(Reuters) - Isiah Thomas, an NBA Hall of Famer who was named president of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s New York Liberty despite a 2007 court ruling he sexually harassed a female colleague, maintained his innocence on Thursday and said he was “proud of the man” he is today.
A federal jury eight years ago found that Thomas, then coach of the New York Knicks, made unwanted advances to team executive Anucha Browne Sanders, and it ordered Madison Square Garden and its chairman, James Dolan, to pay her $11.6 million in punitive damages for unfairly firing her after she complained about Thomas.
”I’ve always maintained my innocence,“ Thomas told reporters on Thursday at the team’s training camp. ”I’ve moved on from that. Our organization has moved on from that.
“I‘m proud of the way I’ve lived my life and I‘m proud of the man that I stand here today before you.”
Several high-profile domestic abuse cases involving athletes over the past year have led sports leagues in the United States to take a second look at how they treat women’s issues. Dolan’s move to name Thomas as the Liberty’s president and give him an ownership stake has raised some eyebrows.
Thomas, 54, who won two National Basketball Association championships as a point guard with the Detroit Pistons before retiring in 1994, was Knicks president from 2003 to 2008 and beginning in 2006 also coached the team for two years.
He and Dolan met with Liberty players before training camp opened on Sunday.
“It was necessary to do it because we live in a society where the information that’s out there, some’s accurate, some’s not accurate,” Thomas said. “We felt it was necessary to meet, discuss and have an open forum, let our players ask any questions and then give our side.”
Thomas, who was never found personally liable in the Sanders discrimination case, said the Liberty players were “grown women and they can make up their own minds and come to their own conclusions.”
The WNBA said Thomas’ application to become a part owner of the Liberty was under review. Madison Square Garden owns the club.
Thomas said frank discussions about sexual discrimination had been a good thing.
“It has made our sport better, it has made our society better and it has made humanity better because it’s out of the closet and we discuss it,” he said.
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney