NEW YORK - A jury decided Tuesday that New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas sexually harassed a former top team executive, subjecting her to unwanted advances and a barrage of verbal insults, but also said he does not have to pay punitive damages.
After an ugly, three-week trial, the verdict gives Thomas a partial victory in the $10 million lawsuit filed by Anucha Browne Sanders.
The jury did find that Madison Square Garden committed harassment against the woman, and decided that she is entitled to punitive damages from MSG.
U.S. District Judge Gerard E. Lynch called it an "eminently reasonable" verdict and said the jury will be asked to return later Tuesday to hear brief arguments on punitive damages.
"I'm innocent, very innocent, and I did not do the things she has accused me in this courtroom of doing," Thomas said. "I'm extremely disappointed that the jury did not see the facts in this case. I will appeal this, and I remain confident in the man that I am and what I stand for and the family that I have."
Madison Square Garden also said it would appeal.
"We believe that the jury's decision was incorrect," MSG said in a statement. "We look forward to presenting our arguments to an appeals court, and believe they will agree that no sexual harassment took place and MSG acted properly."
The harassment verdict was widely expected after the jury sent a note to the judge Monday indicating that it believed Thomas and the other defendants, Madison Square Garden and MSG chairman James Dolan, sexually harassed Browne Sanders, a married mother of three.
After the verdict, Browne Sanders hugged family members and friends gathered in the back of the courtroom. Thomas huddled with his lawyers, and was allowed to leave the Manhattan courthouse. Dozens of reporters and cameras gathered outside the courthouse to await his exit.
Browne Sanders, fired from her $260,000 a year job in 2006, sued Thomas and Madison Square Garden. Her case presented the Garden as "Animal House" in sneakers, a place where nepotism, sexism, crude remarks and crass language were part of the culture.
The former Northwestern college basketball star characterized Thomas as a foul-mouthed lout who initially berated her as a "bitch" and a "ho" before his anger gave way to ardor, with Thomas making unwanted advances and encouraging her to visit him "off site."
Thomas, who was hired in December 2003, followed her to the stand and denied all her allegations. Attorneys for Thomas and the Garden also portrayed Browne Sanders as incompetent and unable to adapt once the former NBA star player arrived as the Knicks' president.
"That's not about sexual harassment," MSG attorney Ronald Green said in his closing argument. "That's about team politics."
Thomas, who is married with two children, acknowledged trying to kiss Browne Sanders in December 2005, asking her "No love today?" when she recoiled. MSG president Steve Mills said he spoke with Thomas about the single incident, and the former point guard said it wouldn't happen again.
In her closing argument, Browne Sanders' attorney Anne Vladeck made note of Thomas' charismatic style and incandescent grin.
"There is no question Mr. Thomas can be charming and flash an engaging smile," she told the jury. "That does not give him the right to treat Browne Sanders like she is his woman."
Dolan, who testified before Thomas, said he dismissed the team's vice president for marketing and business operations after learning she was pressuring Garden subordinates to bolster her complaint.
The case, from its inception, proved a public relations disaster for the Knicks and the Garden, with intense coverage of the three-week trial focusing on its tawdriest aspects — star guard Stephon Marbury having sex with an intern outside a strip club, raunchy come-ons from a Marbury cousin to his Garden co-workers, Thomas' videotaped remarks about the racial dynamics of calling a woman "a bitch."
The trial did steer attention from the Knicks on-court woes as the team geared up for its second season with Thomas as coach. The Knicks finished 33-49 last year, and have yet to win a playoff game during the Thomas regime.
The Knicks opened training camp Tuesday in Charleston, S.C.