Garden of shame

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

No matter the jury's decision in New York federal court, Madison Square Garden and Isiah Thomas are the losers in this sexual harassment case against them. The sewage of sound bites and clumsy deposition clips and sordid, salacious testimony have turned Anucha Browne Sanders' lawsuit of $10 million in damages into a small price for peeling past the bad basketball, beyond the walls of the World's Most Famous Arena, and into a clown culture rotted by incompetence.

There's Stephon Marbury playing the fool, and James Dolan the dolt. There's Thomas insisting that a black man has far more latitude than his white peers to call a woman a bitch, and Garden president Steve Mills casting Browne Sanders, once a rising star, as a bumbling, failed executive.

Who's telling the truth?

Whom do you believe?

And who was the one person who had everything to lose by telling it?

For 15 years, Jeff Nix worked his way as an advance scout, assistant coach, scouting director and assistant general manager with the New York Knicks. He worked with four of the five most winning coaches in NBA history – Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown. Ernie Grunfeld and Jeff Van Gundy could never agree on anything, but they did on Nix.

He survived regime after regime at the Garden because his employers trusted his loyalty to the Knicks, the job.

"Nix of the Knicks," the media guide called him.

That was until sometime after Jan. 1, when Nix was deposed by lawyers probing Browne Sanders' claims that Thomas had berated her and later made inappropriate passes at her. As he did then and again in federal court this week, Nix testified to witnessing Thomas hugging Browne Sanders in a Garden hallway in February of 2004, and her pushing away. When Nix asked her what happened, he testified, she told him that Thomas said he was in love with her and that their contentious relationship reminded Thomas of the characters in the movie "Love and Basketball."

What's more, Browne Sanders told Nix at the time that Thomas called her a "(expletive) bitch, and a "(expletive) ho," after reporting to Thomas that another Knicks executive, Frank Murphy, had called her a "bitch."

Nix had nothing to gain by backing Browne Sanders, except perhaps a clear conscience and a sober stare in the mirror every morning.

And to lose? Between those depositions in January and the trial this week, Nix was dismissed of his duties as director of scouting.

In Nix's mind, telling the truth would cost him a $250,000-a-year job.

Nix wants this nightmare behind him and wouldn't be interviewed for this column, but a close friend of his in basketball said, "The moment Jeff told what he knew in the depositions, he understood he was finished at the Garden. He knew they would get rid of him, and they did.

"But he also knew that he couldn't live with himself if he didn't tell the truth."

As little respect as most league owners and executives have for Dolan, Thomas and the Garden, it will be fascinating to see how many admire Nix for doing the difficult thing, for sacrificing a career on principle, and how many still subscribe to the locker room code that says siding with a female marketing V.P. over the top basketball executive and coach is a move of weakness, even treachery. No matter how disdainful the alleged behavior with Thomas, in some corners, there's still the belief that Nix should've protected one of his own – a basketball guy.

Do you think that Thomas ever had to truly deal with a tough, determined woman in his professional life? Listen, she didn't get along with everyone at the Garden. That's a fact. She wanted players to be made available for marketing endeavors, and coaches wanted them to concentrate on winning games. That's the push and pull of every front office.

Still, no one ever did bully Browne Sanders, a former All-American player at Northwestern. Just remember something: By and large, there are two areas with which women are generally most familiar to pro players: gyrating half-naked on the court during timeouts, and standing by the bank of elevators in the hotel lobby.

In the abrupt way that Dolan fired Browne Sanders, it sure seemed like he never wanted to know the truth about her charges. She complained, and he dumped her. Whatever case the Garden has made about her poor performance meriting dismissal seems contrived. In the end, Browne Sanders, who finds herself radioactive professionally, had to leave the highest corridors of MSG to oversee non-revenue sports at the University of Buffalo. Nix is back living in South Bend, Ind., looking for his next basketball job.

When you talk to ex-Garden employees, there's such a sadness in their voices. Yes, it was always tough there. But they'll tell you that the culture dramatically changed once Dolan pushed out Dave Checketts in 2001 and decided that his father Charles' most treasured toys, the Knicks and Rangers, belonged to him now.

Under Dolan, this empire knows no shame, no embarrassment. His people do whatever they want there, and they do it so viciously, nastily, that ex-employees have taken to calling it "The Garden of Fear." In this case, Dolan has a courtroom of lawyers and a relentless appetite for destruction. He's going to the wall to defend Isiah Thomas, an ideal of Garden grandeur that long ago crumbled around MSG.

Maybe you believe Browne Saunders was going to lose her job and made a desperate bid to attach harassment charges on Thomas to try and win the lottery on her way out of the NBA. Just ask yourself, though: What did Jeff Nix have to lose by telling the truth, by standing next to her when the rest of the Garden was running away, determined to protect what they had there?

Only his job, his 15-year career with the Knicks.

Only everything.

Against self-interest, against all odds, here's someone to believe in that vitriolic federal courtroom, in that Garden of Fear.

Nix of the Knicks.

The old Knicks, anyway.

What to Read Next