New York’s Top Hand Surgeons Go Scalpel-to-Scalpel in Feud

Patrick Ewing may not be the player he once was, but if it weren’t for little Charlie Melone, the Knicks’ big man wouldn’t be playing at all.

When Mr. Ewing shattered his right wrist two years ago, Mr. Ewing’s handlers immediately paged Dr. Melone, the country’s best-known hand surgeon, who rebuilt the center’s dislocated lunate bone and torn wrist ligaments But Mr. Ewing is just one of the many player-patients Dr. Melone has patched up over the years. On the walls of his office are pictures and autographed thank-yous from Jayson Williams, Keith Van Horn, Evander Holyfield, Allan Houston, Gary Sheffield, Tommy John, Don Mattingly and Dikembe Mutumbo-to name but a handful.

The man who assisted Dr. Melone on many of these operations was Dr. Keith Raskin. His picture, however, is nowhere in sight. That’s because Dr. Melone is mired in an ugly legal war with Dr. Raskin, a man who was once his protégé, partner and, to hear Dr. Melone tell it, surrogate son. At issue is the dissolution of their high-profile and highly profitable surgical practice, which, for reasons neither man can quite explain, has degenerated into a testy, yearlong slap fight.

“It’s getting a little unseemly,” said one gossiping orthopedist. “Everybody knows they’re beating each other up. They just need to end it and move on with their lives.”

There is, undeniably, a lot at stake. Over the past decade, the prominence and wealth of sports physicians has grown, along with their clients’ fortunes. As a result, the diplomas are tucked in dusty back offices while rainmaker memorabilia-like a signed Patrick Ewing poster-are prominently displayed.

Dr. Melone’s clients-and his reputation for restoring them-has made for a profitable practice. According to court papers, the practice paid Dr. Melone and Dr. Raskin an estimated $1.2 million and $750,000 a year, respectively-not counting their academic salaries and lucrative deals with medical equipment manufacturers.

Still, dividing up the assets-and the debts-shouldn’t have been too hard. If only the principals could keep their hands off each other.

First, Dr. Raskin and his lawyers charged that Dr. Melone used the practice as his “personal piggy bank,” pulling out $530,000 for various expenses without reimbursing the business. They say the famous surgeon was so small-minded and vengeful he tried to swipe the practice’s catchy 683-HAND phone number. He also prodded the landlord to evict Dr. Raskin from the 34th Street building both doctors still occupy, they claim. And you never saw such nepotism, according to Dr. Raskin. Dr. Melone paid his daughter $9,000 for office work and even used his cousin’s wife as the office comptroller.

“Charlie does this kind of thing because Charlie is a guy with a big ego,” Dr. Raskin told The Observer . “He would actually say, ‘I’m the king, I’m the king, I’m the king.’”

For his part, Dr. Melone paints Dr. Raskin as an ungrateful apprentice trying to get his paws on his master’s business. Among other things, the Melone legal team is charging Dr. Raskin with steering his boss’ patients to himself, failing to pay for about $180,000 in old office furniture and whiting out Dr. Melone’s name on co-authored academic papers.

“It’s a betrayal,” said boxing trainer and ESPN fight analyst Teddy Atlas, a close friend of Dr. Melone’s. “Charlie feels, you know, like he’s been stabbed in the back.”

“Until last week, Raskin even had Charlie’s nameplate up on his wall so that people would think Charlie was still working there,” said another Melone confidant. “It was like telling people they were buying a Sony and giving them a Samsung.”

Eventually, all of these grievances will be sorted out by a court-appointed arbitrator, who is expected to rule this spring. But whatever happens, both men will have to learn to live with each other, because they still share the same building on East 34th Street, near the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel. Dr. Raskin is in the practice’s old third-floor digs. Dr. Melone’s office is a newly constructed medical nirvana on the first floor.

Dr. Melone enters his suite, thankfully, through a separate entrance, so the two principals haven’t talked to each other in more than a year. “The funny thing is that we’ve never actually had an argument,” Dr. Raskin said.

The lawyers have. “I’ve been doing litigation for 25 years, and I’ve never dealt with anything remotely like this,” said an exhausted Rodney Brown, Mr. Raskin’s attorney, sitting at a scuffed conference room table, shirttail out, hair tousled, hand atop a two-foot pile of legal papers. “I mean, we’ve got six files with correspondence alone. Nasty letters back and forth. It just goes on and on and on and on.”

Hand Wrestling

Walk through Dr. Melone’s cheerful new office and you get the creepy feeling you are about to be grappled. Hands are everywhere-palms carved into bronze ashtrays, grasping fingers popping out of pen-and-inks, posters and pastels. Finally, there’s Dr. Melone himself, pinning a visitor’s palm between his two steady hands. “Look,” he said, “Look at the complexity, the beauty of this thing! That’s why I do this!”

