- Associated Press - Saturday, December 18, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Two months after taking over as coach and general manager of the New York Liberty, John Whisenant is slowly settling into his new job.

With the WNBA draft and start of training camp still months away, Whisenant has plenty of time to acclimate himself to the franchise and city.

The former coach and GM of the Sacramento Monarchs lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and has made several trips to New York, spending four or five days at a time here.

“I’m happy to get my feet on the ground and get to know all the people in the Madison Square Garden operation,” Whisenant said while watching a recent New York Knicks game at the Garden. “I’m getting to where I recognize (some people).”

Though a newcomer to the Liberty, Whisenant has some familiarity with the New York area. He made many recruiting trips to the vicinity during 30 years of coaching, including four seasons as a head coach at Arizona Western and seven as an assistant at New Mexico.

He also spent a lot of time in the city when he and his wife would visit their son, who was doing a medical residency in Brooklyn.

“We learned to get our way uptown on the subway, how to wave a taxi down,” Whisenant said. “I’m not a native New Yorker, but I’ve been here.”

Whisenant served as GM of the Sacramento Monarchs for seven years and was coach from 2004-06 and parts of the ‘03 and ‘09 seasons. He led the Monarchs to the championship in 2005, when he was selected the league’s coach of the year.

Out of a job since last November when the Monarchs folded, Whisenant was interested in the Liberty when he heard last spring former coach Anne Donovan was going to step down after the 2010 season to take over the women’s team at Seton Hall.

“This is the best basketball job in women’s basketball,” said Whisenant, 85-54 as a coach during the regular season. “New York City is the foundation of American basketball. That’s why I wanted to come here. This is where the NIT started.”

Then, the GM job opened up when Carol Blazejowski stepped down on Sept. 20. Blazejowski had been in charge of the Liberty since the league’s inception in 1997. The opportunity to hold both titles just added to the appeal.

“I wouldn’t have to be GM, but if I weren’t I’d have to have a major influence on the personnel,” Whisenant said. “What works for me, not everyone can see. You have to put your pieces together and I want to be able to select those pieces as close as I can.”

Whisenant is one of six coaches in the 12-team league to hold dual titles, joining Marynell Meadors (Atlanta), Trudi Lacey (Washington), Pokey Chatman (Chicago), Nolan Richardson (Tulsa) and Brian Agler (Seattle). Lacey and Chatman were also hired this offseason.

As one of his first moves, Whisenant filled out his coaching staff by hiring Monique Ambers and Lady Grooms as assistants. Both have ties to Whisenant and the Monarchs _ Ambers was an assistant with Sacramento from 2002-09 and Grooms played there from 1998-04.

The Liberty also hired Jill Culbertson as the assistant general manager. Culbertson spent nine years with the Monarchs, including the franchise’s last two as the manager of basketball operations.

On the court, Whisenant has inherited a strong Liberty team that reached the Eastern Conference finals after finishing with a franchise-record 22 wins. New York’s success came on the heels of a roster overhaul, led by the acquisition of Cappie Pondexter, that followed a 21-loss season _ the team’s second-worst _ in 2009.

With a coaching vacancy in New York looming, Whisenant watched all the Liberty’s broadcasts on the WNBA’s website last season.

“They did a good job recovering from a difficult start,” he said, referring to the team’s 7-9 record at the All-Star break and 15-3 mark in the second half of the season. “I’d like to avoid starting like that.”

Whisenant may have a better chance to do that next season as the league is planning a delayed start that will enable teams to have all players back from overseas teams by the start of training camp. Last season, many players around the league _ including Pondexter and Liberty teammate and former Monarchs star Nicole Powell _ didn’t join their teams until sometime during the final week of the preseason.

“It’s hard when you’re a new coach, a new system and you don’t have very much practice time,” Whisenant said. “And you have to put it in on the run in a very short season.”

Along with learning a new system, the Liberty will also have to adjust to playing home games in a different arena: the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. _ home to the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. New York will play away from the Garden the next three seasons while the arena undergoes renovations during the summers.

“It’s a beautiful arena over there,” Whisenant said. “Nothing has the history of Madison Square Garden, so you’re not going to replace that, but what really makes an arena good is the crowd that’s in it.”

Whisenant acknowledged the team may lose some of its regular fans who won’t make the approximately 15-minute train ride from Penn Station _ below the Garden _ to Newark, but expects to compensate by adding new fans in New Jersey.

“We’ll still have a great atmosphere,” he said.

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