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The New York Liberty’s Long Road Back

Last Updated: November 20, 2023
The New York Liberty reached the WNBA Finals for the first time in two decades in 2023. It was a season years in the making.

Losing in the WNBA Finals hurts. A lot.

Just ask New York Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb — the architect behind the superteam that came up just short of their ultimate goal, falling to the Las Vegas Aces in a four-game finals series in October.

“I don’t know of any way to replicate or duplicate the feeling that all of us collectively had after Game 4,” he told Boardroom, reflecting on a disappointing end to an otherwise remarkable season. “It’s a feeling that’s a combination of sorrow but immense motivation. We don’t want to feel that again.”

The 2023 Liberty set franchise records for total wins (32) and winning percentage (.800), then won their first WNBA Finals game since 1999. Still, the season ended with a loss, and that’s what players and fans remember.

This offseason presents an unfamiliar situation for Liberty fans. For most of the past half decade, the winter has been filled with trying to put the prior season in the rearview and figuring out how to assemble a team that can finally compete. Today, it’s about finding ways to improve on the margins, knowing the star power and championship quality is already there.

It’s a testament to how far the franchise has come in a short period of time.

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Superteam Dreams

It wasn’t long ago that the Liberty were in dire straits — not just as a team but as a franchise. They weren’t winning games, but every team goes through down years. More importantly, they had no home, no identity, and a dwindling fanbase that had to jump through hoops just to see the team play.

In November 2017, Madison Square Garden Company, which owned the team at the time, essentially evicted the Liberty from MSG, relegating them to Westchester as they looked to sell the franchise.

It was a change from the World’s Most Famous Arena — a 19,812-seat basketball mecca in the heart of Manhattan — to a 5,000-seat G-League gym miles from the team’s established fanbase.

The Liberty went 7-27 the next season and ranked dead-last in average attendance per game (2,822). That’s when Joseph and Clara Wu Tsai bought the team with plans to relocate them to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, home of the Brooklyn Nets, which the Tsais also own.

In the immediate, however, the team got worse before it got better. In 2019, even while the Liberty “improved” to 10-24, attendance dropped even more, down to 2,239 fans per game and only a little more than half what the Atlanta Dream — the next poorest drawing team — attracted per game.

That’s what Kolb came into when he took the general manager job in 2019, transitioning from a role in the league office.

By now, the story of the whiteboard has been well-told. Kolb had Courtney Vandersloot, Jonquel Jones, and Breanna Stewart‘s names displayed on one in his office for the past year. But in reality, the journey toward New York’s only current superteam began long before. Kolb and the Liberty brass may not have known the exact names that would bring the team to their first WNBA Finals appearance in two decades, but they had championship aspirations in mind, even in that tiny Westchester County gym.

“In talking with ownership, the visions really were there from day one [in] wanting this to be the premier organization in the WNBA,” Kolb said. “And we understood that it was going to take time and it was going to take a potential rebuild of a roster. But beyond that, it’s really going to take building the infrastructure. Moving the team to Brooklyn, building out staff, and really understanding what a premier organization looks like, not only from a player perspective but internally as well.”

It had to start from the inside, before the team could make a single player transaction. As Liberty CEO Keia Clarke put it, the franchise staff needed to mirror that roster and broader fanbase — both in terms of diversity and in numbers.

“Our front office was built with diversity in mind,” she said. “We had lots of women and women of color at almost every level of the organization. And I think that that was particularly important because it needed to reflect our team more so at that time and also our fan base and who we knew has always shown up for the New York Liberty.”

And then March 2020 happened.

While businesses shut down around the world and countless were laid off, Clarke said the Liberty actually staffed up. COVID-19 was a huge setback in the franchise’s physical location — they were set to move from Westchester County to Brooklyn that season, and instead diverted to the Bradenton Bubble. But in some ways, this ended up being a blessing in disguise.

The team was coming off a transformational offseason in which they dealt franchise cornerstone Tina Charles, acquired a host of draft picks, and took Oregon phenom Sabrina Ionescu with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. It turned a bubble season into a trial run for the existing roster and a one-stop shop scouting opportunity for the franchise.

Rather than laying off employees and making roster cuts before headed to Florida for the season, the Liberty hired at home and brought even more players than they could carry on their roster into the bubble. That included seven rookies, which Kolb says allowed the team to carry out a quick “training camp on steroids.”

The additional personnel also paid dividends down the road.

“It did allow for other players to play and for us to evaluate everybody,” Kolb said. “We got to see Betnijah Laney up close and personal. She was with Atlanta at the time, and we identified with our cap space that we really wanted to invest in [her] coming up in that free agency period.”

It’s easy to look at 2020 for the Liberty and call it a disaster. The team went 2-20, Ionesscu suffered a season-ending injury in her third game, and Rebecca Allen and AD Durr both opted out of the season due to health concerns. Two full seasons into the Tsais’ ownership and Kolb’s tenure as GM, the team was 12-44 and had yet to play a full slate at Barclays Center.

But they had laid the groundwork for a turnaround.


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The Turnaround

While the infrastructure for a finals team came into place before the pandemic, the actual roster building started with Ionescu, with some false starts along the way. New York used its first pick in 2021 on Michaela Onyenwere, who started 29 games as a rookie and was named WNBA Rookie of the Year. The Liberty eventually shipped her to Phoenix for draft picks. New York also signed Natasha Howard and got an All-Star season out of her in 2022.

Howard, Onyenwere, and Allen all became casualties of the 2022 offseason overhaul.

The 2022 Liberty were, ultimately, a below-average team, finishing the regular season 16-20 and barely sneaking into the playoffs as the 7 seed. Kolb’s task last winter was to figure out which pieces were worth keeping and which could be dealt in order to bring in Stewart, Jones, and Vandersloot.

