NEW YORK (AP) — Isiah Thomas understood he would have many detractors when he agreed last month to become president and a potential partial-owner of the New York Liberty. He hopes the extra scrutiny will lead to more interest in his new team.
“We knew that it would have some concern and would create some attention,” Thomas said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Friday. “That being said, we’re hoping that with the added attention, as we’ve seen, there’s more discussion about the WNBA and more discussion about the New York Liberty. That’s a good thing.”
Much of that attention, though, is not the kind a team seeks out. Thomas, once the subject of a sexual harassment suit when he worked for the New York Knicks, is facing stiff opposition from outside groups to his ownership application.
That application is still pending. WNBA President Laurel J. Richie had hoped to have a decision on it before the season began, but that wasn’t feasible. The league just announced this week that a six-member committee of the WNBA Board of Governors was formed to evaluate it.
“I can’t really speak on the ownership and I apologize,” Thomas said. “I wish I could. Right now we’re not allowed to talk about that.”
Thomas said being an owner and team president weren’t directly connected.
One of the members of the committee, Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder, said a few weeks ago that her team’s ownership group believes “there is no statute of limitations on the mandate that all WNBA owners and executives serve as exemplary role models and leaders.”
At issue is that during Thomas’ unsuccessful stint as coach and president of the Knicks from December 2003 to April 2008, Anucha Browne Sanders, a former Madison Square Garden executive, brought a lawsuit contending Thomas sexually harassed her.
It cost MSG $11.5 million, but the Basketball Hall of Famer maintained his innocence and said he was never found personally liable. Even after the settlement, Knicks and Liberty owner James Dolan kept Thomas on in an unspecified role with the Knicks.
Dolan and Thomas were in attendance Friday night when the Liberty won their season opener 82-73 against the Atlanta Dream. A small group of protesters rallied before the game outside Madison Square Garden, wearing black T-shirts that read “I Am Anucha Browne.”
Rally organizer Nevin Caple is the executive director of Breache the Silence, which works to end homophobia and sexism in women’s sports. She said they’re calling for Thomas to apologize and acknowledge his role in creating a hostile work environment.
“Money can buy silence and power, but it can’t buy leadership,” the 35-year-old Caple said.
There have been many outspoken critics of Thomas’ ownership application, including former tennis star Billie Jean King, who started The Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974.
“No. I think if he’s going to do something, go do it in men’s sports,” King said. “I think it was very inappropriate that he was hired.”
The foundation sent a letter to the WNBA Board of Governors encouraging the other 11 team owners not to approve Thomas as part-owner. The foundation also started an online petition against Thomas. “(The board) should vote it down if they have the opportunity,” King said.
Madison Square Garden responded to the foundation’s letter on Friday with a statement.
“The Women’s Sports Foundation has continued to rely on erroneous and exaggerated media reports regarding Isiah Thomas and MSG. They are misinformed. In fact, the case was never concluded,” the statement said. “Anucha Browne Sanders voluntarily dismissed her complaint. Ms. Sanders accepted that MSG and Mr. Thomas did not admit guilt or concede any wrongdoing. MSG agreed to forego any additional legal action and agreed to a payment covering past and future salary and legal expenses. Isiah Thomas did not pay anything.”
Thomas still gets nervous before games and said he will probably not eat much and pace while watching the game. He hopes that fans will pay more attention to the players on the court than him.
“I think the majority of the focus will be on the players where it should be,” he said. “I think once they see how hard our teams play and how hard they compete, how well they are playing, that’s where the focus will be. The way I’ve grown up in the public arena you always are going to have naysayers. That comes with the territory, that’s part of the gig.”
AP Sports Writer Melissa Murphy contributed to this story.
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