Revisiting Madison Square Garden’s landmark sexual harassment case

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NEW YORK — After enduring years of alleged profane outbursts and sexual harassment from Isiah Thomas, Anucha Browne Sanders said she approached her boss — Steve Mills — and made it clear: “I want you to make it stop.”

“I said to Steve, ‘These are working conditions that don’t work for me, so you need to fix them,’ ” Browne Sanders said.

Mills, who was president of MSG Sports at the time, seemed non-committal — “What do you want me to do?” he responded, according to Browne Sanders — and she returned to her office. Mills then called to relay a warning, according to Browne Sanders.

“He said, ‘Well, you should be prepared that Isiah is going to start a rumor about you having an affair with Jeff Nix, another employee in the Knicks’ office,” Browne Sanders, who was married at the time, said. “I said Steve, ‘Is that a threat? He said, ‘No, no, it is not a threat. I said, ‘Do I need to find a lawyer? And he said, ‘No, you don’t need to find a lawyer.’ The conversation ended.”

Browne Sanders found a lawyer. The above quotes and allegations were part her testimony in a civil trial against MSG and Thomas, an embarrassing saga for Madison Square Garden that ended with Browne Sanders being awarded $11.6 million in damages.

The lawsuit, which was filed 15 years ago next January, now represents a uniquely unflattering inside view of a sports organization. These types of lawsuits are usually settled or tossed, so Sanders v. Madison Square Garden remains the NBA’s highest-profile harassment/wrongful termination case. It produced 1,606 pages of transcript from 22 witnesses, including owner James Dolan and former star point guard Stephon Marbury. It revealed allegations of a sex romp in an SUV, rampant profane outbursts, the team president ordering a female Garden exec to flirt with the referees before a game, and Marbury’s cousin — a Garden employee — telling a female intern, “I bet you that p—- looks good.” Two of MSG’s most prominent figures in the case — Thomas and Mills — were still employed by the company in the last year.

The Daily News reviewed the entire trial transcript through a modern-day lens, with norms and expectations altered following the #metoo movement. It’s not an attempt to re-litigate the trial or evaluate the verdict, but rather retell the absurd stories that were forgotten or underplayed in 2007. In the spirit of the throwback sports coverage dominating the coronavirus shutdown, this is a reexamination of unprecedented on-the-record access into an organization.

It’s important to note that the trial featured massive disparities in testimony from both sides. Browne Sanders’ allegations mostly focused on incidents and conversations with no witnesses. Her testimony is often contradicted by Mills and Thomas.

For instance, Mills denied telling Browne Sanders about the threat of a rumored affair with Nix. Thomas also denied telling Mills about the rumor.

Nix, however, testified that Browne Sanders informed him of Mills’ threat. His reaction was to contact MSG’s human resources and angrily deny the affair.

“I said (to human resources), Steve Mills is a f—— liar,” the former Knicks assistant GM said.

The claim that Browne Sanders was threatened into silence by such a rumor was one of several eyebrow-raising stories from the trial. Here are several others:


Kathleen Decker was an MSG intern celebrating her 22nd birthday with co-workers at a strip club. She had been dating Hassan Gonsalves, or just casually seeing him outside of work. Their relationship was unclear. Regardless, Decker agreed to ride home that night with Gonsalves, who was an MSG employee and Marbury’s cousin.

But Marbury had different ideas. He propositioned Decker while sitting across the street from the strip club in his parked car.

“Are you going to get in the truck?” the point guard testified to asking her.

The courtship was brief.

“It really wasn’t a conversation,” Marbury said.

Decker got in the SUV. The sex was consensual, she testified. Decker claimed she wasn’t drunk, only drinking. The car never moved, according to Marbury.

“We were stationary the whole time,” he said.

Marbury later texted something like “I want some more of that,” according to Decker.

Browne Sanders heard a different version of the SUV sex. Months after the incident, Browne Sanders testified to interviewing Decker inside the office and understood the encounter to be more required than optional.

