Commentary

Isiah, Knicks get the visitors' treatment in MSG return

Updated: November 17, 2008, 4:01 PM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- At precisely 7:02 p.m., Isiah Thomas walked out of the tunnel at Madison Square Garden and exchanged a few hand slaps with security guards as he made his way to the front of the scorer's table and then to the seats along the baseline, where he gladhanded the big shots sitting in the seats usually occupied by James Dolan.

For the most part, he was unnoticed. No one held any anti-Isiah signs, no one confronted him or screamed at him. In fact, no one much cared at all that Thomas was even there.

Why?

Isiah Thomas
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIKnicks coach Isiah Thomas was back in familiar surroundings.

You'd expect a different reaction from the Knicks season-ticket holders, especially the white ones, who Thomas is alleged to have said he didn't care about, and those folks may indeed want to be heard once they're back in the building.

On this night, however, none of those season-ticket holders were around. What's more, Knicks fans were outnumbered by Israeli fans by something like a 20-1 margin as New York posted a 112-85 victory over Maccabi Elite of Tel Aviv in the Knicks' home exhibition opener Thursday night.

As part of the planning for this game, the Knicks gave control over all 19,763 tickets to Maccabi, which sold them all and packed the house with their own supporters. The upshot was a crowd that booed the Knicks -- all of them, not just Thomas -- when they were introduced.

"I don't think any of us received a warm reaction tonight, but whatever reaction we get that happens to me or for me, I'm a big boy, and I've handled and conducted myself well, and I've been yelled at and screamed and booed at, and I know how to handle it. So I'll be fine," Thomas said.

Thomas won't face the season-ticket holders for another 11 days. That's when the Boston Celtics come into the Garden for an exhibition game that'll be played before actual Knicks fans, and even that game may not bring the type of truly measurable reaction to Thomas that we'll probably first see Nov. 4 when New York plays its home opener against Minnesota.

By then, it seems likely -- so long as NBA commissioner David Stern stays silent on the issue -- that the furor over the verdict in the sexual harassment case against Thomas will have lost some steam.

But Stern is the wild card in all this, and he sent signals from London on Wednesday night that he may indeed have something to say publicly about a case that has brought shame and ridicule down not only upon the Knicks, but on the league as a whole, too.

ESPN's European basketball correspondent extraordinaire Ian Whittell reported Stern's latest comments on the situation concerning Thomas and the Knicks, and it's clear Stern is starting to sing a different tune than the one his underlings were putting out more than a week ago when the verdict came in. Stern took particular umbrage with the way the story was played in the New York Times, which Stern felt used a misleading headline in the online version of a story last week.

"… What I said then was [punishment] it was still under consideration, that there were many issues having to do with understanding the transcripts, understanding what exactly the jury did and what role a further appeal should play in considering this. And further, I said that I wanted to discuss this with the [NBA] board of governors.

"The headline said 'Stern not taking any action,' but the article will be searched in vain to find me saying that," Stern said.

Fans
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIMaccabi Elite Tel Aviv fans took over Madison Square Garden for Thursday's game.

The three-week civil trial ended last week, with a jury finding that former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders endured crude insults and unwanted advances from Thomas and ordering the Knicks to pay her $11.6 million. The jury, though, determined that only MSG chairman Dolan should pay for harassing and firing Browne Sanders from her $260,000 a year job out of spite.

Activist Al Sharpton had threatened to picket Knicks game unless Thomas issued an apology for stating in his deposition that he has different standards for white men and black men referring to a woman as a "bitch," but Thomas appears to have defused that threat by speaking by phone with Sharpton last week and arguing that the deposition statement was misconstrued because of the way the deposition videotape was edited and spliced together.

So that was one hazard that Thomas managed to dodge, but steering clear of Stern's wrath could be a whole different ballgame.

"I've worked with the NBA and David Stern for 20 years, and personally and professionally he knows the type of person I am and the type of family I have, and I'm sure if anyone in this league understands me, he does," Thomas said. "We're in the process of appealing it, so we'll see what happens -- and I think he wants to wait and see what the final outcome of this is.

"I said it at the start, I said it at the end, and I'll continue to say it: I'm innocent, and the things that were alleged and I was accused of I never did, and hopefully we'll one day get the true story out," Thomas said.

In the meantime, we'll have to wait to see how the Knicks' fans let their true feelings be known. What we saw Thursday night was an example of how a strong European club with a rabid following can put nearly 20,000 fannies in the seats a half a world away from home.

There will eventually be a night when Thomas will be the focus, but this wasn't it. This was a night for the crowd at the Garden to focus on the team they came to see, and that team was Maccabi, not the Knicks.

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

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