Commentary

Isiah court case's likely ending: Knicks cutting the check

Originally Published: September 9, 2007
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

A source close to the New York Knicks was saying last week that he expects the sexual harassment accusation against Isiah Thomas to go to trial. The source said that Madison Square Garden and its chief executive, James Dolan, were prepared to go to trial in an effort to be vindicated of the sexual harassment allegations made against Thomas by Anucha Browne Sanders, whose lawsuit against Thomas and Madison Square Garden is scheduled to go to trial Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. According to the source, the Garden believes this is "a shakedown" by Browne Sanders, and that Dolan was willing to risk a multimillion judgment purely on principle.

(He also said he expects Thomas, the Knicks president and coach, to be exonerated before the team reports to training camp in Charleston, S.C., in early October.)

But to expect a trial to go to completion doesn't seem realistic.

Why?

Let's look at recent history, and how the Knicks have made their problems go away.

A year ago, they had no use for Maurice Taylor and Jalen Rose, so they cut each of them a check and bid them farewell. Same for Larry Brown, too, although he had to take a settlement of less than 50 cents on the dollar to make sure he didn't walk away with nothing following his breach of contract hearing in the court of NBA commissioner David Stern.

Prior to that, it was Shandon Anderson. And before him, Scott Layden. And if we want to keep going back, we can point to Glen Rice and Luc Longley. All of them got buyouts, the Knicks' corporate honchos preferring to cut them a check rather than have them hang around and bring down morale.

History not only tells us Madison Square Garden makes its problems go away by cutting checks, it also tells us that the Garden will do almost anything to avoid bad publicity. This is an organization so paranoid about the media, it monitors each and every phone call Thomas makes, and every e-mail he sends, to make sure he is not in violation of the company's media policy.

Anytime Thomas speaks to reporters, a Garden public relations official is at his side. And any time a media member wants to have a conversation with a player in the locker room, a PR staffer is standing nearby, leaning in to eavesdrop on what is said.

The New York tabloids will go into a feeding frenzy if this thing goes forward and the Garden's dirty laundry is aired. Would Dolan put himself through that? After covering the guy and his team for more than a decade, I just don't see it.

With that history in mind (not to mention the fact that Stern wouldn't be too happy with several weeks of bad publicity for his league), I find it hard not to discount the aforementioned source's opinion that this case will play out in court.

So the prediction is this: By the end of this week, this thing will be settled, and Browne Sanders will walk away with a check, both sides sworn to secrecy on the settlement's details. There's too much history there, and too much underlying media paranoia, for it going any other way.

Only time will tell if that prognostication is correct. In the meantime, let's take a look at the key players in this drama:

Isiah Thomas: The lawsuit alleges Thomas engaged Browne Sanders in an unprofessional manner, from inappropriate touching to inappropriate language, when Browne Sanders was a marketing executive for the Knicks. Thomas has acknowledged touching Browne Sanders on the shoulder and perhaps trying to kiss her on the cheek, but insists that his behavior did not rise to the level of sexual harassment.

Anucha Browne Sanders: A former college basketball player at Northwestern, she rose through the ranks at IBM's sports marketing division before joining the Knicks in 2000 and rising to senior vice president of marketing and business operations. She was the organization's most high-profile female executive, and the 44-year-old claims she was fired in retaliation for her complaints about Thomas' "demeaning and repulsive" behavior.

James Dolan: Chairman of MSG's parent owner, Cablevision Systems Inc., he is the driving force behind the Garden's media paranoia, and he has been a lightning rod for criticism from Knicks fans fed up with the team's decline over the course of this decade.

Steve Mills: President and chief executive of the Garden, he is technically the highest-ranking executive in the organization -- ahead of even Thomas himself. Mills is one of the few people in the Garden's front office who has lasted from the end of the tenures of Dave Checketts and Layden and into the Thomas era. He spent 16 years in the NBA league office before joining the Knicks.

Stephon Marbury: The starting point guard for the Knicks, he reportedly admitted to having sexual relations with one of Browne Sanders' staffers outside a strip club during the time before Browne Sanders was fired. He also is alleged to have cursed at Browne Sanders, who also claims Thomas encouraged team dancers to flirt with referees.

Judge Gerard Lynch: The federal court judge who two months ago rejected the Knicks' efforts to have the lawsuit thrown out. He was appointed to the federal bench in 2000 by then-president Bill Clinton. He presided over the perjury trial of rapper Lil' Kim in 2005 and sentenced her to 366 days in jail.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.

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