THE FIRST STRIKE in what several legal experts have described as a first-of-its-kind legal war between two NBA teams can be traced back to Aug. 17, 2023.
It came in the form of a letter from the chief legal counsel for the New York Knicks, and it was addressed to Toronto Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum. It claimed the Knicks had, only days before, uncovered a dastardly conspiracy at the hands of their Atlantic Division rival, situated some 340 miles away.
It was a plot, the two-page letter alleged, centered on potential “illegal activities” involving a former Knicks employee whom the Raptors had recently hired. Specifically, the Knicks claimed that Ikechukwu Azotam, who worked for the Knicks as an assistant video coordinator, then as a director of video/analytics/player development assistant, had illegally provided the Raptors with more than 3,000 confidential files, up to and including video scouting reports, play frequency files, a prep book for the 2022-2023 season and opposition research.
It alleged Azotam, after receiving a job offer from Toronto, had begun “secretly forwarding proprietary information from his Knicks email account to his personal Gmail account,” which he then shared with the Raptors.
The Knicks declared their investigation was still ongoing, and that Azotam could be in violation of various international, federal and New York laws. They wrote civil damages and criminal penalties could include a fine of $5 million.
In the letter, the Knicks made several demands, including that the Raptors destroy what they claim was stolen information while preserving communications on all personal and company devices — namely emails — from Azotam, who worked for the Knicks from 2020 to 2023. The Knicks expected a response within four days, they wrote, and closed by noting that the Knicks reserved all rights “to pursue this vigorously as we continue to consider our options” — a not-so-subtle hint toward potential legal action.
The Raptors didn’t wait four days to respond. They barely waited one.
The next day, on Friday, Aug. 18, Raptors chief legal officer Peter Miller emailed a one-page, six-sentence response, claiming the organization didn’t know what information, if any, Azotam had relating to his work with the Knicks. It said the Raptors “have no interest in any information” that the Knicks described. It said that the Raptors would sit down with Azotam to determine what information he had, that they’d preserve any relevant records and that they intended to cooperate to address these concerns.
The Raptors had hoped to conduct an internal investigation and settle the matter behind closed doors, court documents would later suggest, but the Knicks desired another route — and they didn’t wait to act. By the next business day, Monday, Aug. 21, the Knicks filed a 21-page lawsuit in the U.S. Southern District Court in Lower Manhattan, roughly three miles south from where the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden.
Immediately, the conflict entered the public record, and blockbuster headlines spread. The Raptors were blindsided, as they described in a future court filing on Oct. 16, and later said that the defendants named in the suit — including Azotam, Raptors head coach Darko Rajaković, Raptors player development coach Noah Lewis and 10 unknown Raptors employees — didn’t even learn about its filing until it was reported in the press.
In that complaint, the Knicks pushed even further — alleging Azotam’s “theft of data” in early August came at the direction of Rajaković and others in the organization to help “this novice coach in doing his job.”
Rajaković addressed the lawsuit during the team’s Oct. 2 media day, saying, “I know that there’s nothing that I should be worried about. And I cannot wait for this lawsuit to be over so everybody can find the truth.”
On Friday, the Knicks face the Raptors for the first time since the lawsuit was filed, but, in the background of this on-court matchup, their in-court conflict has only intensified. Lawyers who specialize in the issues at the center of this lawsuit told ESPN that the allegations, and the suit itself, are both strange and surprising — and they raised concerns about both the Knicks’ strategy and the potential ramifications of such a case. In subsequent court filings, the Raptors have called the lawsuit “baseless” and a “public relations stunt.” They’ve also repeatedly asked for NBA commissioner Adam Silver to settle the dispute.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have repeatedly objected, including in a Nov. 20 court filing in which they argued that Silver’s close relationship with Tanenbaum presents a conflict of interest.
“Tanenbaum serves as Silver’s boss and exercises control over and heavily influences Silver’s continued employment and salary,” the Knicks wrote in the filing obtained by ESPN, later adding, “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.”
The Knicks, Raptors and the NBA declined to comment for this story, but in court filings, which contain internal emails between the teams and the league office itself, the Knicks say they intend to prove at trial that damages exceed $10 million and Azotam illegally provided the Raptors a trove of internal information.
“Can you own a scouting report? The source information is indisputably going to be ‘out there,’ but can a team own its analysis of it? In this respect, the Knicks’ theory represents a truly groundbreaking issue,” said Patrick Hammon, a lawyer and partner at the San Francisco-based firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, which specializes in high-stakes trade secrets litigation. “And it is something that, as best I can tell, is completely unprecedented.”
RAPTORS PRESIDENT MASAI UJIRI folded his arms across the table facing the assembled media for Raptors media day on Oct. 2. He began what would be a 30-minute question-and-answer session. It took but one minute for the topic to be broached.
It was a two-part query. The first part: How would he characterize his summer in trying to improve the Raptors’ roster? And, secondly, did he have any comment on the Knicks’ lawsuit?
