Commentary

With court defeat looming, what's next for Isiah and the Knicks?

Originally Published: October 1, 2007
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Isiah Thomas' jaw was clenched tight as he stared at the blank expressions of the seven jurors who had paraded single-file past him, not one of them returning his gaze.

The jury appeared nearly finished finding in favor of plaintiff Anucha Browne Sanders in her sexual harassment suit against Thomas and Madison Square Garden. The note that the jury sent to the judge shortly after 4:30 p.m. said it had reached unanimous verdicts on eight of the nine questions on the verdict sheet.
Isiah Thomas
AP Photo/Louis LanzanoIsiah Thomas left court on Monday with a ruling nearly at hand.

The members of the jury remained divided 6-1 on Question No. 4, which deals with whether Thomas will be held personally liable for punitive damages. And since the verdict form instructed the jury to skip Question No. 4 unless it had found in favor of the plaintiff, it was apparent the New York Knicks were headed for a defeat.

A short time later Thomas tried to summon a smile as he left the front doors of the courthouse and endured the paparazzi treatment for his 100-foot walk to a waiting limo, but the effort seemed half-hearted. The pack of photographers got right up in his face, one of them exiting quite pleased with himself after he had yelled, "C'mon buddy! Look right at me! Right at me!" and had gotten his desired reaction.

There remains just one question for the jury to finalize before this trial moves into the penalty phase, with the jury deciding on punitive damages and the judge ruling on compensatory damages. Meanwhile, Thomas was expected to return to the courtroom Tuesday morning rather than fly to Charleston, S.C. for the start of the Knicks' training camp.

As Monday's jury deliberations brought us to the brink of a verdict, it became apparent that the case will give us plenty to sort out. So let's get to a Q & A to tackle a few of the issues in play here and look ahead to what's going to happen in the days and weeks ahead:

Q: Will Isiah Thomas get fired because of this?

A: The jury has indicated it believes Thomas committed sexual harassment, and his employer could have to pay as much as $10 million to solve a problem Thomas helped create. Given such a finding, if we were dealing with a typical workplace, then yes, of course, he'd be fired.

But Madison Square Garden is not a typical workplace, and Knicks boss James Dolan is not your typical boss. By all accounts, Dolan remains to this day, despite Thomas' track record as team president and coach, enamored of Thomas. More important, Dolan remains convinced, in his own mind, that he made the right decision by hiring Thomas, and to jettison him now would be admitting a mistake. Dolan is quite averse to doing that, as we learned again by watching him allow this case to go to trial when it could have been settled, sparing lots of people, not least among them NBA commissioner David Stern, the shame and humiliation it brought upon them.

Assuming he stays in the job for the time being, Thomas isn't going to be able to rely so readily on his charm as he has so often in the past, and fans are going to start viewing him more as an extension of Dolan than they have in the past.

So Thomas could be an easy fall guy, especially if the Knicks come out of the gate slowly this season.

Q: So, what does Thomas do? Walk away, go back to coaching the team and hope this all blows over?

A: Well, yes, probably so. That's the best he can do.

But there will be lingering resentment among both fans and sponsors, especially over testimony that alleged Thomas had made derogatory remarks about "white" season-ticket holders and had different standards for what is inappropriate for a black man and a white man to say to a black woman. Thomas denied making those remarks, but the jury appears to have not believed him.

Q: Will the NBA even allow Thomas to coach the Knicks? And will Stern come down hard on Dolan?

A: That's really a huge gray area right now, and that'll be one of the biggest questions after the jury issues its verdict.

There is plenty of precedent for Stern punishing players in criminal cases and for on-court discipline issues (just ask Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson or Latrell Sprewell), but it's a whole different ballgame when it comes to owners (with the notable exception of Mark Cuban, who is held to somewhat of a different standard based upon his history of butting heads with Stern).

And since this is not a criminal case but a civil case, which comes with a lower burden of proof, Stern might have an out if he wants one. But it's hard to imagine him biting his tongue on this one after the damage it did not just to the Knicks, but to the league as a whole, and especially since it happened right in Stern's backyard (go ask Carmelo Anthony if he thinks that factor will make a difference).

At the very least, a public reprimand seems something we should expect out of Stern, whose tolerance for the further tarnishing of one of the league's charter franchises has to be nearing the breaking point.

Q: Will Dolan be considered such a pariah now that the other NBA owners will want him to sell the Knicks?

A: Actually, the other owners love Dolan. Why? Because Dolan goes so far over the luxury tax year after year (in part because of the moves Thomas has made), and teams that stay below the luxury tax threshold get a share of those taxes, which in the past several years has meant a check between $1 and $2 million each year. Those other owners don't want that free money to dry up, so many of them will want to keep Dolan around.

Q: And what of Stephon Marbury, who also helped create the Knicks' hostile work environment -- at least in the eyes of the plaintiff -- by having sex with one of the club's interns outside a strip club? What is the fallout for him?

A: He is not one of the defendants, so Marbury need only worry about the damage this episode did to his reputation -- and to his household.

But Marbury did bring a flash of enlightenment to the table Monday at the Knicks' media day, at least partly explaining his summer of bizarre behavior by revealing he has undergone a religious awakening.

"What was the highlight of my summer? When I gave myself to Jesus Christ. The day it happened was June 29," Marbury said. "What happened to me was I was able to see myself outside of myself. I was able to look in the mirror and really see myself. I saw the person who I wanted to be, and who I was looking at."

Q: What does Thomas have to say about all of this?

A: We'll have to wait and see on that one. He didn't say a word publicly as he left court, and he'll probably have little to say beyond a prepared statement once the jury issues its verdict.

It appears that when Thomas does speak, it will be as a man whose reputation has been knocked down another notch. How he feels about that seemed clear as he shuffled out of court a beaten man on Monday.

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

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