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Thomas, Isiah

Isiah Thomas

1961—

Basketball player, entrepreneur

To many sports fans and writers, Isiah Thomas was the best "small man" ever to play professional basketball. The six-foot-one-inch Thomas served as a point guard for the Detroit Pistons from 1981 to 1994, earning a spot on the All-Star roster for twelve consecutive years and leading his team to back-to-back National Basketball Association (NBA) championships in 1989 and 1990. Thomas, who joined the Pistons when he was just nineteen, was a ruthless competitor on the court but dedicated himself to civic causes and social issues in his spare time.

Detroit Free Press columnist Charlie Vincent called Thomas "the spirit and the heart and the soul of a team that wormed its way into our hearts. He came with a smile that made us all think he was a choirboy but showed us, in time, that—on the floor—he could be an assassin." Vincent added that Thomas "showed a generation of Detroit fans how a winner behaves. He has given us memories of glory and of leadership and courage." Thomas retired from the court on May 11, 1994. He later became an entrepreneur, a television commentator, and a basketball executive and coach. "I'm in love with basketball," Thomas once told Sports Illustrated. "It's my release. It's my outlet. If I get mad, I go shoot. It's my freedom. It's my security. It's my drug; it's my high." Thomas's love of the game has at times bordered on obsession. As a rookie Piston point guard in 1981, he set a goal of being part of an NBA championship team. At times, that goal seemed out of reach no matter how hard Thomas played as an individual. Time and maturity seasoned his game, however, and he finally led the Pistons to their first-ever championship in 1989. Sport magazine contributor Johnette Howard wrote, "Like many other superstars—at least the smart ones—Thomas learned long ago that piling up statistics is less intriguing than chasing or craving what he cannot guarantee. Like winning. By that measure, regardless of what anyone else says, he is an unqualified success."

Was His Family's Last Hope

Isiah Lord Thomas III grew up in the heart of Chicago's West Side ghetto, the youngest of seven boys and two girls born to Mary and Isiah Thomas II. "He was well behaved, but spoiled," Mary Thomas told Sports Illustrated. "I can't say I didn't treat him special. He was the baby. He got special attention." Isiah II was a plant supervisor who pushed his children to read, barred them from watching anything but educational television, and lectured them to stick together and protect one another. When Thomas was an infant, his father lost his job as a supervisor at International Harvester and could not find comparable work elsewhere. He was forced to work as a janitor at extremely reduced wages, and the stress of his disappointment caused friction in the family. "My father was frustrated by his intelligence," Thomas told Gentleman's Quarterly. "He was a black man coming up in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. Being very intelligent and not being able to express that intelligence made him a very angry man. Sometimes he took that anger out on our family."

Eventually, Isiah II and Mary separated, and the childrearing duties fell primarily to Mary. She was a strict disciplinarian who required her children to be home by the time the street lights came on. Born a Baptist, she turned the family toward Catholicism and thus came under the wing of a local church, Our Lady of Sorrows, and its schools. Fearlessly protective of her family, there was little that Mary would not do to shield her children from the gangs that prowled their neighborhood's streets. Once she chased gang members from her front porch with a shotgun when they came to recruit her sons. Her courage and determination—especially where Thomas was concerned—were the subject of a 1987 made-for-television movie.

Thomas spent most of his free time playing basketball at the tiny Gladys Park, next to Chicago's Eisenhower Expressway. According to Ira Berkow in the New York Times, the young Thomas was a "prodigy in basketball the way Mozart was in music. At age three, Amadeus was composing on a harpsichord; at three, Isiah could dribble and shoot baskets." Thomas was tutored by his older brothers, some of whom were top-notch players in their own right. Thomas recalled those days fondly in Sports Illustrated: "Go anywhere on the West Side and say, ‘Meet me at the court,’ and they'd know what you were talking about," he said. "That's where I really learned to play. There were some basketball players there. You could always get a game there. Any time of day, any time of night. Me and my brothers used to go over there with snow shovels in the winter so we could play."

When Thomas was twelve, the street gangs began moving in more ferociously, and some of his older brothers succumbed to the lure of drug abuse and crime. Mary moved the family five miles west to Menard Avenue, but trouble seemed to follow. "Those were probably the worst times as a kid," Thomas told Sports Illustrated. "We very rarely had heat. We had an oil furnace but no money to buy oil. In the winter, it was always cold, and you had to sleep all the time with your clothes on. Everything broke down in the house once we bought it. … I mean everything was a disaster." Sleeping in a closet and eating food donated by concerned church members, Thomas was tempted to follow the lead of his brothers and turn to drug dealing as a way out of poverty. His brothers and his mother convinced him otherwise. They told him that he might well lead the family into better circumstances with his basketball skills.

Most of the coaches in the Chicago area considered Thomas too small to have any significant impact on a basketball program, but Thomas's brothers persuaded coach Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph High School to give Isiah a sports scholarship. St. Joseph was located in a white suburb of Chicago. Thomas had to commute three hours each way to and from school, taking three buses and arriving home well after dark. He struggled to acquire discipline in the classroom and on the court and, by his junior year, he led St. Joseph to a second-place finish in the state high school championship tournament. As a senior, Thomas was one of the most coveted college prospects in the nation.

At a Glance …

Born Isiah Lord Thomas III on April 30, 1961, in Chicago, IL; son of Isiah Lord II and Mary Thomas; married Lynn Kendall, 1985; children: two. Education: Indiana University, B.A., 1987.

Career: Detroit Pistons, point guard, 1981-94; U.S. Olympic basketball team, member, 1980; National Basketball Association (NBA) Players Association, vice president, 1986-89, president, 1989-94; Toronto Raptors, vice president of basketball operations, 1994-97; NBC Sports, NBA analyst and sportscaster, 1997-2000; Continental Basketball Association, chairman and chief executive officer, 1999-2000; Indiana Pacers, head coach, 2000-03; New York Knicks, president of baseball operations, 2003-08, head coach, beginning 2006.

