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Liberty give Laimbeer another shot

There are certain sports franchises -- and players and coaches, for that matter -- who do weird things that at first make you say, "You're kidding. Seriously, they did that?" But then you say, "Oh, wait a minute. This is (fill in the name) that we're talking about."

The New York Liberty are such a franchise. But the re-hiring of Bill Laimbeer as coach less than three months after he was fired by the organization is head-scratching even by Liberty standards.

Oh, wait a minute. Not really. This is the Liberty we're talking about.

Let me make haste to say, though, I actually don't think this is a bad decision at all. It's correcting a bad decision, which was firing Laimbeer back in October without a really strong idea of whom the franchise could get to replace him.

From what I gather from sources around the league, Madison Square Garden Company chair James Dolan had some candidates in mind. But they didn't work out. Now with the Knicks being the primo disaster of this NBA season, Dolan probably just wanted to get the Liberty job filled. And ultimately decided to go back to Laimbeer.

Who, apparently, wasn't exactly stunned to get the call to return. Laimbeer was spending the winter fishing and playing golf. And while he wasn't expecting to coach again in the WNBA this summer, he's glad to be doing it.

"My passion is still there for the New York team," Laimbeer said Thursday. "I'd like to accomplish more for this franchise."

The Liberty were 11-23 and then 15-19 in Laimbeer's two seasons, missing the playoffs both years. But Thursday, he repeated something he had also told me back in October when he was let go: That while he didn't always enjoy his first season with the Liberty, this past season he really did like the job and working with the team. (Having a world-class center such as Tina Charles, whom the Liberty got in a trade before the 2014 season, undoubtedly helps in that regard.)

Laimbeer also said something else in October that seems pertinent to the Liberty's reversal in course this week. He talked about the difference in working for the Detroit Shock, where he answered primarily to one person, then-owner Tom Wilson. As compared to working for a public corporation like MSG.

"They've got a lot of moving pieces," Laimbeer said in October about MSG.

Indeed, they do. But from the Liberty's inception in 1997 to 2010, Carol Blazejowski was the team's general manager and front-office point person for the franchise. And while she took her share of barbs (including from me), at least you always knew whose hands were on the Liberty's steering wheel.

"I will be leading the charge from a basketball operations end. And Bill will have significant input on what we do moving forward." Kristin Bernert, senior vice president of business operations for the Liberty

Since Blaze's departure, who has really been involved in big decisions for the Liberty has been murkier. When Laimbeer was fired, the Liberty announced it in a news release with a quote from Knicks general manager Allan Houston. It was the standard, "We wish Bill well, and now we'll look for someone else," kind of quote that doesn't say anything. No one with the organization wanted to talk specifically then about what the Liberty were looking for in a new coach.

Fast-forward to Thursday's announcement, when a different front-office person was quoted -- someone who actually knows a whole lot about the WNBA. That was Kristin Bernert, senior vice president of business operations for the Liberty.

Bernert has been around the WNBA for a long time and truly cares about the league. In fact, she worked with the Shock when they were still in Detroit and Laimbeer was coaching there. She also worked in the league office as vice president of business development and spent a couple of years as team president of the Los Angeles Sparks.

So it's not surprising that when it came time for someone to be the good soldier and talk to the media about how this wasn't really embarrassing or bizarre (cough, cough) for the Liberty to hire the guy they just fired, Bernert was the one to do it.

"When we had to make a decision on Bill's option, we weren't ready to make it yet," Bernert said of the contract option that the club needed to exercise by Oct. 31. "But once we had a full evaluation on where we were and where we wanted to go, it was very clear that Bill was the right person to lead us as our head coach."

Now, this explanation doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny. The WNBA's regular season ended in mid-August last year, so MSG had all kinds of time before that deadline to evaluate the Liberty and how they felt Laimbeer had done in his two years.

Clearly, upper management (above Bernert) was ready to part with Laimbeer ... until realizing three months later that the Liberty actually were not going to get someone who was not only clearly better for the job than he was, but also wanted to take it.

I asked Bernert -- whom I get the sense probably was more in favor of sticking with Laimbeer back in October -- if it there was any reticence to return to him now simply because of how it might be perceived publicly. (As in people saying, "OMG ... the Liberty just did what?")

"What people think, we can't control," Berner said. "As long as you're making the right decision for the right reasons, you shouldn't worry about it."

I think that's the best way to answer that question. Yes, folks are going to think it's goofy (at best) for the Liberty/MSG to have let this play out the way it did. But it would have been much worse to hire someone who might not have been very good for the organization just to avoid returning to Laimbeer, who has won three titles in this league.

So here we are, back to him as New York's coach. However, he doesn't have the general manager title that he previously had. Will Bernert serve as general manger?

"I'll be in that role, but not necessarily as 'general manager,'" Bernert said. "But I will be leading the charge from a basketball operations end. And Bill will have significant input on what we do moving forward."

So, job titles aside, maybe things won't be that much different for Laimbeer and the Liberty, reunited again. What they hope, though, is that the results improve, and keep on getting better.