Strange Timing

by September 21, 2010

by Clay Kallam

Carol Blazejowski was one of the best women’s basketball players ever – and was also one of the worst general managers in the WNBA.

But New York Liberty fans won’t have Blaze to kick around any more, as she was unceremoniously, and surprisingly, fired on Tuesday. OK, technically her contract Carol Blazejowski & Cappie Pondexterwasn’t renewed, but given her interviews and actions recently, she was focused on the 2011 version of the Liberty, not an imminent job search.

The list of Blazejowski’s personnel blunders is long, capped by trading a draft pick that turned into Rookie of the Year Tina Charles for Sidney Spencer. Casual fans might have heard of Charles, but only the Tennessee faithful – and a horde of disgruntled New York fans – know that Spencer is a 6-3 three-point shooter who is a borderline WNBA player. It’s really not necessary to go through the entire painful list of Blazejowski errata (Olga Firsova in the first round?), but it is also only fair to point out that she had a good year in 2010.

Some will claim that Cappie Pondexter’s demand to be traded to New York so she could get into the fashion business was just good luck, but Blazejowski did fine-tune the deal to make it work for all concerned. She also signed Taj McWilliams-Franklin as a free agent, an excellent decision, and was more than happy to take Plenette Pierson out of Nolan Richardson’s clueless hands in midseason.

The result was a second-place finish in the East, and if not for Janel McCarville twisting her ankle in the shootaround before game one of the Atlanta series, New York might have made it all the way to the WNBA Finals. So 2010 was a much better season than 2009, which leads one to wonder why Blazejowski was fired now instead of earlier.

There are no obvious answers, except for the fact that the Liberty are without a coach (Anne Donovan is off to Seton Hall), and will be playing in Newark for the next three summers thanks to renovation of Madison Square Garden. Perhaps ownership wants to bring in a combination coach/GM with some serious name recognition (though who that would be is a mystery) to fire up the fan base and get them to cross over to New Jersey on a regular basis, or maybe somebody finally recognized that Blazejowski had all but ruined one of the potentially strongest franchises in the league.

Whatever the reason, count this as good news for the WNBA. Sure, it’s possible the bumbling Dolan management team will bring in someone worse than Blazejowski (Isiah Thomas?), but most likely it will be a step up – and the New York franchise is absolutely critical for the long-term success of the league. NYC is a basketball hotbed and a media center, so what happens there will have much more impact than what happens in Tulsa, or San Antonio.

And if nothing else, booting Blazejowski will bring back a significant number of Liberty fans who were so disgusted with her performance that they had given up on the team, and even worse, given up buying tickets.

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Speaking of New York, Cappie Pondexter ducked out of the World Championships, and apparently hoped no one would notice. Pondexter, one of the four or five best players in the world, has played with USA Basketball consistently throughout her career, but decided not to play in this year’s World Championships in France.

She wanted to rest her body between the Liberty season and the start of her big-money gig in Russia, which is somewhat understandable – though I think she should have played for the US and delayed her start in Russia. Regardless, it’s her choice, and that’s fine, but she definitely owed women’s basketball fans some kind of explanation.

Instead, she left National Team coach Geno Auriemma hanging, forcing him to make up something about an injury, which just made everything worse. If Pondexter had simply said “I’ve played for USA Basketball since I was 16, I have professional obligations in Russia and I need a break,” it would have been much better. As it is, she just looks like she’s trying to duck taking responsibility for her actions, and as a result, cost herself some fans.

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Blazejowski wasn’t the only one getting the ax: Steven Key of Chicago was fired, opening up a coaching/general manager spot in the midwest.

Key, like Blazejowski, was vilified by his fan base, so perhaps owner Michael Alter is hoping a new face will draw some paying customers. If not, the Sky may be moving west in 2012, as a change in the ownership of the Golden State Warriors has finally opened the door to the possibility of a Bay Area franchise.

New operating owner Joe Lacob ran the San Jose Lasers of the ABL, but since his group hasn’t officially taken the Warriors over yet, there really isn’t time to put a WNBA team in place for 2011. If Lacob waits a year, he can either drum up support for the Warriors to run a team, or find other investors for what should be a successful franchise. The East Bay, where the Warriors play, is a tremendous area for basketball, and the lesbian population is substantial – a combination that bodes well for the WNBA.

So if the Sky (or the Shock) are looking for a new home in 2012, Oracle Arena will most likely be available – and will most likely be the home for one of the better WNBA franchises.