As you no doubt are aware, a jury has sided with former Knicks executive Anucha Brown Saunders and found the New York Knickerbockers and the Madison Square Garden organization guilty of sexual harassment (perpetrated primarily by Knicks team president Isiah Thomas). The Knicks and MSG were also held liable for creating a hostile work environment and for retaliating against Mrs. Brown Saunders when she protested her treatment. The jury of four women and three men awarded Mrs. Brown Saunders $11.6 million in damages, with a further award for back and present pay (for wrongful termination) pending. The jury declared a mistrial on Thomas’ personal culpability and thus did not subject him to punitive damages. Also, early indications are that Thomas will face no further discipline from the league. Though the case uncovers aspects of the MSG environment that are utterly distasteful, which include repeated reprimands of Thomas’ behavior by MSG officials, the judgment is unlikely by itself to directly impact the team’s on court performance this upcoming season.
In discussing the case I want to pick up where Knickerblogger left off yesterday. Like him, I also couldn’t bear to watch. I went out of my way to ignore details of the case as best I could until a verdict was reached. Now that a verdict has been reached I want to show how the case is directly relevant to everyday die-hard Knicks fans. So, even while acknowledging that this is unlikely to have any direct impact on team performance in 07-08 it is still quite meaningful. This case, along with the Don Chaney’s firing, illustrate with crystal clarity the fundamental problem that plagues the Dolan/Thomas regime. I will limit my comments mostly to Thomas but you could practically substitute Dolan’s name into every sentence.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it is worth stating a basic premise. Isiah Thomas has a problem making good decisions. His worst decisions, which I won’t take the time to recount, have become the stuff of legend. And even his better decisions come with a string of “yeah, but” clauses attached (e.g., “Thomas stole Trevor Ariza in the draft. Yeah, but then he traded him–a young, cheap, solid wing defender–in order to pair Steve Francis with Stephon Marbury.”). Isiah, sometimes in spite of himself, is an intelligent guy. So, what gives? Why such poor decisions. I won’t make you guess. I’ll cut to the chase. In a nutshell, Isiah Thomas’ poor decisions are a natural consequence of his remarkable contempt for other people. (Contempt in this context means an acute lack of respect for others and a callous disregard for their perspective.) In a leader, this is a character flaw so grave it renders good decision making practically impossible.
Now to be clear, I have little interest in doing any sort of long distance psychoanalysis of Isiah Thomas. I do not profess to know why Thomas is contemptuous of others. That’s not the point of this entry. Rather, I am interested in showing how Isiah’s words and actions indicate his contempt for others–and how that contempt hinders his ability to lead. To do that, I first need to briefly describe the two cases.
Firing Chaney on Letterman. At the time Don Chaney was dismissed it is safe to say he had it coming. The NBA is a tough, results-oriented business and the results were awful. Additionally, Chaney had few supporters among the media or the Knick faithful, and it certainly appeared that the players had tuned him out. The “FI-YER CHAY-NEE!” chants had become an unfortunate nightly serenade for a man universally regarded as one of the game’s true gentleman. Of course, the “Chaney watch” began in earnest once Thomas rode into town on his trusty white steed with promises to make the Knicks younger, more athletic, and more importantly, relevant again. Thomas appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show and made his now infamous pregnant pause following Letterman’s speculation that Chaney would be fired. Chaney was of course fired soon thereafter.
The true measure of contempt is, how do you treat others when they have nothing you want or when you think they cannot effectively retaliate? Do you treat them with respect or callous disregard? Do you change how you treat others depending on whether you think people who really matter are watching? I have no reason to believe Thomas especially disliked Chaney or had any particular ax to grind with him. I just don’t think Thomas cared enough to pass on a chance to laugh at Chaney’s expense. After all, what could Chaney–who was for all practical purposes dead man walking–do? It was painfully obvious he was going to be fired. So, given a chance to be magnanimous–with the cameras rolling no less–Thomas chose callous disregard. He had nothing to gain apart from a few chuckles on the Late Show. I recall saying to a friend the next day, “I don’t know how Isiah’s going to work out in New York but I can tell you that it’s going to end ugly for him. He really is an asshole. Guys like that can never stay out of their own way.”
Who You Callin’ A Bitch!? The Brown Sauders Case. The case time line published in the Daily News hits many of the low-lights of the case, so I won’t recount them all. Despite his protestations of innocence, Thomas had been reprimanded by Steve Mills for his behavior towards Brown Saunders (and for related behavior as far back as 2004). At root, Thomas showed the same callous disregard towards Brown Sauders he exhibited towards the outgoing Chaney; just in a different context stretched out over a longer period of time. His claims about who can call black women “bitches” without being offensive is a prime example of this disregard. Aside from expressing the most idiotic racial and gender politics since X-Clan, Isiah clearly ignored or forgot these words from the Queen.
Maybe none of this talk of contempt explains Thomas’ inability to manage a salary cap or make a trade that isn’t redundant. Perhaps. But I don’t think so. I think the behavior in the MSG offices makes its way onto the bench and into management decisions. In the last part I’ll try to make a case for how this happens. I’ll talk about precisely how contempt for others can often lead to particular types of poor decisions.