WNBA moments of the decade: The Liberty were set free

The New York Liberty were sold by James Dolan and bought by Joe Tsai

Some called it exile, others called it banishment. I called it a rollercoaster of a ride while others including Deadspin (miss you Deadspin!) expressed the long time coming. Joe Tsai, the executive vice-chairman of Alibaba Group and minority owner (at the time) of the Brooklyn the Nets, bought the franchise on January 29 of this year. The New York Liberty could at long last enjoy being owned by someone other than “Guitar Jimmy” and his Madison Square Garden Company.

While it may be painful to remember, let’s go down memory lane briefly.

Following the 2017 season where New York finished a-top the Eastern Conference but were knocked off by Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics in the second single-elimination playoff round, Bill Laimbeer announced his departure from the Liberty. Around a mere month later,  Dolan announced the sale of the team.

A team that now was under head coach (and former Laimbeer apprentice) Katie Smith was in limbo. Flash forward to February 2018, and Dolan disclosed another change of course for his WNBA team. Madison Square Garden Company President Andy Lustgarten made it clear that the Liberty “had numerous interested parties,” but the MSG Company would continue to oversee the team until the sellers “identif[ied] the right” buyer.

It took Dolan and co. a little under a year post the February statement to “identify the right the owner” for the franchise, and in between the decision, the Liberty went 7-27 in the 2018 season, the worst record in the organization’s history. What am I leaving out here? The expulsion of course.

In addition to Dolan’s decision to keep the team under his guidance, he moved the Liberty out of their home at Madison Square Garden in mid-town Manhattan to the Westchester County Center in White Plains, the home of the G-League’s Westchester Knicks and where high school girls basketball teams play tournaments and postseason games.

Just for some context, according to Sports Business Daily, the Liberty were fourth in overall WNBA attendance averages in 2017. Dolan had kvetched a great deal about how the Liberty didn’t bring in sizable profits. But did he really understand how the financial standards and amount of care needed for a WNBA team are completely different from owning an NBA franchise? Did he know when the NBA became a sports league that actually turned over profit?  I think not. Perhaps Anya Alverez said it best and most blatantly in the Guardian.

“Perhaps the best thing that can happen for the Liberty though is to find owners who will value them,” she wrote.

And in January of this year, that’s what New York appears to have gotten in Tsai. By his telling, he has conviction in female leaders and sees unlimited value in women serving as role models for young girls. Also, this is personal. He has a daughter who currently plays varsity college lacrosse for Stanford.

“I really want to support women’s sports because I think young girls need role models to look up to,” he said in an interview with ESPN. “I’ve mentioned before that sports really develop people’s leadership skills so that we need to have more women leaders in this world. So for me, it’s beyond sports. It’s leadership. I think they are the role models for young girls. That’s why I support women in sports.”


WHITE PLAINS, NY – AUGUST 30: The New York Liberty poses for a team photo on August 30, 2019 at the Westchester County Center, in White Plains, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

So far, Tsai hasn’t proven to be the type of owner that hatches a plan to place a dubious basketball mind with a massively problematic personal history as the team President just to bring more attention to the individual rather than the players themselves.

The initial differences between the owners of new and old are apparent in the way in which the current New York front office has spoken openly about Tsai’s commitment to the franchise and the WNBA.  He bets on the Liberty, which is something the team might be experiencing since their initial inception.

First-year New York GM Jonathan Kolb acknowledged back in October that current Liberty ownership has “shown us such a vote of confidence.”

“I think the possibilities are really endless especially with the resources they have now provided us with,” he said.

The Liberty’s COO Keia Clarke has seen it all. She’s been with the team for ten years which included serving as the Liberty’s Director of Marketing and Vice President for Team Business Development before her promotion to become COO.

“Since new ownership took over, it’s been really evident that they are committed to this team,” she said after the Liberty announced their new home court in Brooklyn. They’ve been committed to providing resources for our both our players and our staff.”

Under Tsai’s ownership, the future looks awfully bright. With a number one draft pick, the Barclays Center as their full-time home and a new (still unknown) coach in-store, the next decade for the Liberty ought to be quite riveting..

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