Ordinarily, Dr. Melone is not an effusive, or even a chatty, man. But three topics seem to excite him: hands, sports and the endless trouble with Dr. Raskin.

“There’s a total lack of respect, a lack of loyalty, a lack of camaraderie,” Dr. Melone said. “And this was a guy who was supposed to be part of my family.”

The trouble began in early 1998, when Dr. Melone vacated his longtime post as chief of hand surgery at New York University Hospital Center to take over the hand department at Beth Israel’s East End Avenue campus. Dr. Raskin, who had a one-quarter share in Dr. Melone’s practice for 10 years, stayed behind, in the hopes of securing Dr. Melone’s old academic post at N.Y.U. (He didn’t, as it turned out.) The younger doctor also hoped to retain a significant piece of the old business the two shared.

Like any bad divorce, the bitterness of the breakup is directly rooted in the innocence of the courtship. The friendship began in the mid-80′s, when Dr. Raskin was a talented, somewhat lonely resident who spent evenings with the Melone family eating dinners and listening to his mentor’s war stories. From the start, the pair were opposites who attracted. Dr. Raskin is tall, talkative and jokey in a Catskills way. Dr. Melone is laconic, short and trim-he looks like Michael J. Fox in late middle age.

Their skills were similarly complementary. Dr. Melone is an expert on carpal tunnel syndrome and adult trauma injuries-à la Patrick Ewing. Dr. Raskin specializes in pediatric cases and microsurgery. “It was a sort of father-son sort of thing,” Dr. Melone said, reflecting dourly in his office, looking at a picture on the wall across from his desk. In it, a 20-something Dr. Raskin is hoisting Dr. Melone up to the rim of a basket for a slam dunk. Everyone in the picture, including Dr. Raskin, is wearing a white “Team Melone” T-shirt.

By the mid-1990′s the prosperous Team Melone was becoming frustrated with the lack of support services and available operating rooms at N.Y.U. In 1996, they began shopping their skills to likely suitors, including the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital and, in 1997, Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

But it was the Beth Israel offer Dr. Melone really wanted: The draw was Dr. Melone’s pal Norman Scott, team doctor for the Knicks, who is chief of the orthopedics department at Beth Israel. “Charlie’s got his Knicks thing,” Dr. Raskin said. “He wanted to be close to Norm.”

To this day, Dr. Raskin claims that Dr. Melone’s defection to B.I. came as a complete shock to him. “He wouldn’t even tell me himself,” he said. “I got the news from his lawyer.”

From there, things got, well, out of hand. Dr. Melone moved into the first floor, putting up a huge shingle on the front of the building almost as big as the “Midtown Tunnel” sign 50 feet away. Meanwhile, Dr. Raskin had to wrangle with the landlord-a friend of Dr. Melone’s-just to keep the lease on his $20,000-a-month third-floor space. “I had nothing to do with that,” Dr. Melone told The Observer .

Then there was the scrum over 683-HAND-the golden phone number through which the metacarpal millions once flowed. Last May, an annoyed State Supreme Court judge, Ira Gammerman ruled, Solomon-style, that the number should go to no one. Dr. Raskin was given his HAND suffix, but without the old 683. Dr. Melone was left to seek out less promising digits. “This is silly,” Judge Gammerman said before slamming the gavel down.

At that point, Dr. Melone decided to proceed with his own lawsuit, the arbitration about the old furniture. Seizing on the opportunity, the Raskin legal team audited the corporation’s books. The lawyers now say they have found that Dr. Melone owes the corporation about $530,000 in various pension fund payments, legal fees and unspecified checks totaling $80,000 that Dr. Melone wrote to himself.

“It was revelation,” said Dr. Raskin. “It was like, O.K., Charlie owes me a half-million dollars, he’s taking the phone number, he’s moving downstairs to compete with me, and he wants me out of the building. Hey, that’s just great.”

Dr. Melone’s lawyers say he owes only “a fraction” of the half-million. They counter with the patient-diversion charge. As proof they have submitted the affidavit of a former secretary who claimed Dr. Raskin ordered her to funnel only “bullshit” cases to Dr. Melone.

“Both of those people now work for Charlie at B.I.,” responded Dr. Raskin. “That’s why they said what they said. I didn’t divert anybody, I didn’t need to.”

And so it goes, on and on. Curiously, while both camps fire their salvos-and hint at future legal action after the arbitration case is settled-both doctors said they yearn only for an end to the war.

And a final handshake for old times’ sake.

“This is all very sad,” Dr. Melone said. “I’m godfather to Keith’s kids, you know.”

Dr. Raskin, not surprisingly, denied the allegation. “It’s not true,” he said. “I’m Jewish, we don’t do godfathers.”