“Stephon drove up alongside of her and said, ‘Are you getting in or not?’ ” Browne Sanders said. “She kept walking and he said, ‘Are you getting in or not?’ She said, ‘Anucha, if it was anybody else, I wouldn’t have gotten in, but I felt like I had to.’

“She said when she got in the car, she basically did whatever he asked her to do, and she said that she had sexual relations and she considered it to be consensual because she agreed to get in the car.”

Decker told another MSG employee — VP of community relations Karin Buchholz that — that she regretted the sexual encounter with Marbury and it her made her feel like a prostitute, according to Buchholz’s testimony.

Decker later testified as an MSG witness and portrayed Browne Sanders as a judgmental bully who forced her into retelling the story. Decker landed a full-time job with the Knicks soon after the SUV sex with Marbury, and then received a job promotion at MSG six weeks before the trial. She declined to comment when contacted last year.


Petra Pope was an entertainment executive at MSG, having helped create the Knicks City Dancers after managing the Laker Girls in their 1980s heyday. Her job title was VP of entertainment marketing at MSG, but, at least for one game, Thomas added the responsibility of making the “referees happy,” according to Browne Sanders.

What this meant was a point of debate. As with most things in this trial, the two sides had different stories.

“What had occurred was that Petra Pope was asked to go in (the referees lounge) and, as she described it, make the referees happy,” Browne Sanders testified. “And then I asked her to explain exactly what that meant, and she said, ‘Well, Isiah wants me to flirt with the refs.’ ”

Thomas claimed that wasn’t his purpose.

“No, I did not say go in and make them happy,” Thomas said. “I said go in and check to make sure that, you know, the food was there.”

Browne Sanders brought the issue to Mills, who then confronted Thomas.

“I asked him if he had asked Petra to check in on the referees,” Mills testified, “and (Thomas) said, ‘Well, we’ve been spending all this money, we upgraded the furniture, we upgraded the food, we provided more things to the referees in the (waiting) room.

“ ‘And they all know Petra, she’s been around the league a long time, I asked her to stick her head in and check to make sure everything was OK.’ ”

Mills, who had hired both Thomas and Browne Sanders, was satisfied with Thomas’ explanation but advised him to keep Pope out of it.

“I said, ‘We have plenty of people around who can do those kind of things. That’s not her job,” Mills said. “I don’t have a problem with us going to see whatever we need to check on the referees, I think that’s a great idea, but if you want that done, let’s get somebody that that’s in their job description to do it. I’ve already told Anucha that Petra doesn’t have to do it.”

Pope left the Knicks for the Nets prior to the trial and did not testify. She also declined to comment for this story.


Acquired via trade in 2004, Marbury was billed as the local prodigy who would save the Knicks from their post-Ewing drought. The star treatment included a direct line to Dolan and occupation opportunities for relatives.

“I asked if (Dolan) could give my two cousins a job,” Marbury testified.

Dolan’s answer?

“He said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ ”

Marbury’s cousins were indeed hired. They worked under Browne Sanders, the Garden’s VP of business operations, who said she was ordered to create positions and “make sure they are on the staff pretty quickly.”

One of the cousins, Hassan Gonsalves, allegedly wasn’t happy with his compensation and contacted Marbury to intervene. The point guard, trying to fix the situation for his cousin, testified to calling Browne Sanders derogatory terms in a conversation with another Garden employee.

“Yes, I called her a b—-,” Marbury said.

Marbury was accused of calling Browne Sanders, who is African American, a “black b—-.” He denied using the first word.

“I may have said, ‘F— her,’” Marbury said. “I didn’t call her a black b—-. I called her a b—-.”

Gonsalves’ behavior was an issue. One female employee reported that Gonsalves told her, “I want to stick it in you,” according to Browne Sanders. Another woman, Kathleen Decker, testified to Gonsalves making a crude comment when she was an intern, which Browne Sanders detailed in her testimony.

“Hassan said (to Decker), ‘You look good in those pants, I bet you that p—- looks good, too,’ ” Browne Sanders said. “Then she said that (Gonsalves) was saying a number of other disgusting things to her.”