Awards: Named to NBA All-Star Team, 1982-92; named All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, 1984, 1986; Basketball Hall of Fame, 2000.

Addresses: Office—Madison Square Garden, Two Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY 10121-0091.

From College to the Pros

More than one hundred colleges recruited Thomas. His family wanted him to stay home and attend DePaul University, but he chose to go to Indiana University and play for temperamental coach Bob Knight. Thomas made All-Big Ten his freshman year and was named a consensus All-American as a sophomore. That year he led the Hoosiers to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship game, where Indiana routed the North Carolina Tar Heels 63-50. With twenty-three points in the championship match, Thomas was named NCAA tournament most valuable player (MVP). Despite his All-Star performance as a freshman and sophomore, Thomas was not happy at Indiana. He and Knight clashed frequently. Finally, in 1981—on the advice of his friend Magic Johnson—Thomas decided to leave college and apply for the NBA draft.

Thomas was selected second in the opening round of the 1981 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, a hopelessly foundering organization that had won only 37 of 164 games the previous two seasons. At the tender age of nineteen, Thomas became responsible for rescuing the NBA's worst team. A Detroit News headline hailed him as "Isiah the Savior," and Pistons season ticket sales jumped 50 percent. Even the club brass talked about making the NBA Finals as they announced Thomas's four-year, $1.6 million contract. Undaunted by the expectations, Thomas turned in a successful rookie season, averaging seventeen points per game and leading his team in assists and steals. He improved further in his second season, averaging nearly twenty-three points and eight assists per game. Both years he represented the Pistons at the All-Star Game.

Through his first four years in Detroit, Thomas consistently outplayed his teammates. He was the first player in league history to be voted to the All-Star team in his first five seasons, and in 1984 and 1986 his performances in the All-Star game were so spectacular that he was named the contest's MVP. By 1984, he had managed to guide the Pistons to their first winning record in seven seasons, and he was given a new ten-year, $12 million contract that was specifically designed to keep him in Detroit for his entire career. He responded to this vote of confidence in the 1984-85 season by compiling an NBA record of 1,123 assists, an average of 13.1 per game.

In addition to shining on the court, Thomas also earned the affection of basketball fans everywhere—and especially in Detroit—for his well-publicized anticrime work, his open dedication to his family, and his accessibility to the media. Howard noted of Thomas, "Half the beat reporters in the NBA had his home phone number, and it wasn't uncommon for him to sit for an hour after a practice, talking about some societal issue such as racism or his latest take on the game." Perhaps inevitably, however, pressures began to mount on the affable superstar as the Detroit Pistons became a legitimate playoff contender in 1986. A turning point in the evolution of Isiah Thomas occurred during the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics.

Fame Brings Its Own Problems

Under new head coach Chuck Daly, the Detroit Pistons improved enough to challenge for the 1987 NBA championship. That year, Thomas averaged almost twenty points per game in the playoffs as the Pistons advanced to an Eastern Conference showdown with the Celtics. The winner of the best-of-seven series would advance to the NBA playoffs—something the Pistons had never done. The series was hard-fought and seethed with emotion. By Game Five, each team had won twice, and as Game Five drew to a close, the Pistons clung to a one-point lead and had possession of the ball. With one second left to play, Thomas inbounded the ball. His pass was stolen by Larry Bird of the Celtics. Bird lobbed the ball to teammate Dennis Johnson, who scored the winning basket as the buzzer sounded. The dramatic loss stunned the Pistons, who went on to lose the series in seven games.

Just after Detroit's loss to the Celtics, another Piston, rookie Dennis Rodman, told reporters that Larry Bird was "overrated" because he was white. Asked to comment on his teammate's statement, Thomas responded that while Bird was a "very, very good basketball player," if he were black he would be "just another good guy." The backlash among media and fans was immediate. Even though Thomas apologized to Bird at a press conference—and clarified his remarks by explaining that he felt an inherent racial bias existed in basketball—his reputation was severely damaged. Howard wrote in 1992 that in the wake of that controversy, "neither [Thomas] nor his image has ever been the same." Howard added, "Looking back on it now, Thomas' greatest sin might've been that his thinking and candor put him ahead of his time."

Thomas's honeymoon with the media ended just as the Pistons achieved their greatest success. Beginning in 1987, the Pistons adopted surly tactics both on- and off-court that led to their being nicknamed the "Bad Boys." With Thomas as team captain, the "Bad Boys" turned in a strong 1987-88 season and capped the year with an Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Celtics and a bruising, seven-game championship run against the Los Angeles Lakers. Playing with a jammed finger, a bruised eye, facial cuts, and a badly sprained ankle, Thomas threatened to steal the series for the Pistons, especially in Game Six, when he scored forty-three points and eight assists. Los Angeles won the championship in seven games, but the Pistons—and Thomas—had finally shed their losing image. The next two seasons would belong to Detroit.

Back-to-Back Titles

With Thomas at the height of his ability, the Pistons won the NBA championship in 1989 and again in 1990. These championship teams were often embroiled in controversy, both for their aggressive style of play and for their combative attitudes off-court. Rolling Stone contributor Jeff Coplon wrote that the "Bad Boys" were perceived nationwide as "goons, thugs, terrorists…. When they took the court, a hockey game broke out. Normally placid opponents … blew up bumps into scuffles, scuffles into brawls. In the cultish NBA, if the Celtics were white America's team, and the Lakers were Club Hollywood, the Pistons belonged to Qaddafi…. Piston-bashing was suddenly a blood sport—especially among those most threatened by Detroit's rise." In 1988-89 Detroit compiled the best regular-season record in the NBA, winning sixty-five of eighty-two games. A six-game Eastern Conference Finals victory against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls set the stage for another showdown with the Lakers. This time, the Pistons swept Los Angeles in four games and returned to Detroit with the championship.

