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The New York Knicks put a price tag this week on the lawsuit they filed against the Toronto Raptors in the summer, demanding more than US$10-million in damages and escalating a war of words with their Eastern Conference opponent over a former Knicks employee who allegedly shared proprietary scouting information with the Raptors after the team hired him in August.

In a court filing on Monday, the Knicks pulled back the curtain for a rare glimpse of discord over governance in the NBA, refuting the Raptors’ insistence that the case should be adjudicated behind closed doors by the NBA commissioner because of an alleged conflict of interest in the league’s structure.

The Knicks argued commissioner Adam Silver is effectively an employee of Larry Tanenbaum, the minority owner of the Raptors’ parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, who chairs the NBA’s board of governors. According to the filing, “Tanenbaum and Silver also have a close relationship.”

Tanenbaum, the chair of MLSE and its most recognizable public face, was first elected chair of the NBA board of governors in 2017 and re-elected last year.

The dispute erupted after the Raptors’ new head coach, Darko Rajakovic, hired Ikechukwu (Ike) Azotam, the Knicks’ director of video, analytics and player development in July. The Knicks alleged that Rajakovic and others in the Raptors organization, “conspired to use Azotam’s position as a current Knicks insider to funnel proprietary information to the Raptors to help them organize, plan, and structure the new coaching and video operations staff.”

The complaint alleges that, after Azotam had been hired by the Raptors and before he left the Knicks, he acted as a “mole” under the direction of Rajakovic, forwarding a series of confidential Knicks documents from his team e-mail address, “including scouting reports, play frequency data, opposition research, opposing play tendencies, lists and diagrams of opponents’ key plays, and the Knicks’ prep book” for the 2022-23 season.

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He also allegedly shared with Raptors staff a login to a video service that contained thousands of video clips, including analyses of Raptors players.

But in a filing last month, the Raptors called the allegations of intellectual property theft “false and overblown,” and the lawsuit “baseless” and “a public relations stunt.” The filing added that, even if the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York determined it was the appropriate venue for such a matter, the court likely wouldn’t even begin hearing arguments until after the conclusion of the current NBA season “and not ultimately resolve the dispute until 2025 at the earliest.”

In withering language, the Raptors said the Knicks had “mischaracterized the facts to smear” the team and the individual defendants, adding that “not only are the files at issue not trade secrets, but they are actually available to every NBA team.”

The filing added that, “the evidence will show that the ‘play book’ the Knicks accused Mr. Azotam of stealing was nothing more than a schedule of the prior 2022-23 NBA season with scout assignments that Mr. Azotam desired to use as a template for the 2023-24 season, hardly anything worth complaining about let alone filing a federal lawsuit.”

The Raptors also indicated that, when the Knicks first contacted them shortly after Azotam changed jobs, they offered to co-operate and were taken aback when the Knicks instead filed the suit days later.

They argued the matter would be best kept in the NBA family and arbitrated under the auspices of the league’s constitution, saying that “suits among members of the same sports league are virtually unheard of. This is because leagues like the NBA adopt constitutions that vest in their commissioners exclusive, full, complete, final and binding authority to resolve disputes among members. They are among the most comprehensive arbitration clauses anywhere. Such sweeping authority is justified by a commissioner’s superior knowledge of league history and practice, unique ability to discern the impact of alleged misconduct on team competition, and the means to rule quickly and efficiently, as well as leagues’ typical desire to keep internal matters confidential.”

In their filing Monday, the Knicks dismissed the Raptors’ defence as “shrill” and added that Silver himself had deferred to the court’s jurisdiction when MLSE twice asked him in September to weigh in, after the suit had been filed.

“None of the underlying issues have anything whatsoever to do with the NBA constitution and bylaws, which covers topics such as rules of the game, protesting game results, membership to the organization, and relocating teams. No provision of the NBA constitution addresses the theft of intellectual property specifically, or the protection of a team’s intellectual property more broadly,” the team wrote.

The Knicks also argued that Silver “is conflicted” and that, while the NBA constitution outlines how the league’s board of governors is supposed to elect its chair, Tanenbaum’s “elections have been performative. It is the NBA – led by commissioner Silver – that handpicks the candidate for chairman, a selection that is submitted by the league to the board of governors without an opposing nominee, thus leaving the governors with no other option.”

The filing added that “Tanenbaum has been described as ‘a close ally of commissioner Adam Silver. Silver himself described Tanenbaum as ‘not just my boss as the chairman of the board of governors, but he’s very much a role model in my life.’ If Silver were to preside over the instant dispute, he would be arbitrating a case for his boss and ally.”

On Tuesday, MLSE spokesperson Dave Haggith said the company declined to comment.

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