Idiot's Guide to the Isiah Trial
My days of chronicling sleazy sports-related trials peaked six years ago, when I won the Pulitzer Prize for my "Idiot's Guide to the Gold Club Trial" column. That one will never be topped. We had a villain named "Ziggy." We had a woman described as the "Michael Jordan of strippers." We had a group of strippers kick-start a champagne-room orgy with the '97 Knicks by screaming, "There are no rules tonight!" We had guest appearances from Dennis Rodman, Madonna, Stephen Baldwin and the King of Sweden. Best of all, we had Patrick Ewing giving thousands of high school seniors their yearbook quote by saying, "The girls danced, started fondling me, I got aroused, they performed oral sex, I hung around a little bit and talked to them, then I left."
AP Photo/Edouard H.R. Gluck
Isiah Thomas' video deposition provided plenty of tabloid fodder in New York.
Q: What happened? Why is there a trial?
A: In January 2006, Browne Sanders was fired by the Knicks from her position as vice president of marketing. Her $10 million lawsuit claims she was unfairly dismissed after hiring a lawyer to pursue a sexual harassment suit against Thomas, who allegedly made unwanted advances and repeatedly addressed her in vulgar tones. Her attorneys set out to prove MSG, which owns the Knicks, allowed these incidents to happen and keep happening because of a "frat-boy mentality" in its offices (as explained in this New York Daily News feature Sunday).
Meanwhile, the Knicks claim Browne Sanders was fired for four reasons: For sneaking around the office trying to get subordinates to back up her claims against Thomas; for repeatedly struggling to handle her marketing budget and comprehend profit/loss statements; for demanding $6 million to stay quiet about her allegations against Thomas; and for making the moronic Steve Francis and Jalen Rose trades and foolishly signing Jared Jeffries and Jerome James.
(Wait, that last part's wrong -- I got my "struggling Knicks employees who can't handle a budget" mixed up. But the other three parts were true.)
AP Photo/Edouard H.R. Gluck
Anucha Browne Sanders says she was unfairly dismissed after hiring a lawyer to pursue a sexual harassment suit.
A: That's a great question. I'm glad I asked it. For an accuser in a sports-related sexual harassment trial, Browne Sanders has strong credentials: She's a former college basketball star at Northwestern, a married mother of three children and one of the few notable African-American female executives in professional sports. Even if her allegations were proven to be false, the last thing the Knicks needed was a potentially damaging and embarrassing trial, especially when they could have settled with Browne Sanders for half the money it cost to buy out Rose.
Of course, when James Dolan is involved, all semblance of logic has to be thrown out the window. (If they ever build The Incompetent Legacy Kid Hall of Fame, he'll get in on the first ballot.) Other than stubbornly refusing to settle with Browne Sanders, Dolan's biggest mistake was the way he allegedly reacted with the actual firing: Once MSG's VP for human resources, Rusty McCormack, told Dolan over the telephone that Browne Sanders was impeding his investigation, Dolan flipped out during a helicopter trip and terminated her contract almost immediately -- without getting advice from MSG's legal counsel first. As Jimmy explained in his video deposition, "All decisions at the Garden, I make on my own," and "I specifically did not consult with counsel. I felt that the overall health of the Garden was in jeopardy here, and that would overrule any opinion of counsel."
(Yeah, why would you want to consult with your legal team before firing a high-ranking African-American female executive who's claiming that your high-profile GM sexually harassed her? What a waste of time! By the way, I'm calling Dolan "Jimmy" for the rest of this column on the off-chance he ends up reading it. He just seems like the kind of guy who would get upset when someone calls him "Jimmy" instead of "James.")
Q: Holdonholdonholdon ... there's a Jimmy Dolan video deposition???
AP Photo/Edouard H.R. Gluck
James Dolan testified that Anucha Browne Sanders was fired for her actions on the job.
(Follow-up note: In Dolan's court appearance Tuesday, he reiterated that Browne Sanders was terminated because she tried to prod subordinates into backing her harassment claims; because she had the gall to demand $6 million to drop the charges; and because she kept failing at her job. That last claim led to the highlight of the testimony -- Browne Sanders' lawyer sarcastically asking Dolan if he believed Thomas had done "quite a good job," followed by Dolan's hesitating for several seconds before finally responding, "Yes." You can see the complete exchange on The Perjury Channel tonight at 8.)
Q: So if there's a Dolan video deposition, is there an Isiah video as well?
