New York Opening night at Madison Square Garden was once Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, a sold-out house echoing with chants of "Dee-fense," a hit-the-open-man offense that was part precision, part poetry.
Not lately. And particularly not this year.
When the 2007-08 New York Knicks play their home opener tonight, their much maligned owner Jim Dolan will enter the Garden as the loser in a sexual harassment case - found personally liable for $3 million of an $11.6 million judgment awarded to a fired MSG executive.
Their coach, Isiah Thomas, was described in trial testimony as a foul-mouthed bully who made unwanted sexual overtures when not bad-mouthing the team's fans. He referred to the team's season ticket holders as "these white people," with a vulgarity thrown in for emphasis, according to the fired executive's account under oath.
Knick backers apparently share the animus: Thomas was booed during preseason, and courtside tickets for the opener were still available Saturday.
Their star guard, Stephon Marbury, was exposed as the John "Bluto" Blutarsky of the team's "Animal House" atmosphere, bedding an intern inside his pickup with this suave line: "Are you going to get in the truck?"'
Thomas has vehemently denied the charges, and the Garden is appealing the harassment decision. The team also got some good news Saturday when Al Sharpton and his National Action Network backed off their threats of protests at MSG, satisfied with Thomas' stance on derogatory language toward women.
But the Knicks, buried in bad publicity and struggling to find a winning formula under its embattled coach, remain a team engulfed in turmoil.
It's a drastic drop for a franchise led to two NBA titles by Reed and Frazier in the early 1970s, and to a pair of NBA finals by Patrick Ewing during the 1990s.
The Garden's legal woes aren't over yet; former Knicks vice president Anucha Browne Sanders returns to federal court Nov. 15 seeking $9.6 million in compensatory damages on top of the punitive damages awarded by a federal jury.
The Knicks' handling of the lawsuit "demonstrates that they're not a model of intelligent management," NBA commissioner David Stern told ESPN in the latest public slap at the team. "There were many checkpoints along the way where more decisive action would have eliminated this issue."
Stern has yet to mete out any punishment against the Knicks over the jury verdict, which prompted headlines like "World's Most Heinous Arena" in the New York papers. But he warned the case was "very much under review."
Since Thomas arrived in 2003, the team hasn't fared much better on court than its management did in court. While its payroll stands as the league's highest, its total of playoff wins still sits at zero.
Dolan also remains at odds with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who offered an unusually sharp rebuke when asked last week whether the Garden would keep its $10.9 million annual tax break if it moves to a new location.
"Not if I'm mayor they won't," said Bloomberg, who questioned Dolan's patriotism after the goateed team owner helped submarine the city's plan to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.
The only good to come from the massive negative attention from the trial: Little scrutiny was placed on the Knicks newest star, Zach Randolph, who came to New York with a checkered past including arrests and a fistfight with a teammate.
Welcome to the Knicks, Zach.
After Stern's remarks, Dolan - who famously announced in a pretrial deposition that he made all decisions at the Garden - issued a statement expressing his "high regard" for the commissioner."