Tensions have long existed between the Knicks and the Raptors, and specifically Ujiri, whose history with James Dolan, the Knicks’ governor and the Madison Square Garden Company’s executive chairman and CEO, dates back to Ujiri’s time with the Denver Nuggets more than a decade ago.
In 2011, when Ujiri helmed the Nuggets, the team traded Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks for a slew of draft picks and players. Dolan would later be criticized for overpaying rather than waiting for Anthony to join the team — his desired destination, as he stated — in free agency. (Insult to injury for the Knicks: One of the picks the Nuggets received in that trade was later used to draft current Nuggets guard Jamal Murray.)
In 2013, with Ujiri now in Toronto, the 54-win Knicks traded multiple key players — including Marcus Camby and Steve Novak — and three draft picks for center Andrea Bargnani, whose Knicks career lasted two injury-plagued seasons. The Knicks haven’t won as many games since and have made the playoffs only twice in the past 11 years. The Raptors, meanwhile, used one of the picks in that trade to draft Jakob Poeltl, who became a key part of the 2018 trade for Kawhi Leonard, who led the Raptors to a title in 2019.
That same year, in 2013, there was a failed trade between the two teams that would have sent then-27-year-old point guard Kyle Lowry from Toronto to the Knicks. “I was traded,” Lowry said then. “Essentially, I was gone.” The Knicks would have reportedly sent Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and draft picks to Toronto. But the New York Daily News reported that the deal was vetoed by Dolan, who was sensitive to public perception that Ujiri had won the Anthony trade by a landslide. “Dolan didn’t want to get fleeced again by Masai,” one Knicks source told the Daily News. “They had a deal ready.” Lowry remained with the Raptors and was critical to the team’s 2019 title run.
In 2014, nearly halfway through a 35-minute interview on a Canadian talk show hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos, Ujiri was asked what it meant that Phil Jackson was now associated with the Knicks, who had recently hired the longtime coach and former Knick as team president. “Absolutely nothing,” Ujiri said, quickly adding that he was kidding. He then said he expected that Jackson would do a “phenomenal job,” but then Ujiri nodded to his competitive persona. “Please clap after this: I hate the Knicks, and I don’t care, really.”
In 2020, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Ujiri had long been sought after to run the Knicks. Specifically, Wojnarowski reported that Ujiri was the “dream candidate” for Dolan. But Ujiri has rebuffed the Knicks’ attempts and, in 2021, signed a new deal with Toronto.
Back in Toronto, sitting in front of a “We The North” lectern, Ujiri pondered the pending lawsuit against his team and all the history that preceded it. He sat straight up, his hands folded into one another, and answered.
“I think there has been one time in the history of the NBA that a team has sued a team,” he said, the corners of his mouth turned up into a subtle grin. “One time.”
Then, Ujiri shrugged.
UJIRI’S STATEMENT ABOUT the unprecedented nature of the Knicks-Raptors lawsuit isn’t entirely accurate. In 1977, the Nets and Knicks engaged in a legal battle over the Nets’ attempts to move from Long Island to New Jersey. The Knicks, claiming territorial rights to New Jersey, sought to block the move. The Nets then sued the Knicks in the United States District Court in Newark, alleging that the Knicks were violating antitrust laws. The Knicks, in Federal District Court, countersued. Eventually, with the urging of a federal judge, the two teams settled.
But, by and large, lawsuits between pro teams are rare. In 1992, the Miami Miracle — a minor league baseball team — sued the Florida Marlins, alleging that the Marlins stole their name, logo and territory without compensation. (The Marlins prevailed.) In 1994, the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts jointly filed a lawsuit against a new CFL franchise based in Baltimore that wanted to be known as the Baltimore CFL Colts. (The team eventually was named the Stallions.) In 2003, the then-Oakland Raiders sued the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers for alleged trademark violations. (A judge dismissed the case.)
Beyond the Nets-Knicks lawsuit, ESPN research failed to uncover other instances of one NBA team directly suing another — and that 1977 lawsuit focused more on business than basketball-related information. The current Knicks-Raptors legal fracas, conversely, centers on what the Knicks claim is an effort to gain a “competitive advantage” in an illicit way.
“It’s not something I’ve ever come across, or can think of, that’s analogous in sports,” said Kevin Paule, a Florida-based attorney at Hill Ward Henderson who focuses, in part, on litigation on trade secrets.
In 2017, Major League Baseball fined the St. Louis Cardinals $2 million and docked them draft picks after a Cardinals employee hacked into the Houston Astros’ player personnel database and email system. That employee was later sentenced to nearly four years in prison by a federal judge.
But Hammon said the Cardinals-Astros saga is different from what the Knicks allege, because the Raptors say that Azotam used his own login to access internal Knicks information rather than hacking into it.
“The Knicks will need to show that someone accessed a system without permission to access it,” Hammon said. “I’m not sure they get there based on these facts.”
IN THE KNICKS’ 21-page complaint, the word “confidential” appears 37 times.
