Against all reason, tone-deaf Dolan once again turns to Isiah

ByJohnette Howard ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The announcement Tuesday that Isiah Thomas is back working for Madison Square Garden -- albeit strictly for the WNBA's New York Liberty for now -- is no surprise at all, really. Most close observers know Thomas never really lost influence at the Garden even after the NBA decreed in 2010 that he could not consult for the Knicks because he was coaching at the collegiate level at the time (Florida International).

He has always had the ear of James L. Dolan, the Cablevision/MSG czar and principal owner of the Liberty and Knicks -- sometimes against all reason.

And Thomas has always had a Rasputin-like knack for survival, gliding from one job or controversy to the next talking about fresh starts, unfair raps and the out-of-the-box vision he has for turning also-rans into winners.

But even for Dolan, this move takes guts. Few professional sports owners would choose to give a second act to a man who a jury found to have sexually harassed a female Garden employee -- let alone put him in charge running the Garden's women's professional basketball team.

But that's what Dolan has done with this move.

Thomas has been on a bit of an image-repair tour since leaving the Knicks amid criticism that he disgraced the franchise in 2007 when a jury found that he sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders, a former team executive. The jury also ruled that the Garden improperly fired her for complaining about the unwanted advances and awarded Sanders $11.6 million in damages.

(The jury couldn't agree whether Thomas or MSG should write the check to Browne Sanders. The two sides eventually reached a settlement where MSG and Dolan paid $11.5 million in damages.)

Not that Dolan feels hamstrung by any of that.

"In the fall, Isiah and I began discussions about a possible role for him with the Liberty," Dolan said Tuesday in a statement. "Since that time, Isiah has been advising the team, and we are very pleased with the results. ... Now, we've agreed that it is time for him to take a lead role with the team as president, and through his ownership interest.

"He's an excellent judge of talent, and I'm confident that he will put all of his energy and experience into making the Liberty a perennially competitive and successful team."

Successful team? It has never seemed to matter to Dolan that success has rarely happened at any stop Thomas has had -- not when the Continental Basketball Association ran into the ground on his watch; not at his NBA stops as a Toronto Raptors executive or coach for the Pacers or Knicks. Dolan finally grew so irked at Thomas' mismanagement of the Knicks, he stripped Thomas of his team president's job and made him return to the bench to coach the team.

Thomas' coaching record during that stint was 56-108. When Donnie Walsh, the GM who replaced Thomas, fired him as coach in 2008, he literally banned him from having contact with the Knicks players -- ostensibly to avoid undermining his successor.

Thomas moved on to the college ranks and coached Florida International University to a 26-65 record in three seasons before leaving there.

No matter.

Dolan likes him. And now (not for the first time) Dolan is exercising his billionaire's prerogative to do whatever he wants.

Dolan likes thumbing his nose at authority, the media, his critics, even the occasional paying customer.

For Dolan, putting Thomas in his new role as part owner and president of the Liberty overseeing all the team's business and basketball operations required even more magical thinking about Thomas than usual.

In addition to again overlooking Thomas' on-court track record, he's chosen to re-hire Thomas at a time when allegations of abusive treatment of women among athletes is front and center in the social consciousness.

Then there's the WNBA's fan base, which trends toward women, families, teens and the LGBT community.

Will fans welcome Thomas' return?

Do either Dolan or Thomas care?

Dolan has long made it clear that he never agreed with the verdict in the sexual harassment case, a stance he reiterated in a statement released by MSG on Tuesday.

"We did not believe the allegations then, and we don't believe them now," the statement read. "We feel strongly that Isiah Thomas was held responsible for sordid allegations that were completely unrelated to him, and for which MSG bore responsibility. In fact, when given the opportunity, the jury did not find Isiah liable for punitive damages, confirming he did not act maliciously or in bad faith. We believe Isiah belongs in basketball, and are grateful that he has committed his considerable talent to help the Liberty succeed."

And Thomas -- who has always denied Browne Sanders' allegations -- was not totally sanguine about having to embark on an image rehabilitation journey after all the tawdry testimony about the work atmosphere at the Garden surfaced during the Browne Sanders trial.

Whether anyone cares enough about the Liberty to protest Thomas' hiring remains to be seen. For now, he's baaaack. He's reunited with Bill Laimbeer, his one-time Detroit Bad Boys teammate who was hired as the Liberty's general manager and coach at Thomas' recommendation in 2012. Laimbeer and the Liberty parted ways in October but he was rehired -- just as coach -- in January.

In his statement Tuesday, Thomas was typically upbeat, saying: "I am honored to have the opportunity to lead the New York Liberty and help the franchise reclaim its position as one of the elite teams in the WNBA."

But will it stop there? Laimbeer was a championship-winning WNBA coach in Detroit and has sometimes stated ambitions of being an NBA coach.

Thomas, who will continue his job as a commentator for the NBA Network even as he works for the Liberty, would no doubt like a return to an NBA league executive job too.

Thomas told on Tuesday that he will have no role with the Knicks.

They are run by Phil Jackson, his one-time blood rival during the great Pistons-Chicago Bulls wars of the late 1980s and early '90s.

But if Jackson doesn't finish out his five-year contract, as expected? If Derek Fisher is no better in his second or third year as an NBA coach than he was as a rookie?

Stay tuned.

Thomas and Dolan are officially back together.

And it's easy to say the two of them deserve each other.

But the women who play for the Liberty deserve better.

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