. While Hopkins’ tenure proved he could develop young players, his inexperience coaching and lack of patience and personal accountability in high-pressure situations led to part of his downfall.
Coaching experience and adaptability in addition to continuing the Liberty’s player development aspirations were what New York looked for in their next coach, and they got it with former Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello. What stood out in Brondello’s introductory press conference was not just her appraisal of the Liberty’s ownership, but also the superlatives she used to describe the situation.
“Players, everyone talks about the ownership around the league and I just knew it,” Brondello said of Tsais. “They are just totally invested, they are very engaged, they are passionate about the growth of not [just] the New York Liberty but the WNBA. I’ve had an enjoyable eight years here in in Phoenix and I’m going to I think what could be quite possibly the best organization in the WNBA. For me it was more like oh yeah that would be a great job, a great situation with a great roster and ownership. I want to be a part of that.”
While Brondello noted how grateful she was for her eight years in Phoenix, a city where she still holds residence, she did not hesitate to call New York “the best organization in the WNBA.” What does that say about the Phoenix Mercury?
Her explanation of what a favorable situation coaching the Liberty would be is quite the contrast from when Bill Laimbeer jumped ship at the appropriate time after the 2017 postseason. Laimbeer anticipated what would follow: Dolan would strip the team of its playing time at MSG and put the Liberty on the market to be sold. But now, the one player who has been with New York dating back to the trying times under Dolan and in Westchester isn’t leaving.
Rebecca Allen has simply seen it all in Liberty land but made the choice to return to the team that first gave her a shot in the WNBA. According to a league source, Allen was pursued by around half of the league during this past January’s free agency period. The W understands her value and now, after watching her grow and improve her game, the Liberty do, too.
What convinced Allen to return? She believes in the future of the Liberty and sees this as a situation to embrace and take hold of rather than run from. Not to mention, she adores the cosmopolitan city that the Liberty play in.
“New York has definitely got a place in my heart like there’s no, I don’t try to hide that in any way,” Allen told The Next last month. “But also I’m excited about the direction the club’s going. I feel like I’ve been there through all this ebbs and flows, the changing of ownership and, and all of that type of thing. And I just think that the direction that we’re headed in right now is super exciting, and it’s something I really want to be a part of.”
This is all significant because the Liberty are finally at a point where they can take advantage of their location in the biggest media market in the country and their historic status as one of the three original WNBA franchises. Something they just didn’t do while owned by the MSG Company. And since the Tsais made the decision after less than a year of ownership to move the Liberty to Barclays Center permanently, it’s been full speed ahead in New York’s quest to become a “franchise that leads” in the WNBA.
But this franchise that eagerly wants to lead the WNBA in a more modern direction, made a miscalculation — acting unilaterally.
The response to the unofficial proposal that came from the Liberty resulted in a rude awakening to the current conflicts Commissioner Cathy Engelbert faces and that oversight came through in Oliver Weisberg’s letter to league counsel Jamin Dershowitz.
On her podcast with Star Tribune‘s Jim Souhan, Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve expressed her frustration with the entire situation, admitting to the fact that there is a disagreement amongst owners as to how long it should take for the league to provide charter flights.
“We all want this league to get to a place where we are seeing better conditions, but I think how we get there is certainly what’s up for debate or how long it takes for us is up for debate,” she said. “But what’s not up for debate is what our current rules are and that was my biggest takeaway is that that’s unacceptable. We have rules for a reason and especially from an ownership standpoint, you have the ability to get the most done at the board of governor meetings and so there’s a process that they could go about.”
She believed the Liberty should have been held accountable in a more meaningful way than just paying a $500,000 fine, which for a billionaire isn’t as meaningful. But, a more meaningful sanction might be in the rest of the governors’ willingness or lack thereof to work with the Tsais. Will they need to work harder now gain back allies among the league? How long will it take to put the water under the bridge to accomplish what eventually will be best for the league and its players? How does this impact the Liberty’s aspirations of being an exemplary organization for the present and future of the W?
Moving forward, another question that could arise is redefining what exactly constitutes a competitive advantage. If air travel is defined as a competitive advantage, then why aren’t arenas and practice facilities, which are determined by how much management can provide and pay, considered a competitive advantage by the CBA as well?
Consider this within New York’s 2022 schedule. On July 6, the Liberty play Las Vegas at 7 p.m. PT. On July 7, they play Phoenix at 7 p.m. PT. Their commercial flight options will be limited. They could bus over to Phoenix, but that’s not the point. Under previous ownership, no one would have raised the issue.
Four years later, the Liberty sure have changed, as have the voices of their players. There’s a real opportunity to maximize New York as a market.
Is the WNBA ready for what that means?
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also covers women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.