Even greater triumph awaited Thomas the following year as Detroit's "Bad Boys" advanced again to the championship series, this time against the Portland Trail Blazers. In a series remembered for its physical play, the Pistons won in just five games to clinch back-to-back championship victories. Sports Illustrated correspondent Jack McCallum credited the strong Detroit showing to Thomas. The Piston captain, wrote McCallum, "kept the tempo at a controlled, even pace, which disrupted the fast-breaking … Trail Blazers. And when he wasn't doing that, he was creating something from nothing, with long-distance jump shots, body-twisting drives and steals in the open floor…. By the time the Pistons had beaten the Blazers … to clinch their second straight championship … there was only one great guard still playing basketball—Isiah Lord Thomas III."

Thomas was named MVP of the 1990 championship series. Returning home to celebrate with his wife, he discovered that he was the target of media scrutiny for alleged gambling improprieties. Even though no formal charges were brought against him, the negative publicity only alienated him further from the media and fans he had once courted so gallantly. As regular-season play began in the 1990s, Thomas's statistics fell off somewhat, and he began spending more time alone with his family. He was sidelined in the 1991-92 season after receiving a blow to the head in a game against the Utah Jazz. Also, Thomas was probably the best-known NBA player who was not selected for the celebrated 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, allegedly because of pressure from reigning basketball superstar Michael Jordan, with whom Thomas had long feuded. This omission was particularly difficult for Thomas, because he had been a member of the 1980 Olympic basketball team that was forced to boycott the Olympics by President Jimmy Carter.

Through these and other controversies, Thomas remained the Pistons' team captain. He also served a four-year stint as the president of the NBA Players Association. As he ended his eleventh season in the NBA, Thomas reflected on his career in Sport magazine: "You gotta understand. I'm 6-1. If I was 6-9, I could be ‘nice.’ If I was 6-9, or 6-6 and could jump out of the building, I could be nice. But being 6-1, having to try to be successful in a league where everyone else is 6-7, 6-8, 6-9, you've got to have a little fire in your gut, or you'll be like every other 6-1 guy is supposed to be in the league—average. I didn't want to be average…. You have to do what you have to do. And I had no problems doing that."

Retired in Style

As a team, the Pistons' fortunes ebbed, whereas those of the Chicago Bulls rose. The Pistons were defeated by the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1991, crushing their hopes for a third straight NBA title and prompting calls for "rebuilding." In December of 1993 rumors suggested that Thomas was about to leave the Pistons for the New York Knicks. Instead, on January 7, 1994, the Pistons called a press conference to announce that Thomas had signed a long-term contract that would take him past retirement. "This is one of the happiest days of my career, and one of the happiest days of my life," Thomas told the Detroit Free Press when the agreement was announced. Soon after the contract was signed, more rumors circulated that Thomas would retire at the end of the season.

On April 19, 1994, Thomas played his last game as a Detroit Piston, although his retirement would not become official until May 11. Thomas left his final game in the third quarter with a torn Achilles tendon, after scoring twelve points and serving up six assists against the Orlando Magic. Reflecting on his years in the NBA, Thomas told Vincent, "I have no regrets. As a basketball player, you gave everything to your sport, gave everything to the organization and to the team you played for. You leave it all out on the floor. So it's not disappointing to me at all." Following his retirement party, Thomas ended rumors about his taking a front-office position with the Pistons franchise, telling reporters, "All the jobs were full."

Thomas met many of the goals he set for himself as a rookie in the NBA—and exceeded even his own sky-high expectations. The leader in every category in the history of the Pistons' franchise, Thomas also left the game as the fourth all-time NBA leader in assists and steals, and the twenty-eighth all-time leader in scoring. He retired with 18,822 career points, 9,061 assists, and 1,861 steals in 979 games. Thomas told Jet magazine, "I'm living the dream I had since I was a little boy. How many kids, especially kids who grew up as poor as I did, ever live to see their dreams come true? I'm just lucky I've had the opportunity."

Following his retirement from the NBA, Thomas turned his attention to becoming a successful business- man and entrepreneur. Along with his business partners, he purchased American Speedy Printing Centers, Inc. With Thomas serving as principal shareholder and co-chairman of the board of directors, American Speedy Printing Centers emerged from bankruptcy to become a highly profitable company. In 1994 he became a principal investor in OmniBanc Corp, the nation's first multistate African-American-owned bank holding company. The goal of OmniBanc was to revitalize economically disadvantaged inner-cities communities. As Thomas remarked in American Banker, "Anytime you have the chance to revitalize the community that you came from … it's a very exciting challenge and a very exciting opportunity."

Moved to Toronto

On May 24, 1994, Thomas was introduced as the vice president of basketball operations for the expansion Toronto Raptors, the first NBA franchise located outside the United States. As part of his duties, he was charged with helping to shape the team, which debuted during the 1995-96 season. At a press conference in Toronto at the time of this announcement, Thomas remarked, "I think it's the dream of most professional athletes … to make this kind of cross-over once the playing days are over…. I'm so excited to get on with the job at hand."

In late 1997 Thomas abruptly resigned from his position with the Toronto Raptors and left town. Rumors circulated that his relationship with Raptors majority owner Allan Slaight had soured after Thomas failed to purchase sole ownership of the team. Even though Thomas owned a 9 percent share of the Raptors, he wanted complete control of the organization. His sudden departure dealt a severe blow to the team's morale. As Raptors forward Walt Williams told Maclean's, "Isiah is a big part of why a lot of the guys are here."

Shortly after leaving the Raptors, Thomas signed a deal with NBC in December of 1997 to become an analyst for NBA games. With experience as both a player and an NBA executive, NBC felt that Thomas would bring an interesting perspective to the job. Even though Thomas was excited about the new opportunity, he had almost no experience as a broadcaster and realized that he had much to learn. As quoted by Jet magazine, Thomas remarked, "I understand that I come into this as a rookie, that I'm very young and very green. I don't come into this professing to be the top guy, but as a young guy with a lot of talent."

