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What can we learn from Tsais’ willingness to pay big fines to support players in both WNBA and NBA?

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

What can we learn from Joe and Clara Wu Tsai’s willingness to do battle with the WNBA over player amenities and the city over Kyrie Irving’s status? That he’s willing to challenge the status quo or that he is as big a supporter of player empowerment as there is among NBA and WNBA owners or that he’s very much into the details ... of everything? Probably all of the above.

All of that will be in play as the Nets make what has to be seen as a last-ditch effort to get Kyrie Irving back on the court at Barclays Center. Joe Tsai and Irving greeted each other warmly Sunday as Irving entered Barclays Center to chants of “Free Kyrie.”

As Jackie Powell explained in her story on the Liberty and the Tsais for The Next, Joe and Clara are all about the athletes who they have said they see as “partners,” whether men or women. While the Powell article is titled, “What the Liberty’s $500,000 fine means for the franchise,” it may as well have been tagged as what the fine means for the league.

To recap, Howard Megdal, Powell’s colleague, wrote last week about how the WNBA fined the Liberty, meaning the Tsais, $500,000, after it was determined that the team had quietly flown their players on charter jets rather than commercial ... and arranged for a weekend at a Napa Valley resort for some needed R&R in the midst of a losing streak. The fine was originally $1 million and there were even more draconian measures considered up to a dissolution of the franchise! As Megdal notes, Tsai is the leader of a group of new WNBA owners who see greater potential for the league ... if the old guard will invest in the product.

As Powell recounts, when the Nets owner bought the Liberty from James Dolan and MSG in January 2019, the team was decidedly not an attractive place, literally and figuratively, despite its legacy in the league.

Four years ago, the Liberty didn’t have enough space to get dressed and shower without feeling cramped. The Westchester County Center is usually used by high schoolers. Four years ago, the Liberty weren’t known to take pride in or have any sort of player development infrastructure. Bill Laimbeer wasn’t particularly known for developing players and at one point Katie Smith only had one coach on her bench alongside her in Herb Williams and then former Director of Player and Franchise development Teresa Weatherspoon. (Smith’s other assistant, Charmin Smith, had accepted a head coaching job at Cal-Berkeley and a replacement wasn’t named. The WNBA had yet to implement its rule that allows three assistants as long as there is one coach who is a former player. )

And now?

Four years later, New York has landed four top players in free agency. Four years later, the Liberty have a brand new state-of-the-art locker room that’s spacious enough for players to make TikToks. Four years later, the Liberty have begun to develop young players and aim to have resources in place that will allow their veterans to also improve. Remember: DiDi Richards shot one three in her entire college career and then made 10 in her first professional season.

The players are universally and publicly appreciative, as their comments following the publication of Megdal’s article showed. Here’s two as noted by Powell.

Stefanie Dolson, the Liberty’s big off-season signing, said it was the franchise’s treatment of players that helped drive her from the WNBA Champion Chicago Sky to New York.

“The entire franchise, you can tell they just really care about their players,” Dolson said. “They care about the level of basketball they put out on the floor, which we can produce the best when we’re not really worried about the other stuff, like where are we going to practice, how are we traveling, what’s the schedule, just all that other stuff. When we can focus on just basketball, we can put out the best product.”

Sandy Brondello, the Liberty’s new head coach and a WNBA champion, said her decision to join the Libs had to do with joining “quite possibly the best organization in the WNBA.” On Wednesday, for example, the team upgraded its performance team, adding among others Emily Zaler who had worked with the Denver Broncos of the NFL as an assistant coach for player performance.

Indeed in the past, Liberty players have called Joe and Clara Wu Tsai the “best owners” in the NBA, a sentiment often expressed by Nets staffers and players as well.

At the core of the Tsais’ (and make no mistake, it is both of them) actions and beliefs is their commitment to player empowerment, not always a popular position among owners. Joe Tsai has said more than once that the league and players are 50/50 partners.

Joe Tsai has also been willing to change his positions. He’s dumped two Liberty head coaches and two CEO’s of his Brooklyn holding company, BSE Global, since he first bought the two franchises. In the case of Irving, he first tried to get Irving in compliance with the city’s mandate policies, then when he failed after a plea at a reception during the Nets training camp, he and Sean Marks decided to banish Irving until and unless he got vaccinated. Finally, after COVID devastated the roster — and reportedly with some prodding from Durant — Tsai relented and brought Irving back part-time and has been trying to get the city to change the last remaining mandate to get his superstar back on the court.

While he’s said he “respects” Irving’s position, he’s made it clear he disagrees strongly with it. In both an interview with NetsDaily and at a Yale seminar on digitalization of sports, Tsai let it be known where he stood and presumably stands on vaccines.

“The NBA itself cannot mandate every player, everybody get vaccinated,” he told an audience the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, his alma mater, back in October. “And that’s because it’s an issue that needs to be collectively bargained with the players’ association. The players association has decided they don’t want to require that everybody get vaccinated. I hope they get there at some point,” he continued.

After discussing how the New York rules are complicated and unfair because out-of-town unvaccinated players could still play at Barclays, he noted that in general, he supports mandates and the vaccine.

“Look, we are living through extraordinary times,” he said. “The rules are never going to be fair to everybody. But the good thing is that the governments have figured out rules and compromises that will protect most of the people and personally I happen to believe in the vaccine because I know it works. I have taken two kinds of vaccine. When I was in China, I took Sinovac which is the Chinese manufactured vaccine. Two doses there. Then, when I got to the US, in June, I took the Pfizer, two doses again. I got four shots in my now. And everywhere I go, I feel very, very safe. So get vaccinated. It works!”

But despite his personal feelings and a corporate commitment that has included setting up COVID testing and vaccination sites in around Barclays Center and sponsorship, along with Pfizer and Biontech, of the famous (and ubiquitous) Bruce Brown vaccine commercial, Tsai has decided to fight for Irving. Irving has not made it easy. He has twice said his decision not to to get vaccinated is due to his opposition to mandates that the city — and Joe Tsai — believe have helped tame a disease that has killed 66,000 New Yorkers. That makes it more a political decision on his part. Not to mention that he is among the one percent of players who’ve worn the NBA uniform this season but will not take the shot.

Joe Tsai in his willingness to at least discuss Irving’s situation with City Hall on a regular basis (as John Abbamondi, his current CEO, said a week and a half ago and has Woj reported before the Knicks game) and in his warm welcome back to Irving and his family Sunday has shown ample and evident support for what may very well be a quixotic quest.

In the case of the WNBA, the Tsais have proven to be iconoclast, impatient. If a league is going to be so cheap that it can’t or won’t permit players a simple amenity most pro league players take for granted, they’re going to get it done whatever it takes ... including a big fine. (The WNBA has also ostracized the Liberty, forcing Oliver Weisberg, the Tsais’ top executive, off the league executive committee.)

Of course, getting 12 owners of medium-sized businesses, the WNBA franchises, and the league commissioner to change things is a lot easier than getting the city and its mayor to give Irving an opportunity to play. Let’s just say Eric Adams has a lot more equities to balance than Cathy Engelbert or even Adam Silver.

And events of the past several days show just how difficult it will be. Kevin Durant first criticized Mayor Adams, then walked it back. Adams pointedly told the media on Wednesday morning that he would make decisions on how the mandate effects one player but rather the nearly nine million people who live in the city.

And of course, the Nets were fined $50,000 by the NBA for permitting Irving in the team locker room at halftime Sunday when the Knicks were at Barclays. The fine wasn’t just for violating the league’s health and safety protocols but the city’s mandate law. It doesn’t appear that either Tsai was in on the decision permitting Irving to join his teammates, but they will wind up paying the fine just as they did with the WNBA.

The Tsais motives are more than altruistic, of course. Providing amenities to players as well as support is smart business in the NBA and WNBA. The couple has made both the Liberty and Nets attractive landing spots for the best basketball players of either gender. And of course will add to the franchise’s intrinsic value.

He is a businessman, a billionaire and one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. She’s a philanthropic investor and social justice activist. They’re about results and details and winning.

“We’re trying to be practical. And I’ve always said I don’t want to make this a political issue. My only religion is to win games and win the championship,” he told Brian Lewis when he agreed to have Irving return part-time back in late December.

Finally, just as we knew little to nothing about the Tsais’ issues with the WNBA until the Megdal article, we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes among representatives of the city, the Nets and no doubt the NBA. The window of course is closing, with only a month and 13 regular season games left. Frustration has definitely set in. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.

There doesn’t appear to be any change forthcoming in the WNBA’s travel rules either. Megdal reported that Joe Tsai had talked to the league about an arrangement where the league would do an endorsement deal with an airline in return for charter travel. Engelbert publicly denied there was anything firm presented.

One thing we do know is that Joe and Clara Wu Tsai are willing to take chances, pay out big bucks to ensure his players get what they need, whether its relief from the tyranny of WNBA’s air travel rules or a change in a major city’s policy on COVID-19 mandates. Neither the old guard of the WNBA nor City Hall appear ready to do reward him. But his players appreciate it.

As Irving said after his 60-point performance. talking about the $50,000 fine for his locker room foray, “ “It was a little awkwardness [but] The organization has my back.”

Whatever you think of the unvaccinated Irving, his endorsement of the “organization” aka the Tsais, is the sort of thing that rings true with players in both leagues. It’s good business, too.