NEW YORK (AP) — Twenty minutes after the New York Liberty finish practice, Isiah Thomas hits the court to work with rookie point guard Brittany Boyd.
Holding a broom up high to help Boyd work on shooting over defenders, Thomas passes along words of encouragement to the team’s first-round draft pick. Not too many team presidents in the WNBA or even the NBA come with the same on-court credentials as the Hall of Fame point guard.
Boyd is too young to really remember seeing Thomas play with the Pistons. But she’s well aware of his credentials and had seen him in the movie Hoop Dreams. She soaks his instruction up like a sponge.
“Always good to get a workout in,” said Thomas after they finish. “She’s got a lot of potential and has a real bright future.”
Thomas is hoping those words can apply to him, too, as he works to build the Liberty’s profile in the WNBA. He knows a lot of eyes are on him.
Controversy swirled around New York when he was hired in May as the team’s president and potential owner. That didn’t sway owner James Dolan from bringing him back to work with the Liberty, who need a solid foundation after missing the playoffs for the past two years. They haven’t reached the WNBA Finals since 2002.
Two months into the season and he already has left a mark, on and off the court.
“Now we’re relevant,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We were borderline being irrelevant the last couple years. There was a chance New York goes away.”
The biggest difference that Laimbeer has noticed with Thomas in the fold is that Dolan shows up to games and is involved.
“I didn’t see him for two years, he never came to a game. He pays attention and is involved now,” Laimbeer said. “He comes to games, but also it is internally in staff, ticket sales. They are very aware that he is paying attention to the Liberty. Everyone else knows we have to pay attention to the Liberty also, that’s a huge positive.”
“That may not have happened without Isiah being here.”
Thomas has been active behind the scenes. He talks with the Liberty’s marketing partners and helped the team hire a public relations firm to plan a celebration of New York’s 20th anniversary next year. He’s gotten 29 of the team’s 34 games on television — the most since 2007. He also has gotten the Liberty additional player and team resources. New York hired former star Teresa Weatherspoon as a director of player development — the first in the league. New York has also hired a sports psychologist as well as a career transition consultant to help the players prepare for life after basketball.
“We’re just trying to push the envelope,” Thomas said. “Get things done.”
The chance to work with the Liberty is a turnaround of sorts for Thomas, too. His last stint in New York ended poorly. He was team president of the Knicks from December 2003 to April 2008 and despite regularly owning the NBA’s highest payroll never made the playoffs. Thomas also went 56-108 in two seasons as their coach before being fired.
After they let him go he still had an unspecified role with the team until a lawsuit brought by former team employee Anucha Browne Sanders cost MSG over $11 million. Sanders alleged she was sexually harassed by Thomas, who maintained his innocence and was never found personally liable.
Controversy over that lawsuit led to a dispute over his partial ownership application for the Liberty when he joined the team. The WNBA and Liberty agreed last month to suspend it indefinitely. Thomas and the WNBA haven’t commented further.
There was talk with Thomas’ hiring that fans would stay away from the games in protest. So far, the team’s attendance is about even to last season, drawing over 9,000 fans. It helps that the Liberty are sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference.
“Winning solves a lot,” Thomas said with a smile.
Laimbeer said the strong start to the season quieted the naysayers.
“It was tough to go through the initial beating everyone took,” he said. “It was actually in some ways good. It made the players and all the staff close ranks. They see nothing but positives with him involved.”
Laimbeer credits some of the success to Thomas and his basketball mind. He’s involved in the day-to-day planning for the team, sitting in on meetings with the coaches and game operations staff.
Seeing Thomas’ interaction with his former Detroit Pistons teammate Laimbeer and assistant coaches Katie Smith and Herb Williams is like watching old friends hang out, with lots of good-natured jabs going back and forth. After Laimbeer was lamenting about some of the mistakes his players were making, Thomas quipped, “Do you like anyone on your team?”
“I’m just a pessimist,” Laimbeer retorted.
That drew a long laugh from the coaching staff.
Thomas has a vision for New York. Sitting in the stands Wednesday, he watched intently as the Liberty earned a big win, beating San Antonio by 16 points in front of over 18,000 fans — the largest crowd to watch a game at MSG since 2002.
If he gets his way, those crowds will only grow larger.