Meanwhile, another employee connected to Dolan was allegedly causing problems. Vernon Manuel, a field marketing assistant, was the boyfriend of Dolan’s stepdaughter and hired at the owner’s urging.

“I made a recommendation,” Dolan said.

Manuel was deemed unruly and unfit for the position, but his superior, Buchholz, “felt like she was forced to change” his performance evaluation scores because of the relationship with Dolan, according to Browne Sanders.

“He was a poor performer. He was hostile to work with,” Browne Sanders said. “He would at times just show a lot of hostility towards his management and was quick to leverage or use his position with Mr. Dolan to try and get things done or complain about things or not do things.”

Still, Browne Sanders felt powerless.

“I would regularly let Steve (Mills) know that we were having problems with Vernon, and Steve would let me know this is Jim Dolan’s future son-in-law,” Browne Sanders testified, “and I need to figure out a way to make it work.”

Over two years after he was hired, MSG’s human resources launched an investigation into Manuel. He was then fired.

“Mr. Mills brought to me the decision to fire Mr. Manuel, and I did approve of that decision,” Dolan said.

Gonsalves was canned following a separate investigation.


The trial is filled with so many explosive moments and allegations it’s impossible, given the space constraints, to dive deep into all of them. So here are 5 quick hitters:

— Browne Sanders portrayed Thomas as aggressively reluctant to engage her or her marketing initiatives. In one instance, she asked him to sign a letter to season ticket-holders.

“B—-, I don’t give a f— about the season subscribers,” Thomas responded, according to Browne Sanders. “I don’t give a f— about these white people.”

Browne Sanders claimed she brought these comments to Mills, who took no action. Thomas denied making those comments and Mills testified that he hadn’t heard about it.

— Profanity throughout the trial makes an episode of ‘Love & Hip-Hop’ look tame. Here was Browne Sanders when asked for an example of Thomas berating her with ‘b—-’ in the middle of a sentence:

“It’s very difficult to say. At some points he broke up the sentence and said the word, ‘b—-,’ but if he could start a sentence — I’m not going to put words in his mouth — I’m telling you that what he said to me in those meetings, he started some of the sentences with the word ‘b—-’ he ended some of the sentences with the word ‘b—-’ or ‘f—— b—-.’ In mid-sentence he would stop because he was spewing curses and he’d end his sentence.”

Thomas denied cursing at Browne Sanders but also expressed his opinion that it’s less offensive for a black man to call a black woman a “b—-,” as opposed to a white man using that term toward a black woman.

“I’m sorry to say, I do make a distinction,” Thomas said in his deposition.

— Buchholz, who oversaw community relations and field marketing at MSG, was four weeks into her paternity leave when she was summoned by her boss, Browne Sanders.

“(Browne Sanders) said, I know I am not supposed to do this, it’s against the law and don’t tell anyone I’m doing this, but as your friend, I think — I don’t think you should take your six weeks, I think you should come back after four weeks because Steve Mills has an issue with your lifestyle,” said Buchholz, who is gay and whose partner carried the baby.

Browne Sanders emphasized that their conversation was kept a secret, according to Buchholz.

“I am just telling you this as your friend, that your future, for your future career, Steve has a problem,” Buchholz recalled Browne Sanders telling her. “So it would be in your best interests for your career to come back early.”

Buchholz cut her paternity leave short and returned. Mills said he never discussed Buchholz’s paternity leave with Browne Sanders

— Jamal Crawford was just acquired by the Knicks and a key player during the 2004-05 season. He also suffered a toe injury, but Isiah Thomas didn’t know the extent when a reporter informed him that his guard would be out for six weeks.

The confusion was rooted in team doctor Lisa Callahan going home for the holidays and leaving the care of Crawford to a colleague, according to Callahan. The backup doctor allegedly never communicated the diagnosis to Thomas, who was furious about being blindsided in an interview at a community event.

“One of the PR guys called me and said that you better call Isiah, he is pretty upset,” Callahan said. “I called Isiah, and he was very angry. He said you made me look like a f—— idiot. Don’t let this s— happen to me again, that kind of stuff.”

Callahan defended Thomas and said his anger was justified.