A: You betcha! (Watch out, there's some bad language in there.) The highlight happened when Isiah denied cursing at Browne Sanders and offered that "a white male calling a black female a bitch is highly offensive," but when asked if he believed it was just as offensive if a black man said the word, he confessed, "not as much." Upon leaving the courtroom after they showed the tape in court, a mortified Thomas told reporters, "Please don't mischaracterize the videotape shown in court today. I don't think it's right for any man to call a woman a 'bitch,'" then repeated those feelings on the stand by saying, "It's very offensive for any man -- black, white, purple." Purple??? The rest of Isiah's testimony went smoother -- he denied Browne Sanders' accusations, said "I've never cursed at Anucha; I've cursed around Anucha" and made a big deal about how his mother taught him how to treat women with respect.
(Thomas had only one rough moment: During a 15-minute break in the late morning, he nearly spent the Knicks' entire free-agent exemption on a 53-year-old bailiff named Norm.)
Q: When MSG's defense team argued Isiah just happens to be one of those touchy-feely guys who hugs and kisses everybody, why didn't they show videotape from the 1988 NBA Finals when Isiah and Magic kissed each other on the cheek before every game?
A: Probably because they didn't want to confuse the jury. It was confusing enough in 1988. That reminds me, Isiah explained a controversial 2005 hug with Browne Sanders like this: "I went to give her a kiss on the cheek and she recoiled in such a way that it made me feel uncomfortable, and I said, 'What? No love today?'" That's when I expected one of the defense lawyers to pull a Brian Fantana and say, "Take it easy, Champ, why don't you stop talking for a while?" and then demand a 30-minute recess.
Q: Speaking of uncomfortable, were there any disturbing Dolan revelations that came out of this trial?
Sanders testified that Dolan was very interested in every aspect of the Knicks City Dancers' performances.
(Ladies and gentleman, the Jimmy Dolan era! The man doesn't budge for three years while his GM is blowing out the payroll, pulling the trigger on four or five genuinely indefensible trades and antagonizing the entire fan base ... but if there's a debate about whether the Knicks City Dancers should use "Hot For Teacher" or "Pour Some Sugar On Me" for their routine before the second quarter, count him in!)
Q: Did we learn anything else about Dolan's leadership skills?
A: Yeah, one thing: Browne Sanders testified, "Mr. Dolan was easily agitated, and we all knew it. If he had a problem with something, he would let you know it, and he would yell."
I said I wanted their outfits to be as tight as possible! Do those tops look tight to you?!?! DO THEY? DO THEY LOOK TIGHT TO YOU?!?!
Q: What are the strengths of Browne Sanders' case?
A: She has three things going for her: Dolan canned her just a few months after giving her a $76,000 bonus (seems a little fishy); Isiah was clearly a little touchy-feely (although the extent of that touchy-feeliness is unclear); and she's suing the most incompetent franchise in professional basketball.
Q: What are the issues with Browne Sanders' case?
According to testimony, she had so much trouble keeping a budget, the Knicks were thinking about firing her as early as August '05, when MSG vice-chairman Hank Ratner wanted her gone after she couldn't answer many of Dolan's questions during a financial forecast meeting. Two especially damaging revelations surfaced during the trial:
1. MSG Sports CEO Steve Mills testified he'd never heard one Thomas-related complaint from the plaintiff until an e-mail sent Dec. 15, 2005, one month after she had already approached him in tears about being overwhelmed by her position and wanting to leave. According to Mills, Browne Sanders told him "she's lost the confidence of the people she worked with, and she can't do this anymore. I agreed." Mills also testified that he agreed to keep Browne Sanders on the payroll while she searched for another job. A few weeks later, she filed a lawsuit. Hmmmmmm.
2. During Browne Sanders' testimony, when MSG lawyers interrogated her about four years of false income tax returns that she had filed between 2001 and 2004, Browne Sanders couldn't decipher Schedule C on those returns. For God's sake, even Eddy Curry could figure out Schedule C on a tax return! Are you kidding me?
Q: Isiah was already in the running for "Least Popular GM of the Decade." Please tell me he didn't rebuff Browne Sanders' 2004 request to sign renewal-request letters to past season-ticket holders by hissing, "Bitch, I don't give a f--- about these white people!" This didn't happen, right?
A: Well, that's what Browne Sanders testified (and Isiah vehemently denied). In Isiah's defense, I scream "I don't give a f--- about these white people!" at my Page 2 editors every week.
Browne Sanders made several other claims about Isiah, including that he ...
1. Repeatedly called her a "bitch" and "ho" in private conversations nobody else heard.
2. Played H-O-R-S-E with her once, declared he loved her afterward and explained, "It's like the movie 'Love and Basketball.'"
3. Dismissed her efforts to get more players to show up for corporate events by yelling things at her like, "Bitch, I don't give a f--- about the sponsors. I don't give a f--- about ticket sales," and "We're not going to do any more of these f------ community events. I'm here to win f------ basketball games."
4. Found a scar above her eye appealing because he had one as well, even writing in her diary in 2004, "Isiah told me that he was very attracted to me after pointing out a scar above my eye."
(Note: What high-ranking sports executive would ever keep a diary? Are you kidding me? Can you imagine Mitch Kupchak lying in bed this week and writing, "Dear Diary, I think it might be time to trade Lamar Odom ... ?")
Q: What was Browne Sanders' most bizarre accusation during her testimony?
When she testified that Mills allegedly warned her to keep quiet, or else Thomas would start rumors Browne Sanders had been having an extramarital affair with another MSG executive. Browne Sanders said she responded, "Steve, is that a threat? Do I need to find a lawyer?" During his testimony, Mills vehemently denied the incident took place.
(Look, it's hard to say that ANYTHING is too preposterous in this case, but that accusation sounded like something Demi Moore would have made up in "Disclosure." How could someone rise to the position of CEO/president of Madison Square Garden, then stupidly play the "If you keep this up, we'll make up an evil rumor about you" card? If we're to assume the Knicks would be going to such great lengths to save money, wouldn't they also be planting incriminating evidence at Jerome James' house to get him off their salary cap?)
Q: All right, let's get to the good stuff. Did any juicy sexual revelations come out of the trial?
A: Well, we've all heard about the watershed Stephon Marbury testimony at this point, but for the kids reading this column 25 years from now, let's rehash the best parts of a multi-layered story that eventually led to the Daily News headline, "MSG Intern Had Backseat Sex With Marbury."
• In her determination to prove the Knicks had handled sexual incidents callously in the past, Browne Sanders testified about the time in 2005 when Marbury and his cousin Hassan Gonsalves ran into a group of Knicks employees outside a Mount Vernon strip club. Gonsalves allegedly made a filthy come-on to one female intern that began with "you look good in those pants" and ended with a sentence that kinda sounded like something Miggs screamed at Clarice in "Silence of the Lambs." A little bit later, the intern allegedly climbed into Marbury's car for a sexual encounter. According to Browne Sanders, the intern was drunk and felt pressure to, um, service Marbury's needs because he was the star of the team. In his testimony, Marbury (described as "fidgety" by Newsday) never admitted to having sex with the intern, although he did admit to meeting her outside the strip club and said cryptically, "We got together right across the street."
(Note to the young females reading at home: If you're ever outside of a strip club and the cousin of an NBA player makes you feel like you're in a Jodie Foster movie, then the NBA player offers to show you the backseat of the car ... you might not want to climb in the car. It's a good rule of thumb.)
• On Monday, the intern (Kathleen Decker, resembling Sherry Stringfield during her second "ER" run) took the stand and denied ever telling Browne Sanders that she was forced to do anything with Marbury, even saying, "I wasn't drunk, I was in control." She argued the sex was "consensual" and added, "He asked me, am I going to get into the truck, and I got in." Well, then. She also testified to a "very bizarre" meeting near the end of 2005 when Browne Sanders badgered her about the rumored tryst with Marbury, explaining, "I told her what happened because I felt pressured to." So we can agree on this: At some point, Decker felt pressured to do something. By the way, my daughter is 16 years away from being eligible to become a Knicks intern. I will now smash a fire log against my head.
• My favorite wrinkle of Decker's testimony: We learned she had an ongoing fling with Marbury's cousin during the same time frame as the Marbury tryst. (Shades of Lacey Underall juggling Danny Noonan and Ty Webb in 1980!) Now here's where it gets REALLY interesting: Decker testified that she landed a full-time job with the Knicks soon after her tryst with Marbury and received another big promotion six weeks before the Browne Sanders trial began. She also testified that Browne Sanders was a brutally demanding boss who made her feel "so inferior and so unimportant." True or untrue, we're definitely headed toward an X-rated parody of "Devil Wears Prada" crossed with the Knicks scandal, starring Mr. Marcus as Marbury and Ron Jeremy as Jimmy Dolan. It's probably in production as we speak.
