Monday, September 10, 2007

A Spectacle the Knicks Don’t Need

Published: September 11, 2007

As jury selection began yesterday in the sexual-harassment case against a longtime basketball superstar and his employer, often referred to as the world’s most famous arena, perhaps the essential question was who might be blinded or biased by the presence of Isiah Lord Thomas III and the power of his standing as president and coach of the Knicks.

Lucky for the judge, the Knicks have been lousy, their television ratings could be mistaken for Court TV’s and there are people all over New York who wouldn’t know David Lee from David Lee Roth.

“I’m not a sports fan at all,” said Gretchen Haury from Chappaqua, N.Y., a mother of three. That sounded good enough for the judge, plaintiff and defense.

“I’m a Yankee fan, don’t follow basketball,” said the 67-year-old Phillip Lief, a doctor from White Plains who was accepted without challenge from either side.

“I’m not a crazy sports fan, but I like to watch tennis, or golf,” said Michelle Zelekowitz, 50, of Pleasantville, N.Y.

Have a seat in the jury box, Ms. Zelekowitz, and prepare for some no-holds-barred Madison Square Garden mud-slinging, James Dolan style.

One after another, potential jurors were called to a single seat inside a small selection room through a door from room 23A yesterday in United States District Court in lower Manhattan. The judge, Gerard E. Lynch, sat across from them at a four-sided table with a space in the middle. On the left side, the plaintiff, a former Knicks senior vice president, Anucha Browne Sanders, was mostly expressionless as she watched the proceedings, flanked by lawyers.

Thomas, a defendant, sat with his all-female legal team (wink, wink), opposite Sanders, in a gray suit with a blue hankie folded above the breast pocket of his jacket. He held a blue pen over a yellow notepad, occasionally flashing the megawatt smile that could illuminate the Garden in the middle of a Midtown blackout.

Except here in the legal arena, where the Garden strongman Dolan is Thomas’s co-defendant and not his career enabler, it is a tossup whether the jury of civilians will be as willing as Dolan has been to smile upon the I-Lord.

This is the trial Thomas insisted on, or so he claimed, to defend his honor against Sanders, who charged she was fired for complaining about Thomas’s advances and mistreatment. This is the case that Dolan could have avoided but — true to character — is spending the millions he should have devoted to a quiet settlement by trying to nuke Anucha.

What if Thomas and Dolan lose a case likely to turn on interpretation? Will Dolan jettison Thomas for having to make up to a $10 million payoff? Will N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern, known to punish players for failing to hem their shorts, suspend Thomas and even Dolan for staging a public spectacle the league needs at this point like another crooked ref?

“No comment on pending litigation!” Stern wrote in an e-mail message yesterday. Who could blame him for wanting to drive that exclamation point through Dolan’s thick skull?

Not surprisingly, Dolan didn’t show up yesterday, and for one day at least set up Thomas, among others, for the collateral damage in what promises to be a two- to three-week trial of juicy headlines.

The judge also remarked that he grew up reading the New York City tabloids from the back, another way of calling himself a fan and apparently one familiar with the biggest, boldest print. But his mission yesterday was more subtle: the formation of a jury impervious to the premeditated persuasions of the celebrity civil trial.

“I don’t follow sports,” said Irene Ray, 58, a receptionist from the Bronx, though she noted on her printed questionnaire that she had heard of one of the players scheduled to testify.

“I know Stephon Marbury got those $15 sneakers out,” she said. “I think that’s great.”

What about when Thomas was great? Where were all the hoop-heads who remembered him in those tight little blue Detroit Pistons shorts, weaving through traffic, all the way to the Hall of Fame?

Edward Watts, 43, a court officer from the Bronx, called himself a “New York fan” who watches games on TV, but only to a point.

“I don’t rush home at 7 o’clock,” he said, turning to Thomas. “Sorry, Isiah.”

Watching Thomas in the jury selection room, one had to wonder if he wasn’t sorry it had come to this, media day one month too soon, his reputation and possibly his professional fate being placed in the hands of people promising to treat him and Sanders as full-fledged equals, everything in the open, on the table.

“I can speak freely?” Tommy Vasquez, 37, a Bronx maintenance man, said when asked about Thomas. “He’s a pretty good talent evaluator, but he’s not so good a G.M.”

He got a laugh from everyone but Thomas, whose lawyers objected to Vasquez as a juror. The judge overruled. Score the goal for the plaintiff.



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