Became Owner of the CBA

Thomas had long professed a desire to purchase his own NBA franchise. That goal had gone unfulfilled. However, in 1999, he purchased the nine-team Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Suddenly, he was the sole owner of nine franchises scattered across the United States. Thomas voiced his plans for the CBA in Black Enterprise, "My goal is to one day form an official affiliation with the NBA where each team will have its own CBA team and you can call up or send down players, similar to what they have in baseball." He also planned to expand the CBA and increase its visibility through increased promotion and marketing. "Our goal is to continue to grow the league through acquisitions and mergers. We've looked at some cities … and there's considerable interest in smaller cities wanting to have the second-best league in the world playing in their towns."

In May of 2000 Thomas was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. This distinction placed him alongside other Detroit sports legends such as Al Kaline, Ty Cobb, and Gordie Howe. At a press conference held at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the same arena where Thomas led the Pistons to championship glory, his trademark competitiveness shone through. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, Thomas remarked, "I kid Magic and Jordan all the time that if I was taller, they never would've gotten the championship from me. If I had been 6-5 or 6-6, I would have killed all of those guys all of the time." The press conference also featured a five-minute video highlighting some of Thomas's greatest moments on the basketball court. After watching the video, Thomas quipped in the Detroit Free Press, "I look at that video and I think to myself, ‘Man, I was good.’"

Thomas was asked to serve as head coach for the Indiana Pacers in 2000, replacing Larry Bird, who remained with the organization as president of basketball operations. Thomas's first two seasons with the Pacers were disappointing as the team was eliminated before the conference finals. In 2003 Bird made the decision to replace Thomas as head coach, though Thomas had a full year left on his contract. Bird reported, in interviews, that he felt dissatisfied with Thomas's recent performance and was also concerned that he and Thomas were failing to communicate effectively. In December of 2003 Thomas was hired as president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks. Thomas made radical changes to the Knicks' line up, but the team fared poorly in the 2004 and 2005 seasons. In 2006 he decided the serve as both president and head coach for the team in hopes that his more direct leadership would help the team to improve its performance.

In January of 2006 Anucha Browne Sanders, a former women's basketball player and executive for the Knicks, alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her during her time as a member of the Madison Square Garden (MSG) management team. Browne Sanders accused Thomas of using profanity and making sexual advances. The three-week trial ended in favor of Browne Sanders, and the MSG was ordered to pay more than $11 million in damages. Thomas was not found to be personally liable to Browne Sanders and claimed that while he was guilty of using inappropriate language in Browne Sanders's presence, he never intentionally insulted her.

Thomas's performance as a basketball player gained him praise and acclaim throughout his tenure, whereas his postplaying career was fraught with difficulties. With his sexual harassment suit settled, Thomas renewed his conviction to continue working toward a championship as head coach of the Knicks. In March of 2007 MSG management renewed Thomas's contract for an unspecified period as both head coach and president of the franchise. "I feel there's a lot of work still yet to be done," Thomas said in an interview with Howard Beck of the New York Times. "I feel good that the uncertainty about my professional situation is cleared up. But the most important thing is that we keep our team moving forward and we stay focused and continue to try to get into the playoffs."

However, the team's performance continued to disappoint the Knicks owner, management, and fans. Game after game during the last months of the 2007-08 season, Thomas was greeted with chants of "Fire, Isiah!" Looking at the end of another dismal season the Knicks organization took steps to stop the team's losing streak. On April 2, 2008, long-time basketball executive Donnie Walsh was hired to replace Thomas as president of basketball operations. The Knicks ended the 2007-08 basketball season with a record of 23 wins and 59 losses—finishing in last place in the Atlantic Division of the NBA's Eastern Conference.

Sources

Periodicals

American Banker, October 20, 1994, p. 6.

Black Enterprise, November, 1999, p. 28.

Boston Globe, November 1, 1981; April 26, 1985; June 7, 1987.

Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1987.

Detroit Free Press, April 25, 1987; April 28, 1987; January 4, 1994; January 8, 1994; April 20, 1994; May 12, 1994; May 25, 2000.

Detroit News, October 11, 1981.

Dollars & Sense, May 1994, pp. 21-22.

Ebony, May 1990.

Gentleman's Quarterly, February 1988, pp. 190-193, 238-242.

Inside Sports, April 1984, p. 64; November 1987, p. 21; June 1994, pp. 38-39.

Jet, December 11, 1989, pp. 36-38; October 22, 1990, p. 48; October 14, 1991, p. 49; January 31, 1994, p. 48.

Los Angeles Daily News, June 19, 1988.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner, June 6, 1987.

Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1986; June 7, 1988; June 11, 1988; June 20, 1988.

Maclean's, December 1, 1997.

Newsday, June 2, 1987; May 30, 1988.

Newsweek, December 14, 1981, p. 130.

New York Daily News, September 12, 2007.

New York Times, April 27, 1981; June 2, 1987; January 8, 1994; January 9, 1994; March 12, 2007.

Oakland Press (Michigan), April 3, 1994; April 4, 1994; April 18, 1994; April 24, 1994.

Philadelphia Daily News, June 15, 1988.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 1988.

Rolling Stone, May 4, 1989.

Sport, February 1986, p. 59; May 1988, p. 24; June 1992, pp. 66-70.

Sports Illustrated, January 19, 1987; May 18, 1987; June 25, 1990, pp. 32-36; January 21, 1991, p. 46; January 17, 1994, p. 71.

Online

"Jury: Isiah Thomas Sexually Harassed Colleague," National Public Radio,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14945034 (accessed December 20, 2007).

"Jury Rules Thomas Harassed Ex-executive; MSG Owes Her $11.6M," ESPN Online,http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=3046010.

"Knicks Fire Brown, Name Thomas New Coach," ESPN Online,http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=2496106 (accessed December 20, 2007).

"Thomas out with One Year Left on Contract," ESPN Online,http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=1604235 (accessed December 20, 2007).

