Thomas defiant in face of harassment claims

Updated: January 26, 2006, 8:37 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Isiah Thomas didn't wait for his day in court to start defending himself against a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Ignoring legal advice to keep quiet, the New York Knicks president spoke publicly Wednesday about the lawsuit brought against him by a recently fired team executive who said he engaged in "demeaning and repulsive behavior" that team executives refused to address.

Statement from Anucha Browne Sanders
"I am a business woman who has held executive positions in corporate America for nearly 20 years. Working in professional sports has been my dream since I was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn. Getting hired by the Knicks in 2000 and being promoted to senior vice president of marketing and business operations was one of the highlights of my life. It has also been a source of great pride for me that I consistently did an excellent job and received superior performance evaluations as well as praise and promotion for my work. I am extremely proud that I rose to be the second highest-ranking executive in the Knicks and one of the highest ranking African American women in professional sports.

Pursuing this complaint was a very painful decision because I knew it meant I would not only say farewell to my dream job -- but that I would probably never be able to work again in professional basketball. Filing this complaint would mean an end to my cherished career.

I took this action because I had no choice. My pleas and complaints about Mr. Thomas' illegal and offensive behavior fell on deaf ears. He refused to stop his demeaning and repulsive behavior and the Garden refused to intercede. I am outraged that I was fired for telling the truth and I am outraged that they have destroyed what was a stellar sports career.

No woman, regardless of the industry she works in, should have to endure this kind of abuse on the job. Everyone has the right to expect that they will not be sexually harassed no matter where they work or who they work for.

I was warned that Mr. Thomas and the Garden would launch a campaign to smear me and I was not surprised nor will I be at any false and viscious accusations that many spread about me and my family. This is all a diversion. In court, they will have no choice but to deal with the real issues of my complaint."

The suit was filed in federal court Tuesday by Anucha Browne Sanders, the Knicks' former senior vice president of marketing and business operations, and Thomas made clear what he thinks is the motive behind it.

"I will not allow her or anybody, man or woman, to use me as a pawn for their financial gain," he said.

Thomas said he was ignoring his lawyers' advice to stay mum.

"It is not their name, it's not their family, it's not their career and it's not their reputation that's being hurt," he said.

Browne Sanders was fired last Thursday. She said her problems with Thomas began soon after he was hired in 2003, and decided she finally had to act when she felt she was being ignored by her bosses at Madison Square Garden.

"My pleas and complaints about Mr. Thomas' illegal and offensive actions fell on deaf ears," she said Wednesday at a news conference at her lawyer's office. "He refused to stop his demeaning and repulsive behavior and the Garden refused to intercede."

Her supervisor, MSG Sports president Steve Mills, joined Thomas in thinking the suit was financially motivated.

"I am appalled by Anucha Browne Sanders' outrageous allegations," Mills said. "And I was stunned to learn that while she was still working for Madison Square Garden, she demanded $6.5 million to leave quietly."

Thomas and Madison Square Garden are listed as the defendants in the lawsuit, which charges them with sex discrimination and retaliation. Madison Square Garden said Browne Sanders was fired because she "failed to fulfill professional responsibilities."

"I was warned that Mr. Thomas and the Garden would launch a campaign to smear me, and I am not surprised, nor will I be, at any false and vicious accusations that they may spread about me and my family," Browne Sanders said. "This is all a diversion. In court, they will have no choice but to deal with the real issues of my complaint."

The 43-year-old former Northwestern basketball star, who described herself as the Knicks' second-highest ranking executive, is seeking reinstatement to her job and unspecified damages. She said she was fired last Thursday "for telling the truth" while going through internal channels to stop the harassment.

According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in a Manhattan federal court, Thomas refused to stop making unwanted sexual advances toward her, used offensive language and turned others in the organization against her.

Asked about the suggestion that she had demanded the money, one of her lawyers, Kevin Mintzer said: "How do you put a price on Ms. Browne Sanders' career? She was the second-highest individual in the Knicks organizations, and one of the most senior African-American women in all of professional sports. I don't know how you put a price on that."

When Browne Sanders sought legal counsel last November, MSG launched its own investigation but told her to not come to work for three weeks. She was fired last Thursday when MSG said her claims couldn't be substantiated.

"They weren't sincerely interested in finding out what happened, they just wanted to punish her," Mintzer said.

He said a settlement is always a possibility, but if none is reached, depositions will begin with the intent to go to trial.

Players were quick to support Thomas at a Wednesday morning shootaround.

"I know Isiah and I know he's an honorable man," Stephon Marbury said. "I know that he's a guy filled with a lot of character, so I think everyone here is on his side."

The lawsuit also alleges that Thomas told Browne Sanders he was pushing for more Sunday home games at noon so he could steer opposing players to clubs where he had connections on Saturday nights, hoping they would be sluggish the next day.

"These fabricated and outrageous charges come from an individual whom MSG fired because of an inability to fulfill professional responsibilities and who is now seeking a financial windfall," Madison Square Garden attorney Ron Green said in a statement.

The Knicks would not comment further.

"I've known him since I tried to recruit him in high school and he's a phenomenal human being," coach Larry Brown said of Thomas. "And the Knicks have always treated me well, so I guess I'll let it play itself out."

In court documents, Browne Sanders said Thomas often berated her and made crude comments about her to Knicks officials, telling them not to listen to any of her directions. Marbury also is accused of acting in a hostile way toward her as a result.

Browne Sanders said Thomas' behavior soon became sexually charged, saying he told her he was "very attracted" to her and "in love" with her and tried to kiss her. She charges that last month, he hugged and tried to kiss her, and when she pulled away, he said, "What, I can't get any love from you today?"

Browne Sanders graduated from Northwestern as the Big Ten's women's career scoring leader and was a two-time conference player of the year. She was the school's athlete of the decade for the 1980s.

According to the team's media guide, Browne Sanders is married with three children, and resides in New Jersey.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press