Isiah Thomas, the president of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, can’t stop smiling.
It scans as frozen and plasticky, a defense mechanism that doesn’t even begin to mask the eight years of still-simmering resentment after a jury ruled that he sexually harassed then-Madison Square Garden employee Anucha Browne, awarding her $11.6 million in punitive damages in what turned out to be the largest such suit in sports history.
But if you tuned into tonight’s episode of HBO’s Real Sports in the futile hope that Bryant Gumbel might be able to wrangle a drop of contrition or self-awareness from either Thomas or MSG President and CEO James Dolan, you’re in for a major disappointment.
If, however, you’d like to see a sea of ill-placed smirks and random blurted chuckles from a sexual harasser convicted by a jury of his peers, and his boss, then it’s definitely appointment television.
In Thomas’s mind, none of it—the numerous instances where he publicly called her a “bitch” and a “ho,” the flirtation and unwanted physical attention, nor the time he compared their so-called relationship to the movie Love and Basketball—ever happened.
Gumbel is to be commended. He spends the bulk of the segment peering over reading glasses in a state of near-absolute disbelief, his eyebrows raised permanently to a location just south of his hairline. Like every other sentient being in the known universe, he too seems baffled by the repeated assertions by both Thomas and Dolan that, regardless of the decision by the jury, Anucha Browne is a lying liar.
Gumbel even reads from the court proceedings to ask Thomas whether a 15-year employee of MSG was a part of a fiendish plot, too, when he testified that Thomas screamed at Browne: “Don’t forget, you fucking bitch, I’m the president of this fucking team.”
There’s a pause as Thomas’ face coalesces into a perma-grin: “Never happened.“
It’s at this point in the program that we get to hear from James Dolan himself. When asked if Browne made it all up, he’s in lockstep agreement.
“I think a bunch of it she did [make up], yes,” Dolan says. “I was running a business. She didn’t do very well in it. She was real unhappy with that and she decided to go get a lawyer.”
It was either left on the cutting room floor or didn’t come up, but it would have been nice to hear Dolan explain why Browne’s performance reports were “uniformly excellent” or why she’d earned a $76,000 bonus a few months before Dolan made the decision to can her.
Of course, the actual termination wasn’t based on a poor job performance, and even Dolan admitted it, when he avoided seeking counsel of his own lawyers in the process of her firing.
He tells Gumbel that he fired her because “she was coercing her own direct reports, to come down to her lawyer’s office, to build her case against the company.”
That’s more or less what Dolan said when he was deposed a year before the trial. Of course, had he consulted with one of his presumably well-paid attorneys, they might have gently tried to explain that this was pretty much a textbook example of a retaliatory discharge.
As to why he didn’t settle long before this went to trial, “The fighter in me came out and I said I’m not going to settle because that’s an admission of guilt,” he says.
But what neither can explain to Gumbel is why Dolan brought Thomas back to run a professional basketball team at any level, let alone one in the WNBA.
In case you’ve managed to avoid the howling garbage fire that is Thomas’s track record as an executive, he ran away from the NBA Toronto Raptors after losing a power struggle with ownership, sent an entire league into bankruptcy, dragged the defending Eastern Conference champion Indiana Pacers to mediocrity, and led Florida International University to a sterling 11-19 record.
And then there’s the Knicks. We could spend hours dissecting the terrible trades, botched free agent signings, and ill-considered coaching hires. Suffice it to say, he’s universally regarded as the worst coach and/or president in team history (and that’s saying something).
So what, pray tell, was Dolan’s rationale behind hiring him to run the Liberty?
“I think I’ve always understood him,” Dolan said. “I don’t know if I can explain it other than that there’s something inside of both of us that’s really quite similar: the tenacity, the stubbornness... Isiah’s a guy who doesn’t believe in his limitations, and I’m a guy who doesn’t believe in his limitations.”
Well, in this regard he’s dead right: There’s really no limit to the unmitigated gall that both he and Thomas can evoke, for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball.
If you need more proof, just watch him huff and chortle in exasperation at having to explain the Way Things Really Are after Gumbel brings up headlines that called this “The Worst Decision of James Dolan’s Career.”
“Terrible. What do you want me to say about it?” Dolan responded. “It’s worse than I imagined.”
Evidently, uniformly awful press is just an unfortunate byproduct here. Dolan says he was ready to fold the Liberty altogether before stumbling upon his dear old chum, Isiah, who’s not only an ace hoops mind, but would “would draw attention to the team,” Dolan says.
But what HBO gets stunningly wrong is buying into the idea that Dolan and Thomas have earned something of a victory lap. Yes, the Liberty finished with the league’s best record and had their best regular season in team history. But HBO is buying MSG’s jive hook, line, and sinker when they in any way lend credence to the notion that it couldn’t have happened without Isiah’s sterling presence.
Bill Laimbeer, the Liberty head coach and Thomas’ unapologetic goon-slash-enforcer with the Detroit Pistons, shows up during the program to lob some softball praise like, “without Isiah coming into the franchise it wouldn’t have been the direction that we have right now.”
But as Howard Megdal reported at VICE Sports, Thomas’s instinct was to try to move what turned out to be an all-time great defensive team toward a run-and-gun, offensive style. Thomas wasn’t the architect of the canny trades or the drafting and developing of talented young squad, and the majority of the credit should go to Laimbeer, a three-time title winning coach, Kristin Bernert, the Liberty's unheralded and rarely mentioned head of basketball operations, and the players themselves.
And no, scenes with a few fans taking selfies with Thomas outside the Garden shouldn’t be offered as a suggestion that Thomas is happily trotting down some kind of road to redemption.
Back when Thomas’s hiring was announced in May, I told Dave Zirin that as a Knicks fan, it was a bridge too far:
I’m ready to walk away from the team after decades of fandom. I’ve survived all of Dolan’s blinkered, arrogant, narcissistic bungling and accepted that like clockwork he will eventually do something so unimaginably stupid, so preposterously wrongheaded that it boggles the imagination. What I can’t stomach is this: James Dolan doesn’t give a fuck about women. If I stick around, I’m complicit.
I didn’t ditch them, of course, because fandom tends to wear down things like one’s own moral calculus. But any disgust that might be registered isn’t about basketball at all.
This is about the three in 10 women who say they’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, a majority of whom never report it. As is the case for Anucha Browne, it might mean years of being dragged through the dirt by a multibillion-dollar corporation, including Thomas’s attempt to paint himself as the real victim.
"I felt like there was a drive-by and someone just took a razor and sliced me, and I just couldn't stop bleeding,” he says. “I still bleed. I still feel sick to my stomach that I have to sit here, and...”
Thomas voice trails off as the camera cuts away. What he has to sit there and do, and why he has to do it, are left unsaid.
It means stomaching Thomas’s kvelling about Dolan’s vanity blues band, insisting that Gumbel take it as proof of the man’s deep, boundless soulfulness because the James Dolan he knows “wears a fedora, and plays the guitar, and sings the blues about Trayvon Martin.”
And means watching Dolan, after being asked if “for good and bad you guys are joined at the hip in New York,” smile.
“I think we’re going to be friends for a long time.”