Hours after NBA commissioner David Stern and two more Jewish organizations criticized Charlie Ward for his "uninformed and ill-founded statements" concerning Jews and Jesus Christ, Ward issued a formal apology Monday night.

"I want to truly apologize to everybody who was offended by the New York Times Magazine story," Ward said of the article which was published on Sunday. "I will say again that I would never condemn or criticize any group or religion. That is not who I am. I also want to say that I will be opening dialogue with Yechiel Eckstein, president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, in an effort to heal the wounds of the last few days."

Ward also apologized to his teammates, the Knicks organization, fans and the NBA, saying "I've tried - during my time in the NBA - to stand for all that is positive in the league."

Stern decided not to fine or suspend Ward but the commissioner made it clear that he felt the devout Christian was out of line with his controversial comments.

"Statements were attributed to Charlie Ward that stereotype Jews and attempt to utilize biblical references to describe persecution of Christians by Jews," said Stern, who is Jewish. "Unfortunately, Ward's comments, and his subsequent confirmation of them, demonstrate zealotry of all types is intolerant and divisive. Despite suggestions that the NBA should penalize Ward for his words, I am not planning to do so. Ward would have been better off not to have uttered his uninformed and ill-founded statements, but I do not wish to enhance his martyrdom by penalizing him for giving them public voice. He will have to accept the reactions and judgment of fans and fair-minded people who have been offended."

Negative reaction to Ward continued to come from as far as Florida yesterday. The American Jewish Congress asked Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to immediately remove the former Florida State football hero from his position as the state's "Born to Read" literacy campaign spokesman. The AJC would like to see all promotional posters featuring Ward taken down.

"Failure to act promptly would be considered to give credence to the comments made by Mr. Ward," said Paul D. Breitner and Jack Karako of the AJC's southeast region office in a letter to Harris.

Also, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Manhattan criticized Ward and Allan Houston - who defended Ward - and sent a letter inviting the entire Knicks organization to visit the center to learn more about Judaism.

Since Ward's comments were reported over the weekend, the point guard, who is active in community work, continued to talk about the issue in an apologetic but sometimes defiant tone. Before issuing his apology through the team, Ward said yesterday morning that he had no plans on talking to any Jewish group, instead preferring to quiz his Jewish friends about their religion.

"For me to go and talk to a Jewish group when you already have Jewish friends would be something that I wouldn't do," Ward said.

Ward also said he has been approached by Jews in recent days with mixed reactions.

"Actually, I've had Jewish people coming up to me saying, 'You are cool and I understand who you are and what you are about,' " Ward said. "And I have had others who have said I am anti-Semitic or whatever the case may be. It is not a distraction but I see it as a trial and it is something that I embrace and love because the Lord is on my side and he has my back and we are all sinful."

The AJC and days earlier the Anti-Defamation League condemned Ward for blaming Jews for persecuting Jesus and for persecuting Christians "every day." In the article, Ward also called Jews "stubborn" and said that the biblical Jews had Jesus' "blood on their hands."

The ADL accused Ward and Houston of anti-Semitism. The two players said their statements were taken out of context and were not meant to offend anybody.

Still, Ward was booed early in Game 1 on Sunday, including during a timeout when he and his wife, Tonja, were shown kissing on the Garden big screen during a promotion. But Ward turned the jeers into cheers when he scored seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter of the Knicks' 92-85 win.

Ward said the whole controversy only came to light because he was curious about Judaism.

"My whole thing was I'm trying to find out for myself, what I can take from the Jewish family because they have some strong things that they do," Ward said. "If I can take something positive from that, then I am going to."

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