NEW YORK – Days before the New York Liberty open their first training camp under Bill Laimbeer, the former NBA player said he was looking forward to getting the players on the court and vowed the team will be more fun to watch this year.
"Obviously, going to training camp isn't fun," Laimbeer told The Associated Press. "You got to work. I got a lot to put in. I'm going to do things a lot differently than they were (done) in the past. They got a lot to learn."
Laimbeer was hired as coach and general manager in October to turn around a team that struggled to post a .500 record the last two years under John Whisenant. New York followed a 19-win campaign in 2011 with 19 losses last season, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference both years and losing in the first round of the playoffs each time.
Enter Laimbeer, who returns to the WNBA after stepping down as coach and GM of the Detroit Shock early in the 2009 season to pursue opportunities in the NBA following a stretch in which they won three championships in six seasons.
"Last couple of years it's been like pulling teeth for this organization, both the fan base and some internally, watching the team play," he said. "I (coach) a fast, more up-tempo game. Defense is a given, we'll be attacking. Rebounding on this team was horrible. I've shored that up in many ways.
"I guess it's going to be fun to watch and figure we're going to win our fair share of games."
Laimbeer's hiring has energized the fan base of a franchise that reached the WNBA Finals four times in the league's first six years, but has not been back since losing to Los Angeles in its last appearance in 2002. Forgotten is the fierce rivalry Detroit and New York had over the years while meeting in the postseason three times. The Liberty won a first-round series in 2004, knocking out the then-defending champs on a buzzer-beater in the decisive Game 3, but then came up short in hard-fought three-game series in the first round in 2007 and the conference semifinals in 2008 during the Shock's run to their last title.
"That was then, this is now," Laimbeer said. "Whenever I go talk to people, the consistent theme is 'Oh I really hated you, but now we're really glad you're here.' The same thing when I was a player, after the fact. There's an animosity to some degree, but the respect factor is there as well."
Laimbeer has immediately put his stamp on the Liberty, signing free agents Katie Smith and Cheryl Ford and hiring assistant coaches Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Barbara Farris. He coached all four in Detroit, though McWilliams-Franklin (2010) and Farris (2006-07) also played for the Liberty.
And considering New York already had former Detroit players Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton on the roster the last couple of years — and trainer Laura Ramus since last season — there's an undeniable Shock flavor on the Liberty.
"I can't run from that," Laimbeer said. "Plenette and Kara, they were already here. ... I brought in the all-time leading scorer in women's basketball (Smith), no one can argue that, I don't care what team you call it, the Shock or whatever. She's here to teach young players how to be professional, how to compete at the highest level."
Ford, brought in for her rebounding prowess, had been out of the league since 2009 — the Shock's final year in Detroit before being sold and moved to Tulsa — though she has played in Europe the last three winters.
"You look at the team last year, the rebounding was awful," Laimbeer said. "You look around the world and who's the best rebounder you can pick up in the world? Oh, she's available too? Why wouldn't anybody go and get that if Cheryl Ford can play for that team? That happened she used to play for me and the Shock, OK. But that's the best rebounder in the world."
When training camp opens on Monday, the Liberty's core of returning players, led by Cappie Pondexter, Essence Carson, Pierson and Braxton and will joined by Smith, Ford and five rookies.
So, what should those who haven't previously played for Laimbeer expect?
"Word of mouth has already gotten around," he said. "They know what to expect from me in many ways. They know my personality, I'm fairly relentless. ... I don't browbeat them or beat them physically into the ground. But I do demand of them to use their brain. I don't like knuckleheads.
"We put a lot of stuff in offensively and defensively that's predicated on doing their assignments and I hold people accountable. All that matters is winning. I don't take things personally with the players ... I don't play favorites."
Laimbeer says his system is "very simple" to learn. Playing hard-nosed defense and rebounding is important as well as understanding their places in the offense.
"Not everybody can score 20 points, and so everybody has their roles and responsibilities," he said. "You can play your way into something better, or you can play your way out of something. You just have to execute."
Laimbeer said he followed the league in his time away, keeping up with players coming and going, and watching former assistant Cheryl Reeve's success leading the Minnesota Lynx — with a championship in 2011 and another Finals appearance last year.
The Liberty are entering their third and final season of playing home games at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., while Madison Square Garden undergoes the last phase of its three summers of renovations. They open the league's 17th season at Connecticut on May 25, and then host Tulsa in the home opener on May 31.
"I thought they might have set Cheryl and I up against each other in Minnesota," Laimbeer said when asked about facing the Shock in the opening week. "It is, I guess, ironic not the first game, but the first home game. ... I don't know if it was on purpose or not. You have to ask the league that."
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The New York Liberty soon open their first training camp under Bill Laimbeer, and the veteran coach promises that this team will be fun to watch.
Laimbeer was hired as coach and general manager in October, energizing a fan base hungry to win again. The Liberty reached the WNBA Finals four times in the league's first six years, but they have not been back since losing to Los Angeles in their last appearance in 2002.
New York struggled to a 34-34 record the last two seasons under coach John Whisenant.
Enter Laimbeer. He led the Detroit Shock to three titles in a six-year run, then left early in the 2009 season to pursue work in the NBA.