Content warning: Sexual assault
The past few years, whenever someone complains about the Knicks being the only NBA team that avoids dealing with its local media, a tweet like this appears:
This is the riveting stuff the beat writers were frothing at the mouth to ask our players… glad they’re happy now https://t.co/t2vpVObcuA— sam (@fbl_sam) October 10, 2022
Lines are drawn and boundaries clear: there’s “us,” meaning the Knick organization and their fans. And then there’s “them,” establishment NBA media. The national press can piss off for not following or knowing the team as closely as we do; the local guys can go to hell for not being more positive about a franchise that’s won one playoff series in 20 years, or for not asking deeper, more thoughtful questions of people who’ve never shown an interest in hearing any.
And we all know most athletes are trained to offer nothing of interest in interviews. Quentin Grimes is about as compelling a quote as soft-serve vanilla ice cream. So the cynicism — or, depending on which side of the aisle you’re on, the pragmatism — of the Grimes example above is de rigueur. It proves the front office isn’t paranoid, just efficient. Kind, even. Why waste our time with non-news? What’s the point of the press bugging people to answer questions we know they never will?
When I was 18, I was at the bus station, waiting to hop a ride to Ithaca to see my then-girlfriend. There was a Burger King above the station. I was the only customer in the dining area. I read while I ate — Anne Rice, I’m sure — until someone asked if they could join me. I looked up. It was Walter.
Walter was a local celebrity at the time, an elderly man who went around the downtown mall playing his accordion and trying to bring joy to young people, especially children. I told him he could sit with me. I thought any interaction with another person was better than being alone. I’d get a story out of it, at the very worst; at best, I’d learn something about Walter that I’d carry forward in my life. Something I’d never have known without meeting him. Maybe something I’d use in a book someday.
A few minutes after he sat, Walter asked where I was going. After I told him I was gonna see my girlfriend, he told me that God put women on Earth to tempt men. That was it. All women wanted was my “seed,” because they wanted to steal my energy and trap me into having to support them for life. All women did was cry rape, he said, and I was “too nice” of a boy to suffer that. As he finished speaking, Walter slid a hand under the table, up my leg.
I told my father about this last week for the first time. Why did it take 25 years?
When I was 25, I worked at a Chinese restaurant. I took phone calls, sometimes made fried rice, folded endless paper bags and filled endless bags of chow mein noodles and handled all deliveries. It was maybe the most satisfying job I’ve ever had. I drove around meeting new people, seeing all kinds of neighborhoods, and getting cash under the table for it. My bosses were like family to me. I loved that time.
One July 4th we were open but knew business would be dead. A couple in their 50s who were always very friendly with my bosses called in an order. He was a professor and she sold homemade jewelry and crafts. Business was so slow that day I knew I could chill for a bit with them at their place, since they were five minutes from the restaurant. It was a lovely, sunny day.
When I got to their house they immediately gave me a drink. Then a second. This was my Big Lebowski phase, when I was all about hedonism, new highs and new humans. I sat and talked about art with them while the drinks settled into my brain. The husband told me to hang on a few minutes because he was burning me this great jazz CD. How sweet, I thought. People are actually pretty cool, if you give them the chance.
The CD kept taking longer than he thought. I wasn’t fazed. I knew my bosses had likely had no orders since I left; if things did get busy, they’d text me. So when the husband told me to lay on the kitchen floor because he’d learned this new back massage technique he wanted to show me, I figured it was cool. A bit of an odd request, sure, but his wife and her adult sister were also in the kitchen. Obviously with them there, I didn’t need to listen to the soft screams in the back of my mind telling me something wasn’t right.
I laid facedown on the floor. He started rubbing the middle of my back. Then he went lower. Then he went lower. I realized he was going to town rubbing my butt right as I realized the kitchen had gone oddly silent on account of his wife and her sister both having left. I didn’t like how he was touching me. I wasn’t comfortable with where things had gone.
I tried to push myself up. He pushed me down. I figured I must have misinterpreted something, so I said nothing and tried to rise again. Again, he pushed me down. Harder. The third time I finally broke through and stood up. He apologized, went upstairs, came back down, gave me the CD and disappeared. I left. I never saw them again.
