2007-09-14 / Sports

Knicks'Isiah Thomas Plays On Another Court

By John J. Buro

Isiah Thomas Isiah Thomas NEW YORK- For more than one hour, as the jury pool assembled on the 23rd floor inside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse last Monday afternoon, Isiah Thomas conferred with his attorneys.

Observers could see the Knicks' coach break into a smile, as if he was watching his team during a lay-up drill. Thomas did not appear the least bit frazzled or unnerved by such an official matter. Clearly, more than two decades in the media spotlight, on and off the basketball court, have prepared him for such a confrontation.

Thomas is accused of sexual harassment by Anucha Browne Sanders, a former executive with Madison Square Garden, Incorporated; MSG honcho James Dolan, who did not appear on the first day, is also named.

This is a civil lawsuit, for which Sanders is seeking damages in excess of $10 million. The defense, counseled by a team of six, will likely pay another seven figures for representation before the trial concludes.

The six are split in half, because Thomas and Dolan/MSG are being tried separately; it is conceivable that, even if the coach is found guilty, the Madison Square Garden side can still prevail.

[Another sexual harassment lawsuit against the Garden, filed by Courtney Prince, a former captain of the Rangers' cheerleading squad, has not yet been heard.]

Thomas' game plan included the dismissal of Peter Parcher, a noted attorney who had previously represented Howard Stern [v. WCBS Radio] and R. Kelly [v. Jay-Z]. Instead, Thomas - who played his entire career with the Detroit Pistons- will go into battle with Sue Ellen Eisenberg, a Michigan attorney specializing in employment and discrimination law, and Laurie Berke- Weiss, a former president of the New York Women's Bar Association.

Judge Gerald E. Lynch noted in his opening remarks that, while the case will be decided on its merits, this is really about "a lot of money." That is not to downplay Sanders' claim; according to the 18-page complaint filed on January 24, 2006, she is said to have fended off Thomas' numerous advances.

"As we have stated from the start," Eisenberg said in a prepared release distributed by an independent public relations firm, "we look forward to the trial and presenting the facts to a jury."

"Anucha Browne Sanders did not work for Isiah Thomas. She did not report to him. Isiah did not hire her, and did not fire her. He never said [that] he was in love with her, and he never sexually harassed Ms. Browne Sanders."

According to Thomas' lawyers, when Dolan allegedly offered Sanders 'another job in the sports and entertainment industry', long after the complaint had been filed, she countered by requesting a monetary settlement - nearly 50 times her salary at the Garden.

"We have looked forward to having this matter heard in court," an MSG press release stated. "We believe it will be clear that this meritless lawsuit is riddled with fabrications, and really is all about money. We will stay focused on presenting the facts to the jury, and have no further comment."

A jury pool of approximately 100 - some curious because of Thomas' celebrity, others inconvenienced and seeking an immediate withdrawal from their duties- filed into the courtroom twenty minutes after Lynch had entered.

They were notified of the charges - if they hadn't already heard or read about them elsewhere-, were sworn in, and waited to answer the 34 questions that were administered.

At 11:45 a.m., three-quarters of an hour after the prospective jurors first entered, the selection process began. Still, as tiresome as this procedure is, it will most likely be the cleanest aspect of this particular trial. The rest of it, with its array of sordid details to follow, is expected to be the dirtiest.

The trial, which is expected to last 'ten jury days' bridged over three weeks, will be determined by eight men and women; the verdict should arrive just as the Knicks open their training camp for the 2007-2008 season.

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