—Mark Kram, David G. Oblender,
and Micah L. Issit

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Thomas, Isiah 1961–

Isiah Thomas 1961

Former professional basketball player, team executive, entrepreneur

At a Glance

A Familys Last Hope

From College to the Pros

Fame Brings Its Own Problems

Back-to-Back Titles

Retired in Style

Sources

To many sports fans and writers, Isiah Thomas was the best so-called small man ever to play professional basketball. The six-foot-one-inch Thomas served as a point guard for the Detroit Pistons from 1981 to 1994, earning a spot on the All-Star roster for 12 consecutive years and leading his team to back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. Thomas, who joined the Pistons when he was just 19, was a ruthless competitor on the court but dedicated himself to civic causes and social issues in his spare time. The passing of the years eroded Thomass playing ability and his reputation as a good-natured, accessible superstar, but most observers agree that his many-faceted dedication to basketball will far outlast his days as a player.

Detroit Free Press columnist Charlie Vincent called Thomas the spirit and the heart and the soul of a team that wormed its way into our hearts. He came with a smile that made us all think he was a choirboy but showed us, in time, thaton the floorhe could be an assassin. Vincent added that Thomas showed a generation of Detroit fans how a winner behaves. He has given us memories of glory and of leadership and courage. Thomas retired from basketball on May 11, 1994, following months of speculation about his future and a rumored $55-million retirement package. This has been a great life for me, Thomas told reporters. I think I enjoyed myself more than any other player who ever came through the NBA. Thomas was expected to become a color commentator for televised basketball coverage and to devote more time to his extensive business dealings.

Im in love with basketball, Thomas once told Sports Illustrated. Its my release. Its my outlet. If I get mad, I go shoot. Its my freedom. Its my security. Its my drug; its my high. Thomass love of the game has at times bordered on obsession. As a rookie Piston point guard in 1981 he set a goal of being part of a national championship team. At times that goal seemed out of reach no matter how hard he played as an individual. Time and maturity seasoned his game, however, and he finally earned the championship bannerthe first ever in Pistons history. Sport magazine contributor Johnette Howard wrote: Like many other superstarsat least the smart onesThomas learned long ago that piling up statistics is less intriguing than chasing or craving what he cannot guarantee. Like winning. By that measure, regardless of what anyone else says, he is an unqualified success.

At a Glance

Born Isiah Lord Thomas III, April 30, 1961, In Chicago, IL; son of Isiah Lord II (a plant foreman) and Mary (a civil service employee) Thomas; married Lynn Kendall (a teacher), 1985; children: Joshua fsiah, Lauren. Education: Indiana University, B.A., 1987,

Professional basketball player with Detroit Pistons, 1981-1994. Member of U.S. Olympic basketball team, 1980; vice president of National Basketball Association Players Association, 1986-88, president, 1988-94. Vice president of basketball, Toronto Raptors Basketball Club, Inc., 1994.

Selected awards: Named to NBA All-Star Team, 1982-92; named All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, 1984 and 1986; NBA Championships Most Valuable Player, 1990.

Addresses: Office Toronto Raptors, 150 York St., Suite 1100, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5H 3S5.

A Familys Last Hope

Isiah Lord Thomas III grew up in the heart of Chicagos West Side ghetto, the youngest of seven boys and two girls born to Mary and Isiah Thomas II. He was well behaved, but spoiled, Mary Thomas told Sports Illustrated. I cant say I didnt treat him special. He was the baby. He got special attention. Isiah III was a plant supervisor who pushed his children to read, barred them from watching anything but educational television, and lectured them to stick together and protect one another.

When Isiah HI was an infant, his father lost his job as a supervisor at International Harvester and could not find comparable work elsewhere. He was forced to work as a janitor at extremely reduced wages, and the stress of his disappointment caused friction in the family. My father was frustrated by his intelligence, Thomas told Gentlemens Quarterly. He was a black man coming up in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. Being very intelligent and not being able to express that intelligence made him a very angry man. Sometimes he took that anger out on our family.

Eventually, Isiah II and Mary Thomas separated, and the childrearing duties fell primarily to Mary. She was a strict disciplinarian who required her children to be home by the time the street lights came on. Born a Baptist, she turned the family toward Catholicism and thus came under the wing of a local church, Our Lady of Sorrows, and its schools. Fearlessly protective of her family, there was little that Mary Thomas would not do to shield her children from the gangs that prowled their neighborhoods streets. Once she chased gang members from her front porch with a shotgun when they came to recruit her sons. Her courage and determinationespecially where Isiah III was concernedwere the subject of a 1987 made-for-televi-sion movie.

Thomas spent most of his free time playing basketball at tiny Gladys Park, next to Chicagos Eisenhower Expressway. According to Ira Berkow in the New York Times, the young Thomas was a prodigy in basketball the way Mozart was in music. At age three, Amadeus was composing on a harpsichord; at three, Isiah could dribble and shoot baskets. Thomas was tutored by his older brothers, some of whom were top-notch players in their own rights. Thomas recalled those days fondly in Sports Illustrated. Go anywhere on the West Side and say, Meet me at the court, and theyd know what you were talking about, he said. Thats where I really learned to play. There were some basketball players there. You could always get a game there. Any time of day, any time of night. Me and my brothers used to go over there with snow shovels in the winter so we could play.

When Thomas was 12, the street gangs began moving in more ferociously, and some of his older brothers succumbed to the lure of drug abuse and crime. Mary Thomas moved the family five miles west to Menard Avenue, but trouble seemed to follow. Those were probably the worst times as a kid, Thomas told Sports Illustrated. We very rarely had heat. We had an oil furnace but no money to buy oil. In the winter, it was always cold, and you had to sleep all the time with your clothes on. Everything broke down in the house once we bought it. I mean everything was a disaster. Sleeping in a closet and eating food donated by concerned church members, Thomas was tempted to follow the lead of his brothers and turn to drug dealing as a way out of poverty. His brothers and his mother convinced him otherwise. They told him that he might well lead the family into better circumstances with his basketball skills.

