DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
Isiah Thomas is back in New York, this time running the WNBA’s Liberty.
Seven years after Thomas’ unsuccessful stint as Knicks president ended, Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan has hired him again. Liberty general manager Kristin Bernert said after Tuesday’s announcement that she was “comfortable” with the company’s answers to her questions about past sexual harassment allegations against Thomas.
Thomas will serve as the team’s president, with responsibility for basketball and business operations.
“Over the last couple of months Jim and I talked,” Thomas told The Associated Press by phone. “We talked about the ideas and the way that there was a growth opportunity for the New York Liberty. Women’s basketball is an exciting opportunity. It’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
Thomas also will have an ownership interest in the franchise if that is approved by the WNBA Board of Governors. WNBA President Laurel J. Richie said in a statement that “the process hasn’t begun yet.”
The Knicks didn’t win a single playoff game during Thomas’ stint as team president from December 2003 to April 2008 despite regularly owning the NBA’s highest payroll. Thomas also went 56-108 in two seasons as their coach before being fired. He will have no involvement with the Knicks in his new role.
“I’m familiar with everybody’s bad taste in their mouth about him,” said Liberty star Tina Charles, who grew up in New York and is a lifelong Knicks fan. “I don’t hold anybody to their past.”
Charles said she would definitely rib Thomas about “those really bad years.”
Thomas, who started working with the Liberty in January, said he had no qualms about coming back to New York.
“I look forward to the challenge as opposed to having any trepidation about it,” Thomas said. “For me, I love basketball and having the opportunity to be president of a team and be part of a team is a great experience and I’m excited about it.”
After being fired as coach, he remained with the Knicks in an unspecified role, even after a lawsuit brought by former team employee Anucha Browne Sanders that cost MSG $11.6 million. Sanders alleged she was sexually harassed by Thomas, who maintained his innocence and was never found personally liable.
“I asked questions about what happened and am comfortable with MSG’s position on the trial,” said Bernert, who is also the Liberty’s senior vice president of business operations and was hired in 2011.
“I tend to take people for who they are now and my personal dealings with them.”
Madison Square Garden issued a statement later Tuesday backing Thomas’ hiring.
“We did not believe the allegations then, and we don’t believe them now,” said the statement. “We feel strongly that the jury improperly and unfairly held Isiah Thomas responsible for sordid allegations that were completely unrelated to him, and for which MSG bore responsibility.
“In fact, when given the opportunity, the jury did not find Isiah liable for punitive damages, confirming he did not act maliciously or in bad faith. We believe Isiah belongs in basketball, and are grateful that he has committed his considerable talent to help the Liberty succeed.”
Over the WNBA offseason, Thomas oversaw the rehiring of former Pistons teammate Bill Laimbeer as coach and a blockbuster trade for Epiphanny Prince. Dolan called Thomas an “excellent judge of talent” in a statement Tuesday.
Laimbeer was excited to be reunited with Thomas and wasn’t concerned about those previous failures in New York.
“None at all. We are the Liberty and we are our own people,” Laimbeer said. “He has a tremendous basketball mind, and he’s made it very clear that we’ll be driving the bus. He’ll make some suggestions from time to time.”
A Hall of Fame, championship-winning point guard in Detroit, Thomas has failed to match that success in his post-playing career. He tried college coaching after leaving the Knicks but was fired by Florida International in 2012 after going 26-65 in three seasons.
While Thomas was with FIU, Dolan tried to hire him as a consultant in 2010, but that plan was scrapped because it violated NBA rules.
Thomas said he’s always been a fan of the WNBA since its inception 19 years ago.
“My love for the game is not gender-based,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed watching people play basketball, men or women, young or old. Whether it’s a high school game or a game in the park, I stop and watch.”
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