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Bob Ryan

Something rotten in this Apple

New York Knicks president and coach Isiah Thomas is at the center of a $10 million sexual harassment lawsuit. New York Knicks president and coach Isiah Thomas is at the center of a $10 million sexual harassment lawsuit. (LOUIS LANZANO/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Meanwhile, down in The Apple . . .

An organization is exposed.

Say this for the Patriots, they may play fast and loose with the rules, but at least they win. If you are an ends-justify-the-means person, the Patriots at least deliver.

But what if you're a fan of the New York Knicks? The organization is run by sleazebags, and, on top of that, they stink.

That's a tough 1-2 punch, but that's the reality if you're a fan of the Knicks.

You may or may not be aware of what's been going on in Manhattan, what with the intense concentration needed to monitor both L'Affaire Belichick and the erosion of the Red Sox' bullpen (not to say the lead over the Yankees). There is a fascinating trial taking place that, regardless of its outcome, already has done enormous damage to the image of the Knicks.

It's all about a $10 million lawsuit filed by Anucha Browne Sanders, a former Madison Square Garden executive who claims she was unfairly dismissed after filing a lawsuit for sexual harassment against Isiah Thomas, the team's president, basketball operations and coach.

Except it turns out to be about a lot more. It turns out to be the story of a sports organization whose general front office mores confirm the worst fears so many women have about what goes on in the marketplace when women enter a world where frat-boy behavior is the norm.

Browne Sanders's basic complaint is that she was alternately vilified and hit on, for lack of a better phrase, by Thomas, and that after filing her suit she was fired by Madison Square Garden chairman, president, chief executive officer, and would-be rock star James L. Dolan.

Browne Sanders was no flunkie. She carried the title of senior vice president, marketing and business operations. A star player at Northwestern (she was, upon graduation, the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer), she arrived at MSG in possession of a master's degree in marketing communications from Florida State. She was, in other words, a serious person.

If we can believe Browne Sanders, Thomas was essentially hostile to her from the start. He was interested in basketball, not marketing, which hardly makes him unique among basketball lifers. Conflicts between pure sports people and marketing people are normal, and are to be expected. The difference in this case was that she claims he had, on certain occasions, referred to her as a "bitch" or "ho."

Thomas would later explain, under oath, that what he did was sort of OK because, though it was not acceptable for a white man to use the term in reference to a woman, it was for a black man to do so.

Rappers, of course, do this all the time. But middle-aged men carrying titles such as president, basketball operations and head coach?

Interesting.

Anyway, according to Browne Sanders, it didn't end with Thomas calling her inappropriate names. For in time Thomas professed his, shall we say, interest in her. According to the sworn testimony of 15-year Knicks assistant coach and assistant general manager Jeff Nix (since fired himself), Thomas once embraced Browne Sanders and, after being shoved away, said to her, "I'm in love with you. It's like [the movie] 'Love and Basketball.' "

Another part of this story is the behavior of Knicks star guard Stephon Marbury who, after having sex with one of Browne Sanders's interns, then referred to the marketing executive as a "black bitch" behind her back.

We'll allow the jury to sort it all out, but what will not be subject to divergent interpretations is the videotape deposition of Dolan. Asked if it were permissible for his male employees to refer to females in his employ as Thomas and Marbury allegedly did, he replied (in what viewers say was a very offhand manner), "No, it's not appropriate. It is also not appropriate to murder anyone. I don't know that that has happened, either."

In other words, "Give me a break. What's the big deal?"

Dolan assumed full responsibility for the firing of Browne Sanders, which was done without consulting MSG lawyers. His reasoning was simple: "I felt the overall health of the Garden was at jeopardy here . . . and that would override any opinion of counsel."

It will be interesting to see what the jury makes of Nix's complete testimony. Among other things, he testified that Browne Sanders once told him Thomas had said to her, "Don't forget, you [expletive] bitch. I'm president of this [expletive] team."

You can imagine how this is playing in New York. The Dolan family business is Cablevision, and in Greater New York the only company despised anywhere near as much by the average consumer is Con Edison, the utility giant. Dolan's father, Charles, made the money. He has handed the Garden over to his boy as a toy, and on a scale of 1 to 10, his job performance has earned him about a .5. James Dolan fancies himself a blues singer, and the word is that employees have been occasionally coerced into attending his performances.

He was viewed as something of a public buffoon before this trial. Now, Andrea Peyser of the New York Post refers to him as "one of the emotionally stunted chuckleheads who run the Knicks."

As for Thomas, this is merely another sorry episode in a bizarre post-playing life. He never received quite enough censure for walking away from the Continental Basketball Association after purchasing it and then ruining it, leaving behind shattered franchises and mounds of debt. He always has been an oddly off-center person, famed for his insidious laugh. But according to Larry McShane of the Associated Press, "his trademark 100-watt smile was missing as he listened intently to testimony from the defense table."

I find it very difficult to believe that any other NBA owner would have hired Thomas to run his franchise. He and Dolan deserve each other.

It's now the defense's turn at bat, and I'm sure the MSG lawyers will attack Browne Sanders in every conceivable way. That's the way the game is played. She's a big girl. She knew what taking on Madison Square Garden was going to mean.

You, the sports fan of New England, have a horse in this race. When the Red Sox were put up for sale by the Yawkey estate, the Dolans were serious bidders. Very serious. In fact, they were said to be the highest bidders.

If it's really true that Bud Selig steered the team to the John Henry-Tom Werner group, you owe Bud one. Being from Milwaukee, he probably wants something other than a Bud, but you owe him something.

The Dolans owning the Red Sox? Yuck.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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