Even though his Knicks are trying to turn the page after the worst season in franchise history, James Dolan has decided to flip back to one of his organization's ugliest chapters.
The Madison Square Garden chairman, who drew significant criticism earlier this year for hiring Isiah Thomas to run the WNBA's New York Liberty, has spoken up about the successful sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders against Thomas and Madison Square Garden.
In an interview with HBO Real Sports' Bryant Gumbel that will air Tuesday, eight days before the Knicks' season opener, an unapologetic Dolan denied any wrongdoing and suggested that Browne Sanders invented her allegations against Thomas and that she was fired in 2006 for performance reasons.
"I think a bunch of it she did [make up], yes," Dolan said, in response to allegations that Thomas used sexist and demeaning names during conversations with Browne Sanders. "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. I fired her because while she was working for me, she was coercing her own direct reports, to come down to her lawyers office, to build her case against the company."
The lawsuit, which led to a jury finding MSG liable for the sexual harassment and issuing more than $11 million in damages to Browne Sanders in 2007, alleged that Thomas referred to Browne Sanders as a "bitch" and a "ho".
Dolan acknowledged that he could have settled the lawsuit for a fraction of the eventual settlement cost, but chose to fight the allegations because he didn't believe MSG and Thomas had done anything wrong.
"Yep, my fault," he said. "[I didn't settle] because I actually believed in the truth. The fighter in me came out. I'm not going to settle because that's an admission of guilt, and we're not guilty."
Thomas, who left the Knicks in 2008, also denied to HBO that he ever used inappropriate language with Browne Sanders, saying those conversations "never happened, never happened."
Browne Sanders starred for Northwestern's women's basketball team in the 1980s and spent more than a decade at IBM before joining the Knicks in 2000. There, she rose up the ranks to Vice President of Marketing before her 2006 firing. She was later hired by the NCAA to serve as Vice President of Women's Basketball Championships in 2012 and opted not to comment to HBO.
The lawsuit made headlines again in May, when Dolan named Thomas president of the Liberty, a move that drew immediate criticism from women's groups, media members and fans. At the time, ESPN.com reported that Brown Sanders's attorney responded to MSG's defense of Thomas by saying the company was attempting to "rewrite history" with a statement that was "at best, misleading and, at worst, a fabrication."
While Dolan and Thomas both conceded that they expected some resistance to the idea that Thomas would run a women's team in light of the scandal, Dolan took the curious step of defending the hire by noting it would generate publicity for an unprofitable franchise.
"[The Liberty is] a never-ending pit of money that just keeps going out the door," he told HBO. "I was just going to give the keys back [to the WNBA]. Say, 'I'm not going to field a team any more. You can have it back.' I didn't think I'd get a better person to do that job than [Thomas]. He would draw attention to the team."
Dolan and Thomas have remained close in the years since the lawsuit, even as critics have questioned Dolan's stewardship of the Knicks and Thomas's many failings, which include a stint at the Continental Basketball Association, his disastrous tenure as Knicks GM, and a failed run as coach of Florida International University.
"There's something inside of both of us that's really quite similar," Dolan said of Thomas in the HBO interview. "The tenacity, the stubbornness. Isiah is a guy who doesn't believe in his limitations and I'm a guy who doesn't believe in his limitations. I've always understood him. ... I have a tremendous amount of respect for his skill and his talent. ... Isiah made mistakes. He's not the kind of guy who sits there and pities himself. I think we're going to be friends for a long time."
Thomas admitted that he would give himself a "C-minus to a D" for his time as Knicks GM, which saw massive payrolls, off-court incidents involving players, and a string of lottery trips in addition to the damaging lawsuit. Despite the fact that the jury ruled clearly in Browne Sanders's favor, leading to MSG's settlement, Thomas is still willing to paint himself as a victim.
"I felt like there was a drive-by and someone just took a razor and sliced me," Thomas said. "I just couldn't stop bleeding. I still bleed. I still feel sick to my stomach that I have to sit here. They say time heals all wounds. I hope it's true. I think there's a healing process right now."
The Real Sports interview will air on HBO at 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday.