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When Bob Lamm started a one-man boycott of Madison Square Garden after some Knicks players voiced anti-Semitic remarks to reporters last year, he never expected a reply. But now it seems you can add his name to the number of sensitivity checks that MSG wrote but can't cover.
MSG's efforts to dampen the ire over Bible-thumpers Charlie Ward and Allen Houston's remarks by arranging international trips and private meetings between protesters and players may be backfiring as corporate officials are breaking their promises, picking scabs of a controversy that appeared to be healed. "A meeting was arranged between Charlie Ward and people like myself," says Lamm. "It was more than hypothetical. And it was their idea. I was stunned and caught off guard."
Lamm, a Jewish activist and writer who lives in Manhattan, never expected a reply to his letter, which stated he would not attend a Knicks game or even watch one on TV if the players didn't cough up an apology. When the phone call came from the Garden's Guest Services office, Lamm was surprised that MSG was deviating from the usual corporate strategy of sitting tight and letting everything blow over.
"It sounded like they were calling everyone who sent a letter," Lamm says. MSG has clammed up over the matter and refers to an earlier statement that says the players were misquoted, but also apologizes for the players' comments. The Guest Services official, David Snowden, refused to answer the Voice's questions.
But other promises made by the Knicks over this incident are also being broken. The team agreed to receive counsel from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Eckstein declared that Ward is not anti-Semitic, only to be stiffed a year later when, as Peter Ephross reported in the Voice, Ward refused to return his calls, saying he is studying Judaism with another, unnamed rabbi. A purported trip to Israel by Ward has also been canceled.
The whole shit-storm started last season when Ward spouted inflammatory comments about Jews to The New York Times Magazine, saying Christians were "being persecuted by Jews every day" and giving his version of biblical events, accusing them of killing Christ. "Jews are stubborn," Ward remarked to the reporter. "But tell me, why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept?"
A furor ensued. MSG president Dave Checketts made profuse public apologies, the players cried that their words had been taken out of context, and reporters buzzed about it for a day or two. The controversy was fueled by Coach Jeff Van Gundy's remarks saying that pregame chapel meetings, run by team pastor John Love and attended by Ward and Houston, were proving a distraction during the playoffs.
As for Ward, Lamm said the meeting would have been hot but maybe not helpful. "It's very rare for pro athletes to be confronted directly the way we would have confronted Mr. Ward. It could have been quite startling for him," Lamm says. "Based on his comments, I'm not convinced it would have done him any good."