Most of the Chicago area coaches considered Thomas too small to have any significant impact on a basketball program, but Thomass brothers persuaded coach Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph High School to give Isiah a sports scholarship. St. Joseph was located in a white suburb of Chicago. Thomas had to commute three hours each way to and from school, taking three buses and arriving home well after dark. He struggled to acquire discipline in the classroom and on the court and, by his junior year, he led St. Joseph to a second-place finish in the state high school championship tournament. As a senior he was one of the most coveted college prospects in the nation.

From College to the Pros

More than 100 colleges recruited Thomas. His family wanted him to stay home and attend DePaul, but he chose to go to Indiana University and play for the brilliant but moody coach Bob Knight. Thomas made All-Big Ten his freshman and sophomore years and was named a consensus All-American in 1981. That year he led the Hoosiers to the NCAA championship game, where Indiana routed the North Carolina Tar Heels, 63-50. With 23 points in the championship match, Thomas was named NCAA tournament Most Valuable Player. Despite his All-Star performance as a freshman and sophomore, Thomas was not happy at Indiana. He and Knight clashed frequently. Finally, in 1981on the advice of his friend Magic JohnsonThomas decided to leave college and apply for the NBA draft.

Thomas was selected second in the opening round of the 1981 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, a hopelessly foundering organization that had won only 37 of 164 games the previous two seasons. At the tender age of nineteen, Thomas became burdened with the chore of rescuing the NBAs worst team. A Detroit News headline hailed him as Isiah the Savior, and Pistons season ticket sales jumped 50 percent. Even the club brass talked about making the NBA Finals as they announced Thomass four-year, $1.6 million contract. Undaunted by the expectations, Thomas turned in a successful rookie season, averaging 17 points per game and leading his team in assists and steals. He improved further in his second season, averaging nearly 23 points and 8 assists per game. Both years he represented the Pistons at the All-Star Game.

Through his first four years in Detroit, Thomas consistently outplayed his teammates. He was the first player in league history to be voted to the All-Star team in his first five seasons, and in 1984 and 1986 his performances in the All-Star game were so spectacular that he was named the contests Most Valuable Player. By 1984 he had managed to guide the Pistons to their first winning record in seven seasons, and he was given a new ten-year, $12 million contract that was specifically designed to keep him in Detroit for his entire career. He responded to this vote of confidence in the 1984-85 season by dishing an NBA-record 1,123 assists, an average of 13.1 per game.

Not only did Thomas shine on the court, he also earned the affection of basketball fans everywhereand especially in Detroitfor his well-publicized anti-crime work, his open dedication to his family, and his accessibility to the media. Howard noted of Thomas in Sport: Half the beat reporters in the NBA had his home phone number, and it wasnt uncommon for him to sit for an hour after a practice, talking about some societal issue such as racism or his latest take on the game. Perhaps inevitably, however, pressures began to mount on the affable superstar as Detroit became a legitimate playoff contender in 1986. A turning point in the evolution of Isiah Thomas occurred during the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics.

Fame Brings Its Own Problems

Under new head coach Chuck Daly, the Detroit Pistons improved enough to challenge for the 1987 NBA crown. That year, Thomas averaged almost 20 points per game in the playoffs as Detroit advanced to an Eastern Conference showdown with the Celtics. The winner of the best-of-seven series would advance to the NBA playoffs something the Pistons had never done. The series was hard-fought and seethed with emotion. By Game Five each team had won twice, and as Game Five neared a close the Pistons clung to a one-point lead and had possession of the ball. With one second left to play, Thomas in-bounded the ball. His pass was stolen by Larry Bird of the Celtics. Bird lobbed the ball to teammate Dennis Johnson, who scored the winning basket as the buzzer sounded. The dramatic loss stunned the Pistons, who went on to lose the series in seven games.

Just after Detroits loss to the Celtics, another Piston, rookie Dennis Rodman, told reporters that Larry Bird was overrated because he was white. Asked to comment on his teammates statement, Thomas responded that while Bird was a very, very good basketball player, if he were black he would be just another good guy. The backlash among media and fans was immediate. Even though Thomas apologized to Bird at a press conferenceand clarified his remarks by explaining that he felt an inherent racial bias existed in basketballhis reputation was severely damaged. Howard wrote in 1992 that in the wake of that controversy, neither [Thomas] nor his image has ever been the same, and added: Looking back on it now, Thomas greatest sin mightve been that his thinking and candor put him ahead of his time.

Thus Thomass honeymoon with the media ended just as his teams best winning years began. Beginning in 1987, the Pistons adopted surly tactics both on-and off-court that led to their being nicknamed the Motor City Bad Boys. With Thomas as team captain, the Bad Boys turned in a strong 1987-88 season and capped the year with an Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Celtics and a bruising, seven-game championship run versus the Los Angeles Lakers. Playing with a jammed finger, a bruised eye, facial cuts, and a badly sprained ankle, Thomas threatened to steal the series for the Pistons, especially in Game Six, when he scored 43 points and 8 assists. Los Angeles won the championship in seven games, but the Pistonsand Thomashad finally shed their losing image. The next two seasons would belong to Detroit.

Back-to-Back Titles

With Isiah Thomas at the height of his ability, the Pistons won the NBA championship in 1989 and again in 1990. These championship teams were often embroiled in controversy, both for their aggressive style of play and for their combative attitudes off-court. Rolling Stone contributor Jeff Coplon wrote that the Bad Boys were perceived nationwide as goons, thugs, terrorists. When they took the court, a hockey game broke out. Normally placid opponents blew up bumps into scuffles, scuffles into brawls. In the cultish NBA, if the Celtics were white Americas team, and the Lakers were Club Hollywood, the Pistons belonged to Qaddafi. Piston-bashing was suddenly a blood sportespecially among those most threatened by Detroits rise. In 1988-89 Detroit compiled the best regular-season record in the NBA, winning 65 of 82 games. A six-game Eastern Conference Final series victory against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls set the stage for another showdown with the Lakers. This time, the Pistons swept Los Angeles in four games and returned to Detroit with the championship.