I didn’t tell my bosses what their friend had done. When I’d told my parents years earlier about abuse that happened to me as a child, they said they didn’t believe me, that the devil had put subliminal messages into my music and books to trick me. When I told my girlfriend what had happened to me as a child, she told me she didn’t believe me, admitting it was because she “didn’t want to.”
People have plenty of good reasons to not wanna hear truth. Years later my father, after apologizing, explained how hard it had been for both my parents to know I’d been hurt that deeply, and to not have been able to protect me. I understand better now, as a parent myself, how difficult that must have been for them. Besides, it’s not like there’s a really good response to someone telling you they were sexually abused. Trust me, I’ve heard ‘em all.
Still. Doesn’t make those reasons right.
28 NBA head coaches met with the press on Media Day or in the days leading up to it. Erik Spoelstra had to have a Miami executive step in for him, as his wife was going into labor. The other was Tom Thibodeau, who is sort of famously without wife or children. It was Thibodeau’s first time speaking with the media since April. 29 teams had some executive speak with reporters at some point over the prior year. Only New York head honcho Leon Rose did not.
The Knick press has been trying to ask someone from the team the same question for four months. Namely: did the organization order any kind of investigation into allegations that followed Rick Brunson at two different jobs before hiring him as an assistant coach in New York? The only answer the team has even vaguely offered yet is “No comment.” That’s nowhere near fucking good enough.
Brunson, a Knick end-of-the-bencher from the late Jeff Van Gundy era, resigned from the Minnesota Timberwolves after multiple women accused him of improper conduct. During his time in the Twin Cities he worked for Thibodeau, as he did in Chicago prior to that. While there, he went to trial over sexual assault charges made by a massage therapist he admitted having an affair with. At the end of a bench trial, meaning the verdict is handed down by a judge rather than a jury, Brunson was acquitted.
Remember that “not guilty” is not the same as “innocent.” Ask yourself this: if a woman you care about needed a ride home, and you knew two people who could do it, and one had been charged with sexual assault but acquitted, and one had never been charged, who would you trust? Sometimes the justice system works. More often when money’s involved, where there’s smoke there’s a fire no one’s gonna put out.
Two years after joining Thibs in Minnesota, Brunson resigned after the Timberwolves looked into the improper conduct allegations. One of the women claimed Brunson made several unwanted advances toward her. If hearing about a masseuse and unwanted advances reminds you of Deshaun Watson, consider that in 2022 an extremely famous professional athlete was able to survive LITERALLY DOZENS AND DOZENS of women accusing him of violating their bodily autonomy. How much easier might it be for some nameless assistant coach to wiggle out of trouble? Relatedly, if the Knicks have reason to think Brunson was wrongfully accused outside of his self-interest in saying so, how easy might it be to tell the press and keep the story from hanging around?
Consider this, too: Thibodeau, when finally addressing the question, offered a hand-washing Pontius Pilate would admire: “I would just say in general, our organization is gonna vet everyone. That’s a normal protocol now. But I’m not sure exactly of everything that was done, but I know whenever they hire anyone, they’re gonna vet them.”
Consider that rhetorical jailbreak. “Our organization is gonna vet everyone” does the work of equating Brunson to any MSG employee, whether it’s a player, an executive, a call center rep, one of the Rockettes, whomever. It absolves Brunson of the unusual weight he carries – most prospective employees haven’t faced allegations of improper conduct and sexual harassment at any job, much less THEIR LAST TWO. “I’m not sure exactly of everything that was done” is an extra eight syllables spent muddying the waters that four would’ve made clear: “Don’t know. Don’t care.” Remember: Brunson’s son Jalen is the Knicks’ shiny new toy, their most-expensive and probably best player.
Consider Minnesota’s statement after their investigation (bold emphasis mine):
“Our entire organization — made up of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Minnesota Lynx and Iowa Wolves — is deeply committed to creating a safe work environment for our employees, partners and fans. Our teams strive to have our actions reflect our values each and every day. We work to maintain high standards of conduct and expect our staff to lead by example. We did not believe Mr. Brunson’s conduct was consistent with those standards.”
