Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas Takes Center Court
Thursday, September 27, 2007
NEW YORK, Sept. 26 -- With Zen-like serenity and a choirboy's smile, former basketball star and current New York Knicks coach and President Isiah Thomas took the stand Wednesday in a sexual harassment suit filed by a former employee, giving him the chance to share a few thoughts on some choice words. For instance: "I don't think it's appropriate for any man -- black, white, green or purple -- to call a woman a bitch."
As for the blunt four-letter verb often used for sexual congress, by all means, that's in his vocabulary, he testified. But the 46-year-old Thomas said he never swears at employees, and he certainly never swore at Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks' onetime senior vice president for marketing, who filed a $9.6 million suit against Thomas and was fired last year by the team's owner. She has alleged that, in addition to hurling these vulgarities her way, Thomas made unwanted advances, including a profession of love and an invitation to "go off-site." She seeks reinstatement to her job, which paid as much as $260,000 annually.
This is the third week of the civil trial, which has been so bleeping full of bleep words, not to mention tawdry behavior -- including that tired old chestnut of corporate misdeeds, sex with an intern -- that the transcript ought to come with a parental warning sticker. For the NBA, which is still coping with the scandal of a referee who bet on games, the timing is lousy. Commissioner David Stern has diplomatically refused to comment, but with the case producing tabloid headlines such as "Oh, Those Slithery Snakes in the Garden," it's surely adding to his agita.
There's no telling if Thomas, whose record as head coach borders on wretched, is going to lose here, too. The plaintiff, a 44-year-old former college hoops star and mother of three, and her lawyers have presented a case that will never make the Sports Star Lechery Hall of Fame. Thomas is accused of describing Browne Sanders as "easy on the eyes," and even that he denies. He's also supposed to have given Browne Sanders a public post-game hug in 2005; when she recoiled, he asked, "No love today?"
Whether a line like that is predatory or friendly hinges on issues of context and atmosphere. But no matter what the verdict, for a work environment you certainly wouldn't wish the Knicks' front office on anyone, especially a woman. It's a place where the team's putative star, the not-all-that Stephon Marbury, appears to exert so much control that he could get away with announcing that he so despised Browne Sanders that he would never speak to her again.
Given that her job was selling the team, that was inconvenient, to say the least.
You get the sense from testimony and depositions that Marbury had the run of the place. On the stand last week, he described a 45-minute tryst with a then-22-year-old intern, whom he seduced in the parking lot of a strip club with what is surely one of the most succinct invitations in the history of sex: "Are you going to get in the truck?" He also persuaded the team to put his no-goodnik cousin Hassan Gonsalves on the payroll, where he stayed until he was fired for forging a supervisor's signature and sexually harassing an employee.
Then there's the team's owner, James Dolan, an irascible multimillionaire who is also in charge of Cablevision, Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers. His name was added to the lawsuit as a defendant, because he allegedly terminated Browne Sanders in retaliation. If nothing else, the trial has revealed that the man seems to have an odd sense of what constitutes a firing offense. He's kept Thomas around as coach, despite the Knicks' record, which includes failing to make the playoffs three years running. On the other hand, Dolan fired Browne Sanders, without bothering to consult with lawyers, after he'd concluded that she was interfering with the investigation into her allegations of sexual harassment.
"I felt that the overall health of the Garden was at jeopardy here, and that would override an opinion on counsel," he said in a videotaped deposition played at the trial.
He had no choice! She was dangerous!
Meanwhile, ticket buyers this past season were chanting "Fire Isiah! Fire Isiah!" during many of the team's woeful performances.
Why didn't Dolan just settle out of court and spare himself and the team a trial, even if he thinks his side is innocent? Nobody knows. But if he loses, the damages might reach beyond the courthouse. Under a code of conduct enacted last year, owners and executives can be punished by Commissioner Stern for behavior that harms the league. This certainly might qualify.
Stern will "be outraged if we end up with a finding of sexual harassment," says Michael McCann, a sports law professor at Mississippi College School of Law. "He's been trying in recent years to regulate the maturity level of the league -- with a dress code, with an age eligibility requirement for the draft -- and maybe that maturity level will have to extend beyond the locker room."
On the stand Wednesday, Thomas was poised and believable. He backtracked from a potentially disastrous comment he had made in a videotaped deposition, played early in the trial, in which he claimed it wasn't as bad for a black guy to call a black woman a "bitch" as it was for a white guy to do the same. He also testified that Marbury didn't curse when he declared that he'd never deal with Browne Sanders again, an assertion that drew snickers from the pews.
True or not, Thomas is a charmer. But the testimony that has piled up over the past three weeks has convinced many New Yorkers that he presides over an operation that charm alone won't save. For beleaguered fans of the Knicks, who have been watching their team flail on the court for years, this trial has offered a peek into the executive suite -- and the view there isn't much better.