Even greater triumph awaited Thomas the next year as Detroits Bad Boys advanced again to the championship series, this time against the Portland Trail Blazers. In a series remembered for its physical play, the Pistons won in just five games to clinch back-to-back championship victories. Sports Illustrated correspondent Jack McCal-lum credited the strong Detroit showing to Thomas. The Piston captain, wrote McCallum, kept the tempo at a controlled, even pace, which disrupted the fast-breaking Trail Blazers. And when he wasnt doing that, he was creating something from nothing, with long-distance jump shots, body-twisting drives and steals in the open floor. By the time the Pistons had beaten the Blazers to clinch their second straight championship there was only one great guard still playing basketballIsiah Lord Thomas III.

Thomas was named Most Valuable Player of the 1990 championships. Returning home to celebrate with his wife, he discovered that he was the target of media scrutiny for alleged gambling improprieties. Although no formal charges were brought against him, the negative publicity only alienated him more from the media and fans he had once courted so gallantly. As regular season play began in the 1990s, Thomass statistics fell off somewhat, and he began spending more time alone with his family. He was sidelined in the 1991-92 season after receiving a blow to the head in a game against the Utah Jazz.

Worse, Thomas was probably the best-known NBA player who was not selected for the celebrated 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, allegedly because of pressure from reigning basketball superstar Michael Jordan, with whom Thomas had long feuded. That omission was particularly difficult for Thomas, because he had been a member of a 1980 Olympic basketball team that was forced to boycott the Olympics by President Jimmy Carter.

Through these and other controversies, Thomas remained the Pistons team captain. He also served a four-year stint as the president of the NBA Players Association. As he ended his eleventh season in the NBA, Thomas reflected on his career in Sport magazine: You gotta understand, he said. Im 6-1. If I was 6-9, 1 could be nice. If I was 6-9, or 6-6 and could jump out of the building, I could be nice. But being 6-1, having to try to be successful in a league where everyone else is 6-7, 6-8, 6-9, youve got to have a little fire in your gut, or youll be like every other 6-1 guy is supposed to be in the leagueaverage. I didnt want to be average. You have to do what you have to do. And I had no problems doing that.

Retired in Style

The Pistons fortunes ebbed as those of the Chicago Bulls rose. The Pistons were defeated by the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1991, crushing their hopes for a third NBA title and prompting calls for rebuilding. In December of 1993, rumors suggested that Thomas was about to embark for the New York Knicks. Instead, on January 7, 1994, the Pistons called a press conference to announce that Thomas had signed a long-term contract that would take him past retirement. This is one of the happiest days of my career, and one of the happiest days of my life, Thomas told the Detroit Free Press when the agreement was announced. Soon after the contract was signed, more rumors circulated that Thomas would retire at the end of the season.

On April 19, 1994, Isiah Thomas played his last game as a Detroit Piston, though his retirement would not become official until May 11. Thomas left his final game in the third quarter with a torn Achilles tendon, after scoring 12 points and serving up 6 assists against the up-and-coming Orlando Magic. Reflecting on his years in the NBA, Thomas told Vincent, I have no regrets. As a basketball player, you gave everything to your sport, gave everything to the organization and to the team you played for. You leave it all out on the floor. So its not disappointing to me at all. Following his retirement party, Thomas ended rumors about his taking a front-office position with the Pistons franchise, telling reporters, All the jobs were full.

Thomas met many of the goals he set for himself as a rookie in the NBAand exceeded even his own sky-high expectations. The leader in every category in the history of the Pistons franchise, Thomas also left the game as the fourth all-time NBA leader in assists and steals, and the 28th all-time leader in scoring. He retired with 18,822 career points, 9, 061 assists, and 1,861 steals in 979 games. Thomas told Jet magazine: Im living the dream I had since I was a little boy. How many kids, especially kids who grew up as poor as I did, ever live to see their dreams come true? Im just lucky Ive had the opportunity.

On May 24, 1994, Thomas shocked the sports world with the announcement of his newest basketball/ business venture: he had taken over basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors, the 28th team in the NBA and the first NBA franchise outside the United States. As vice president of basketball for the Raptors, Thomas will play a key role in shaping the young team, which will make its debut in the 1995-96 regular season. Im honored to have been presented with this fabulous opportunity in Toronto and Im very excited about the challenge of helping to build the Raptors from the ground up, Thomas stated at a press conference in Toronto. I think its the dream of most professional athletes to make this kind of cross-over once the playing days are over. Im so excited to get on with the job at hand, he exclaimed, developing the best possible on-court product for basketball fans in Toronto and across the country.

Sources

Boston Globe, November 1, 1981; April 26, 1985; June 7, 1987.

Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1987.

Detroit Free Press, April 25, 1987-, April 28, 1987; January 4, 1994, p. D1; January 8, 1994, p. B3; April 20, 1994, pp. 1E, 6E; May 12, 1994, pp. 1A, 6A, 1C, 8C-10C.

Detroit News, October 11, 1981.

Dollars & Sense, May 1994, pp. 21-22.

Ebony, May 1990.

Gentlemens Quarterly, February 1988, pp. 190-193, 238-242.

Inside Sports, April 1984, p. 64; November 1987, p. 21; June 1994, pp. 38-39.

Jet, December 11, 1989, pp. 36-38; October 22, 1990, p. 48; October 14, 1991, p. 49; January 31, 1994, p. 48.

Los Angeles Daily News, June 19, 1988.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner, June 6, 1987.

Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1986; June 7, 1988; June 11, 1988; June 20, 1988.

Newsday, June 2, 1987; May 30, 1988.

Newsweek, December 14, 1981, p. 130.

New York Times, April 27, 1981; June 2, 1987; January 8, 1994, p. 32; January 9, 1994, sec. 8, p. 5.