A Knicks reporter followed up asking Thibodeau again whether New York did any investigating of the prior charges brought against Brunson. Quoth Thibs: “I don’t know. That would be a question for Leon.” If Thomas Joseph Thibodeau Jr. honestly isn’t aware whether someone he’s worked with twice before, someone he knows ran into trouble for the same shit at both jobs, was investigated before being hired as his co-worker in a third place, then Thibs is grossly incompetent and needs to be fired yesterday. If he’s playing dumb to protect his boy, he’s doing so knowing full well his bosses couldn’t give a rat’s ass about public access to the truth or how women feel in the workplace. Or did you forget the same man who signs Brunson’s paycheck paid millions in damages to Anucha Brown Sanders in light of a jury finding MSG’s workplace culture was responsible for Sanders’ rights being violated?
In July The Athletic asked to speak with Rose; the Knicks refused. On the night of the draft, the Knick beat reporters asked to speak with him. Denied. They asked again at the end of free agency. Denied. The only Rose anyone has seen was when he went on
Pravda MSG, speaking only with fellow Dolan employees. He talked about basketball. That’s it.
According to Fred Katz and Jon Krawczynski:
“ . . . three days before the commencement of training camp, The Athletic requested to ask Rose if there was an investigation into Brunson once again. A team spokesperson responded, via email, that the Knicks ‘are not facilitating anything outside of our scheduled media day/training camp run of show right now.’ When allowed to answer in a statement supplied to The Athletic, the team spokesperson responded, via email, ‘At this time, we’re only proceeding with our scheduled media day/training camp availabilities.’”
They also asked to speak with Brunson directly, but were told the Knicks ban assistant coaches from speaking to the press.
I “knew” Walter before he ran his hand up my leg. I’d seen him before, delighting young children. I “knew” the professor who kept trying to force my body to submit to his will. When I was molested, it was in a church, by a man I recognized. I was raped twice later in life. I knew the people who did it each time.
Here’s the value of a free and independent press: the Knicks are not just 15 jocks and some coaches who fly around North America balling. They are a company worth billions of dollars who have God only knows how many employees. They receive a minimum of a $40 million tax break every year that they’ve enjoyed for 40 years. They’re not just a basketball team. They’re a company. They’re a public trust. They should operate as a model corporate citizen. Not as a creep.
It really wasn’t all that long ago that a Knick admitted on the witness stand to having sex with a Knick intern, one the Daily News made sure to point out was “pretty.” It’s as easy now as it was then to blame others. The intern shouldn’t have gotten in the player’s truck. If the woman from Chicago hadn’t been consensually involved at first with Brunson, maybe none of the other stuff comes after. If.
If I hadn’t walked into a church bathroom exactly when I did, maybe what happened to me never does. If I hadn’t been drunk, maybe I don’t get raped. It took years to realize it wasn’t my fault. I wonder what that intern from 2005 thinks about what happened to her now. What Brunson’s co-worker from Chicago thinks. What the women from Minnesota think.
When Thibodeau says, as he did last week, “ . . . I’m comfortable. I know who [Rick Brunson] is,” I wish I could tell him he doesn’t. There are so many questions I wish I could ask him – not out of judgment or curiosity, but because the man has zero idea how many people’s hearts hurt all over again whenever they see someone lazily defending a person accused of a sex crime. They don’t wear scarlet letters.
A few weeks ago, Howard Beck got a lot of attention for asking Adam Silver why Robert Sarver is treated differently for his vile and abusive behavior than an hourly employee would be. Silver stumbled into the least eloquent response I’ve ever seen from him. I wasn’t expecting more. Still, my heart swelled with pride in Beck and validation for myself.
For victims of sex crimes, the inability to hold power to account becomes a chain we can carry for a lifetime. We’re used to people not believing us; even if they do and we go so far as to charge someone with a crime, they’re often acquitted. It’s hard to prove what only two people were there for, especially when one is committed to lying to save themselves. Still, it’s not always the answer that matters. Sometimes just hearing the right question asked offers a lightness of being to those who suffer in darkness.