- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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On the same day NBA commissioner David Stern announced when he would be saying goodbye to his job, Bill Laimbeer said hello to the WNBA again.
In the grand scheme of things, the WNBA will be considered a small part of Stern's legacy as one of the pre-eminent sports czars of our time. And Laimbeer always will be known more as one of Detroit's "bad boys" -- a hard-nosed, blue-collar player who relished the fact that opposing fans loved to hate him -- than as a WNBA coach.
But to those who follow women's basketball, the contributions Stern and Laimbeer have made to this sport are quite significant.
Stern will step down in February 2014, completing 30 years as commissioner. The WNBA launched in 1997 and just completed its 16th season Sunday, with Indiana taking the league title.
Laimbeer, who on Thursday was named the new coach/general manager of the New York Liberty, said Stern was the "driving force" behind the WNBA.
"There were some times in the WNBA's history where some owners questioned it," Laimbeer said. "And he stood rock solid and said, 'This is a good product, and there is a place for this.' And rightfully so. There's probably nobody more important to the WNBA than David Stern."
Laimbeer thinks Stern's successor, Adam Silver, will maintain the NBA's support of the women's league.
"The WNBA is established; it's a product that gets better all the time," Laimbeer said. "The players get faster and stronger, and it's tough for a player to get a job in this league. Very tough. The league is not going anywhere; I think the NBA is behind it 100 percent."
Which is part of why Laimbeer was willing to come back to the WNBA, where he will replace John Whisenant in New York. Admittedly, Laimbeer's hope when he left the Detroit Shock during the 2009 WNBA season was to become an NBA head coach. He was hired as a Minnesota Timberwolves assistant, but lost his job along with the rest of that staff when Kurt Rambis was fired as head coach in 2011.
Laimbeer relocated to Florida and waited to see what opportunities would come next. He relaxed, played golf, went fishing but was eager to return to working.
His former assistant at Detroit, current Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, said during the recent WNBA Finals that she wouldn't be surprised to see Laimbeer return to the WNBA. There was some speculation he would be a much-needed transfusion of energy for the Washington Mystics, who fired coach/GM Trudi Lacey at the end of the regular season.
Instead, Laimbeer will be going to New York. He said the Liberty contacted him after he "let it be known" that he was interested in getting back into the WNBA.
"I left the WNBA because I had a plan for the NBA, and for whatever reason -- it's still unclear to me -- the plan didn't work out," Laimbeer, 55, said. "So I spent the last year here [in Florida] competing against fish and the golf course. I'm a competitive person and like the competition of basketball, so I wanted to get back into it.
"Part of what happened in the NBA will still always stick with me, just because I think I could be very successful in the NBA. But I've made a commitment here, and I think I can be very successful with the Liberty. Being in basketball and keeping sharp as far as managing a game and winning games -- that's what I enjoy and what I want to do."
The "politics" of any sports league are complicated, but it's fair to say they are more razor-sharp in the NBA. Laimbeer isn't walking away forever from the NBA, just as he didn't slam the door on the WNBA when he left.
But right now, he sees a much more welcoming landing spot in the WNBA. In part because he can jump fully into the driver's seat instantly, being both coach and GM for the Liberty, who went 15-19 this season and finished fourth in the Eastern Conference.
"I wanted to be the person in charge," he said. "It just seemed like a natural fit for me to come back to the WNBA. I love the competition; they play very hard, and it's enjoyable. It's been said that the women are more coachable, and they listen more. They want to learn. I think there's a lot to that."
Laimbeer brings instant credibility in terms of WNBA success. He took over a moribund Shock franchise during the 2002 season and won the league title the next year. He subsequently led the Shock to championships in 2006 and 2008; plus, Detroit made the WNBA Finals in 2007.
But success -- even at the championship level -- has not necessarily guaranteed survival in the WNBA. Two franchises that won league titles -- Houston (four) and Sacramento (one) -- folded in 2008 and '09, respectively, after their owners ran into difficulties in their financial empires and decided to jettison their WNBA teams.
The Detroit Pistons' ownership also decided to get out of the WNBA business in 2009, and that franchise relocated to Tulsa.
Meanwhile, New York was one of the success stories at the start of the WNBA. A lot of fans in the Big Apple fell in love with the team and made Madison Square Garden one of the league's most electric atmospheres for several years.
The Liberty appeared in the first WNBA championship game -- losing to Houston in 1997 -- and then subsequently appeared in the WNBA Finals three times. But New York didn't win a title. And over time, Liberty fans became increasingly frustrated with the direction of the team.
"They were outstanding early on in the WNBA," Laimbeer said of the Liberty. "The problem then became, how do you maintain that? They never got back to where they needed to be."
It's not that New York went an extended period without making the postseason, as some other franchises have. The Liberty have made the playoffs in 12 of the league's 16 seasons. But their last appearance in the WNBA Finals was in 2002, so some Liberty fans felt they were just treading water.
Laimbeer's Shock got in the Liberty's way a couple of times: Detroit beat New York in the 2007 Eastern Conference semifinals and the 2008 East finals. New York didn't make the postseason in 2009, then lost in the East finals to Atlanta in 2010.
Carol Blazejowski was the Liberty's GM from the franchise's inception until after that 2010 season, when she was fired. Liberty fans had a growing disconnect with her, especially because of some of the deals she made that didn't help the Liberty. The trade of guard Becky Hammon to San Antonio in 2007 is one example; she has had six All-Star-level seasons for the Silver Stars since, but New York got nothing of lasting value for her.
Whisenant, who previously had won a WNBA title with Sacramento in 2005, took over as Liberty coach/GM for 2011. The Liberty reached the playoffs each of the past two seasons but lost in the first round. Also, the Liberty played their home games both of those seasons at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. -- as they will next year -- as renovations are being done to Madison Square Garden during the NBA's offseason.
Some New York WNBA fans had felt largely taken for granted by Knicks/Liberty management even before the temporary relocation to Newark. That then created more tension with some of the Liberty's fans, who thought the franchise was doing little to maintain goodwill even with its most loyal supporters.
The hiring of Laimbeer presents a fresh start for the franchise and its fans. They will have to accept cheering for a guy who once was the ultimate "villain" they booed while he was playing for the Pistons and coaching the Shock. But Laimbeer hopes New Yorkers embrace him.
"Hopefully I'm going to push some right buttons and make some right moves," he said. "Yes, we have one more year [in Newark] and our fan base is a bit stretched right now because it's a long way over there for a lot of them. But I want them to see light at the end of the tunnel.
"Let's build right now. Let's put together something that will be successful not only [in 2013] but so that when we go back to the Garden, we'll be able to say, 'Here's who we are and what we're about.' It's a great place to be part of, being in New York. There's no reason players don't want to play there."
Guard Cappie Pondexter, an all-WNBA first-team selection this season, led the Liberty in 2012, averaging 20.4 points and 4.3 assists per game. New York also has forward Plenette Pierson, who flourished off the bench for Laimbeer's 2006 and '08 Shock title teams. But there are gaps the Liberty must fill, and Laimbeer -- who got the nickname "Trader Bill" during his time in Detroit -- knows he'll need to make some moves.
Even though he has been away from the WNBA, he has not lost touch with the league. He poked some fun at Reeve's much-discussed jacket toss during Game 2 of the WNBA Finals -- "That was hilarious" -- and credited Indiana's offensive surge as what won the title for the Fever.
"I've kept up. I watch the league all the time. I know what has transpired, the ups and downs of players," Laimbeer said. "I've got a good handle on the personnel in the league and who's available. We have some good pieces here with the Liberty; now it's a matter of adding to that and creating a culture that says, 'What we care about is winning championships. That's what matters.'"
16dBonnie D. Ford