The Raptors, according to court documents, have vociferously attacked this point, with the team arguing multiple times that the information Azotam allegedly obtained was not confidential at all.
In their Oct. 16 response, the Raptors said the “alleged ‘theft of data’ involved little more than publicly available information compiled through public sources readily accessible to all NBA Members.” They added, “These were not the Knicks’ team and player statistics, play frequency data, player tendencies or play calls, but rather those of other NBA teams — including particularly the Raptors’ own game film — compiled from video of their games accessible to all NBA teams (and, indeed, the general public). In other words, they were far from confidential, let alone trade secrets. The Knicks surely know this.”
One analytics staffer for an NBA team expressed skepticism about the Knicks’ claim regarding confidential information from Synergy Sports, a subscription service that teams can use for video and statistical analysis.
“The data that they’re probably getting from Synergy, every NBA team could have access to it if they want to pay for it,” the staffer told ESPN. “But there’s nothing that the Knicks would be getting that Synergy only provides them. Really, we’re all using the same data. We all have access to the same data. There’s no data that one team is getting that another team can’t get. It’s just about how you’re using it.”
A second analytics staffer for an NBA team expressed a similar sentiment.
“The videos are not confidential,” the second staffer told ESPN. “It’s NBA game video; you can get it from anywhere. The only aspect that I think is that you can make custom playlists in Synergy — like putting together only certain clips. You could maybe glean something from that.”
For instance, if the Knicks had created a customized list of clips showing Knicks forward Julius Randle — a left-handed player — driving to his right, perhaps one might deduce that the Knicks were working on further developing that aspect of Randle’s skill set.
“But none of the clips or the stats are confidential,” the second staffer said. “The only thing I could think of is how you’re organizing them, but to sue someone over that is kind of ridiculous.”
That said, the Knicks have stated in their lawsuit the alleged stolen confidential information goes beyond video clips from Synergy.
Several legal experts wonder whether the Knicks could prove that information constitutes a protectable trade secret.
“A trade secret is not the product, it’s the process,” Hammon said. “This isn’t the 11 herbs and spices recipe from Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s not the Coca-Cola formula. It’s not the Google search algorithm — something that a competitor could take and reuse and really damage the owner.
“Of course, some of the information here may be useful in the moment, but, because it can’t be used over and over again, like an algorithm or a method or process, the Knicks are going to face serious challenges establishing that the allegedly misappropriated information even deserves trade secret protection in the first instance.”
Robert Boland, a professor of sports law at Seton Hall University Law School who also maintains a practice focused on sports labor and governance issues, said the same.
“If you were concerned about privacy and the loss of proprietary information, the last place you would be pursuing that is in a court proceeding seeking only monetary damages — because whether it’s actually proprietary is going to be an issue,” Boland said.
“You have to prove your damages in this circumstance and you’re going to have to tell the court, and by extension the public, what they took from you and what its value was. So more of that becomes public, which likely means the Knicks don’t care about it. I’m assuming by the time we get through the court hearings, all this information will be out of date. I’m not sure the subject matter is proprietary or that it’s even timely anymore.”
The Knicks said another reason they wanted the court, and not Silver, to handle the case is that Silver can issue only a maximum monetary penalty of $10 million — and they seek to prove that their damages are worth more.
When asked about the lawsuit, front office executives from teams across the league were generally dismissive — and quick to cite Dolan’s litigious reputation.
“I think this is a complete middle finger from Dolan to Larry Tanenbaum — and I think it’s nothing more than that,” one Eastern Conference executive told ESPN.
A Western Conference executive made similar remarks, telling ESPN, “In the game of basketball, coaches’ intellectual property is their brain — and that goes from team to team all the time. When players leave teams, they often take the playbook with them and that’s way more important than what [Azotam allegedly] did.
“I don’t know anyone who takes this lawsuit that seriously.”
Another Western Conference executive told ESPN, “I don’t understand how you could get to this place where suing is productive and likely to be successful.”
One area where team executives — as well as some team analytics staffers — agree is the volume of information Azotam allegedly obtained appears too expansive.
“You can’t do what he did,” a third Western Conference executive told ESPN. “It’s one thing to bring a copy of your work. But he [allegedly] took stuff that was beyond that.”
But the executive expressed shock that the Knicks would ultimately choose to sue, in no small part because the league often privately counsels teams to settle disputes out of the public eye in an effort to avoid any negative publicity.
“When I first read the lawsuit,” that executive said, “I said ‘Well, the Knicks aren’t wrong, but why are they doing this?'”
On Dec. 11, the Raptors are expected to file a response to the Knicks’ most recent filing, but where the case proceeds from here is hard to predict, according to legal experts.
“I don’t see a settlement in this case, but I don’t know if the Knicks are going to win,” said Boland, an admitted Knicks fan. “I don’t really see a clear strategy. I think the attention is the desired outcome.”
ESPN’s Paula Lavigne and John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.