“I was hired, part of the reason I was hired was to communicate the issues, and I left him hanging publicly,” she said.

— Here was the Abbott & Costello moment of the trial:

Dolan: “The report that I was received was verbal.”

Attorney: “I am sorry. It was purple?”

Dolan: “Was verbal.”

Attorney: “Verbal?”

Dolan: “Verbal, meaning oral.”

Attorney: “Oral?”

Dolan: “Orally, yes.”

Attorney: “We certainly haven’t seen any purple documents in this case.”

Judge: “Just purple news coverage.”


Dolan said Mills brought him the offer.

“(Browne Sanders) demanded $6 million to not lodge a harassment complaint,” the owner testified.

Dolan decided against such a settlement, and said he fired Browne Sanders because of poor performance and attempts to manipulate the company’s investigation into her harassment claims.

The Garden trotted out 16 defense witnesses — all were MSG employees — with a clear strategy: convey Browne Sanders’ incompetence as senior VP of marketing and business operations, and demonstrate her pattern of concocting a harassment case without merit.

To counter the charges of her working ineptitude, Browne Sanders offered proof of promotions, salary increases and high scores on performance reviews. Still, the Garden highlighted multiple instances of Browne Sanders’ mistakes in the year before her dismissal.

Browne Sanders, for instance, promoted an open practice at MSG without coordinating with security or the facility managers. The defense argued that this led to an overcrowding issue at the Garden without proper security measures. She was accused by a Garden employee of failing to plan within the budget and having a foul mouth.

Browne Sanders acknowledged poor judgement for asking Thomas to sign 4,500 separate letters to season ticket holders, a task that could’ve resulted in wasted days and carpal tunnel.

“Now looking back on it, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do,” she testified, “but I was focused on the season subscribers. But looking back, I didn’t think it was a good idea.”

Mills blamed Browne Sanders for an embarrassing mural displayed at the entrance of the Garden. The Knicks had just made the regrettable trade for Eddy Curry, yet this mural promoting the upcoming season pictured the players who were dealt away.

“It had players on it that weren’t on the New York Knicks,” Mills said. “We made a trade and we traded some players for Eddy Curry, and the players that were traded were on the mural and Eddy Curry wasn’t. So I was upset about that and didn’t understand how that could happen.”

Browne Sanders’ also confessed to filing false tax returns for four consecutive years, which benefitted her financially but illegally. She claimed that an accountant made the error without her knowledge.


The Manhattan jury split Browne Sanders’ award from MSG into two parts — $6 million due to the hostile work environment fostered by Thomas and $5.6 million for wrongful termination. The jury was unable to decide whether Thomas should pay damages, so the judge ruled a mistrial his personal liability. The suit was settled at $11.5 million — just slightly below the jury’s award — as NBA Commissioner David Stern pushed for the Garden to give up its appeal.

Dolan and Thomas never acknowledged wrongdoing and guilt, maintaining that Browne Sanders concocted her accusations. When Thomas was named team president and part owner of MSG’s New York Liberty in 2015, the company released a statement reiterating their stance.

“We did not believe the allegations then, and we don’t believe them now,” it read.

Even more recently, Dolan told ESPN “the truth didn’t come out” and his mistake was not being more involved and “more careful about how we defended ourselves.”

“People told me when you’re in these kind of trials that it’s stacked against you,” he said, “as being the big employer versus, particularly, a minority woman.”

Dolan’s actions toward his Garden executives certainly demonstrated he believed them over Browne Sanders. Thomas, 59, was the Knicks coach until 2008, then brought back to MSG as a consultant and president of the Liberty. He left the company last year after Dolan sold the Liberty. Mills, 60, departed MSG in 2009 to work with Magic Johnson, but was re-hired by Dolan in 2013 and promoted to Knicks GM and team president.

Mills was fired in February after 6 1/2 poor seasons.

Browne Sanders now goes by Anucha Browne and is listed as the Chief Strategy & Engagement Officer at UNICEF. She was previously the VP of women’s basketball championships at the NCAA and has kept a low profile since the trial.


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