Q: Was that the most damaging portion of the trial for Marbury?
A: Actually, no! Marbury testified that he never heard Isiah call Browne Sanders "a black bitch" or a "ho," explaining that's "not his style" (that's good to know). But that wasn't the damaging part. When asked to remember a heated exchange with Browne Sanders after she wouldn't give him free tickets to a home game, Marbury made one thing clear: "I didn't call her a black bitch. I called her a bitch." Don't expect to see that quote in the next NBA Cares commercial.
Q: Wow, Isiah never said anything that awful to Browne Sanders, did he?
A: According to former assistant GM Jeff Nix, a 15-year employee of the team who was recently fired, he witnessed Thomas calling Browne Sanders a "bitch" and "ho" and recalled one 2004 meeting in which Thomas yelled at Browne Sanders, "Don't forget, you f------ bitch, I'm the president of this f------ team." Where was Rick James during all of this? We don't know.
Meanwhile, John Cudmore, MSG's senior VP of finance, testified that Browne Sanders used the same bad language Thomas used, even saying, "She would use the word 'f---' regularly, often." Coincidentally, Knicks fans used the F-word regularly and often during the past four seasons.
Q: Any other stuff we should know about?
A: Here were my five favorite random stories from the trial ...
1. Because Dolan fired Browne Sanders so abruptly, MSG didn't have enough time to get everything down on paper, so McCormack testified in his videotaped deposition that the organization drew up a "here's why we need to fire Anucha" memo after the fact. That same memo suggested Thomas undergo sensitivity training and Mills meet with human resources to discuss what had happened (neither person followed those suggestions). And it came from McCormack's desk with his name on it, even though he testified later that he never wrote it. By the way, MSG is supposed to be a major company.
(Note to anyone holding Cablevision stock: SELL! SELL!)
2. One of the jurors has been repeatedly falling asleep throughout the trial. This immediately qualified him to become a Knicks courtside season-ticket holder.
3. During an open practice for season-ticket holders in 2005, Robert Levy (a season-ticket holder) testified he witnessed Thomas placing his arm around Browne Sanders' shoulders and remarking, "it was distracting working with someone easy on the eyes" as an uncomfortable Browne Sanders pulled away. In Isiah's defense, he pulled the exact same routine with Rick Mahorn in 1989.
4. After Marbury's testimony, he fled away from reporters in a blue Rolls Royce. I don't know why I enjoyed that detail so much, but I do know this: I wouldn't want to touch anything in the backseat.
5. During jury selection, one prospective juror asked the judge, "Can I speak freely? In my opinion, [Isiah] evaluates talent well, but he hasn't done well as the GM of the Knicks." Another told the judge that he "used to be a fan of the Knicks" as Thomas pretended to be disappointed and dropped his head to the table. Looking back, that might have been the signature moment of the trial: Someone was disqualified from the jury because they "used to be a fan of the Knicks." In other words, at least 8 million other New Yorkers would have been disqualified as jurors. And counting.
Q: What's been the most shocking thing about this trial?
A: That Isiah didn't try to knock it off the front pages by making an insane trade that would have turned everyone's attention to the 2007-08 Knicks instead of this lawsuit. Every time I log on to ESPN.com, I expect to learn Isiah traded David Lee, Malik Rose, Dan Dickau's expiring contract, Fred Jones' expiring contract, $3 million and first-round draft picks in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 to Phoenix for Shawn Marion. Don't rule this out.
Q: So what's your final prediction?
A: It's so tight right now, I almost wish Vegas would give us a gambling line so we knew who was favored. But even if MSG prevails, there's no question that $10 million worth of P.R. damages -- at least -- was done over these past three weeks. This was one of those rare trials in which everyone will end up losing in the end, especially Kathleen Decker's father.
I see only one happy ending here: At the 11th hour, Gus Johnson comes in out of nowhere, brokers the peace between Browne Sanders and Isiah and convinces both sides to settle before there's a verdict. After seeing the man work his magic in Vegas two months ago, I'm convinced he could settle the bad blood here in 45 minutes and maybe even pull off a four-way hug with Browne Sanders, Isiah, Jimmy Dolan and the judge. But that would have made too much sense.
My final prediction: We're headed for a verdict in favor of the defense, which would double as the first big win for the New York Knicks franchise in six years. If only they could celebrate at the Gold Club.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.