In addition to the moves he made to acquire those three, the move he did not make is just as significant. While Kolb dealt away a few more-than-capable players, he brought back Laney.

She joined Ionescu and the big three acquisitions to form as daunting a starting lineup as there was in the league. When the Liberty faltered in their season opener against the Washington Mystics, it would have been easy to start questioning how well all the new pieces fit together. But Kolb did his research.

He knew that Ionesscu could thrive alongside another point guard because she played both on and off the ball at Oregon. Kolb also saw it first-hand when the Liberty signed point guard Crystal Dangerfield to a hardship contract last year. Bringing in Vandersloot wouldn’t be a problem — and Sloot was already friends with Stewart.

It might take some time for everyone to click, but some early stumbles did not lower the team’s ceiling.

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Creating a Destination

It’s not enough to just offer big contracts to the best players in the league. Not in the WNBA, which has a salary cap and a maximum player salary that are both too low. The Liberty needed to create a destination for its players.

That started as the organization was planning the move to Barclays Center. The arena gave the Liberty the old New York Islanders locker room and the franchise got to work. The overall philosophy was that anything the Brooklyn Nets had on-site, the Liberty would have as well. For that reason, they don’t even really call it a locker room — it’s a compound. That includes lockers, performances spaces, a weight room, front office space, and a hydro room.

It demonstrated investment and a commitment to player welfare at a time when many women’s basketball players have to put their body through a grueling year-round playing schedule.

Ownership needs to show up, as well. Clara Wu Tsai did just that last summer, flying to Turkey where Stewart was playing in the offseason to meet with her.

“Anytime that an owner, who has a million other things going, on is willing to fly across the world to meet with a player, I think that speaks volumes,” Kolb said. “I would say that Clara’s presence was incredibly helpful in reestablishing with Stewie, not only that relationship, but also where our philosophies lie in regards to trying to drive this league forward.”

Stewart, a longtime advocate for her fellow athletes, took notice. She made the chartered flight issue a key point in her free agency, hoping to align with an ownership group that shared her priorities. The WNBA, notably, fined the Liberty $500,000 last year for chartering a flight for its players against the league CBA.

As Clara Wu Tsai told Boardroom before the season:

“I think that the fine we took and the actions that we made pretty much spoke for themselves. And I’m a person that is about actions and not words. We had a lot of time, really, to talk about a lot of things. And hopefully, they understood that it really isn’t just this one issue, but it’s a number of things that we’re moving forward. And that’s what I was hoping to convey to [Stewart and Vandersloot] during this recruiting period.”

In the Community

So naturally, six months after Tsai’s words, Courtney Vandersloot walked down Atlantic Avenue before Game 3 of the WNBA Finals in Brooklyn. Her AirPods were in, her hands were in her pockets and her head was down. It was about three hours before tipoff — do or die for the Liberty — and their starting point guard was locked in.

Cheers of ‘Good luck today, Courtney!’ and ‘let’s go Sloot!’ followed her as she passed a crowd of Liberty fans already lined up outside Barclays Center, waiting for doors to open. Sloot looked up and smiled, but didn’t stop moving. She had a game to play.

She wasn’t the only one to hear cheers on her way to the arena. Head coach Sandy Brondello brought it up after the Liberty’s 87-73 win.

“Just walking from the apartments today, everyone — everyone — knew who we were and it was amazing,” she told reporters. “You can feel like a community is behind us and I think it’s really special for the city of New York and hopefully we can keep it going and keep building that momentum.”

That was not by accident. In fact, building a community around the team is something Clarke has worked tirelessly on in her role.

“How do people react when they have a player visit a school or they participate in a clinic?” she said. “Those are the things that were as important as us winning games, to be honest with you.”

In her position, Clarke plays a key role in community events and making sure the Liberty have a presence, not just in Brooklyn but around the five boroughs. While Kolb handles the roster and transactions, Clarke has her hands all over the New York Liberty as a business — sponsorships, activations, merchandise and more, all aimed on ultimately getting people in the door at Barclays Center or tuning in on TV.

Some of that comes through the events — clinics, special appearances, or even a partnership with Good Co. Bike Club for a Bike to Brunch event.

Do those partnerships actually result in broader reach?

Clarke has an example in her own household. When the Liberty partnered with XBOX last year on a Roblox-inspired court that the team played on in real life, XBOX also created a virtual version of it within Roblox.

“My son tells me it’s still in the game today,” Clarke said.

The New York Liberty x XBOX court (via XBOX)

Though her son isn’t necessarily the target — the partnership was aimed at young women gamers — it makes a difference.

“When we were meeting with the Xbox folks, they literally said, ‘we want a young girl in a country thousands of miles away from here who may never step foot in Barclay Center to see herself on the court,'” Clarke recalled. “We won’t know in the immediacy what that impact is going to have on someone from the next generation, how it could inspire.”

In addition, Liberty games brought in famous faces all season — from Jason Sudeikis to Aubrey Plaza, Mikhal Bridges to Issa Rae. Plus, the iconic moves of Ellie the Elephant and the Timeless Torches drew viral attention to Barclays. It all works together.

Kolb and the front office created an attractive product to bring fans to Barclays Center. Clarke and her team made sure New York could become a true home.

Now, all eyes shift to 2024. It’s not going to be easy for the Liberty to repeat their success of 2023 — or to finally win that elusive title. But the work has already started, and this time, the team isn’t starting from 0.

“We don’t feel far off,” Kolb said. “But make no mistake, it’s going to take a lot of effort from everybody collectively.”

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