Oakland Press (Michigan), April 3, 1994; April 4, 1994, p. D1; April 18, 1994, p. B1; April 24, 1994, pp. D1-D2, D13-D14.

Philadelphia Daily News, June 15, 1988.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 1988.

Rolling Stone, May 4, 1989.

Sport, February 1986, p. 59; May 1988, p. 24; June 1992, pp. 66-70.

Sports Illustrated, January 19, 1987; May 18, 1987; June 25, 1990, pp. 32-36; January 21, 1991, p. 46; January 17, 1994, p. 71.

Additional information for this profile was supplied by the Toronto Raptors Basketball Club, Inc.

Glen Macnow and Mark Kram

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Thomas, Isiah

Isiah Thomas

1961-

American basketball player

When Isiah Thomas joined the Detroit Pistons in 1981, they were among the worst in the league, a disheartened group of guys struggling through each season. Thomas, however, transformed them into a proud, poised cohesive team. Under Thomas's directionand attitudethe Pistons became known as the "Bad Boys" of the NBA. As their image deteriorated, their play improved. Thomas himself wore the smile of a gentleman, but underneath, he was more like a rugged outlaw, willing to do whatever it took to win the prize. For thirteen seasons, Thomas was the team's go-to guy: the one who could pour on the points when time was short and the odds were long. Once, Thomas scored sixteen points in the final ninety-four seconds of a game. Another time, he scored twenty-five points in a single NBA Finals quarter, setting an NBA record. Led by Thomas, the Pistons won back-to-back National Basketball Association (NBA) championships in 1989 and 1990. During his years with the Pistons, Thomas energized the city of Detroit and remains among the team's most beloved alums. He retired in 1994 as the Pistons' all-time leader in points (18,822), assists (9,061), steals (1,861), and games played (979)

Grew up in Grinding Poverty

Thomas grew up in the gritty ghetto of Chicago's West Side, where his mother ran the youth center at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. Because he was the youngest, Thomas's six brothers and two sisters called him "Junior."

Thomas's father worked at International Harvester, where he became the company's first African-American supervisor. Later, when the plant closed and he could only find work as a janitor, he became depressed and left the family.

Mary Thomas struggled to provide for her large family. The fridge was often bare, leaving the Thomas children to scrounge for food. In his book The Fundamentals: Eight Plays for Winning the Games of Business and Life, Thomas recalled that he spent his childhood trolling the streets with an empty belly, looking for loose change or fast-food wrappers with scraps of cheese still stuck inside. He shined shoes to earn money for food, then hoped he could make it home without being robbed.

As Thomas wrote in the book, "My earliest dreams were not-as you might imagine-fantasies of playing professional basketball. My boyhood dreams were mostly about well-stocked refrigerators: huge refrigerators that were bursting at the hinges with mouth-watering roast chickens, heaping plates of spaghetti, and thick juicy steaks."

While Thomas's stomach may have been empty, his basketball skills were abundant and sprouted early on. When his older brother Larry played in a Catholic youth league, three-year-old Thomas provided the half-time entertainment. He'd slip on a jersey, which fit like a tent, then dribble around the court imitating the moves he'd seen. Just three, Thomas could already please a crowd.

Growing up, Thomas spent his days at a West Side pocket park playing basketball on the pockmarked courts. Thomas's brother, Lord Henry, was one of the neighborhood stars, and Thomas learned a lot of plays from him. For Thomas, going to the court became a way to block out the hunger, violence, and dangers that gnawed at him off the court.

In time, Thomas realized that his basketball skills might be his family's salvation-a way to drag his mother and siblings out of grinding poverty and into a safer neighborhood. The Thomas clan had been waiting for one of the boys to get a break, perhaps join the NBA. Thomas's brother Larry had been invited to try out for the Chicago Bulls but missed the chance by spraining his ankle. He then turned to the streets. Another brother, Lord Henry, lost his athletic potential to drugs. Now, it was up to Thomas to succeed. Thomas' brother, Larry, wanted to ensure Thomas' success, so he took him to the court day after day and drilled him on the fundamentals, all the while encouraging Thomas to stay out of trouble and shoot for his dreams.

Chronology

1961 Born April 30 in Chicago to Isiah Lord Thomas II and Mary Thomas
1979 Graduates from St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois
1979 Represents United States in Pan American Games in Puerto Rico
1979 Joins Indiana Hoosiers basketball team coached by Bobby Knight
1981 Leads Hoosiers to the NCAA title
1981 Is the No. 2 pick in the June NBA draft, taken by the Detroit Pistons
1985 Marries Lynn Kendall
1987 Graduates from Indiana University on Mother's Day with a degree in criminal justice
1989-90 Leads Pistons to back-to-back NBA championships
1993 Purchases printing franchise American Speedy
1994 Tears Achilles' tendon, decides to retire
1994 Becomes part-owner and general manager of the Toronto Raptors
1997 Begins work as NBA analyst and broadcaster for NBC
1999 Buys controlling ownership of the nine-team Continental Basketball Association for $10 million
2000 Becomes head coach of the Indiana Pacers

As an eighth-grader, Thomas tore up the basketball courts. He impressed area coach Gene Pingatore so much that Pingatore secured financial aid for Thomas to attend St. Joseph High School, where Pingatore coached.

For Thomas, the move to the suburban, all-boy, nearly all white school was tough. Just getting there was an ordeal. To get to the Westchester, Illinois, school, Thomas rose at 5:30 a.m. for a one-and-a-half hour bus ride, which concluded with a long walk to the school's front door. Thomas knew the sacrifice was worth it if it would get his basketball skills noticed.

On the court, he regularly scored forty points a game. During his junior and senior seasons, Thomas led the St. Joseph Chargers to a 57-5 record, along with a disheartening second-place finish in the 1977-1978 Illinois state high school championship tournament.

Delivered Hoosiers a National Championship

Colleges across the United States courted Thomas, and he chose to play at Indiana University under coach Bobby Knight . At 6-foot-1, Thomas was small for a college player, and Knight nicknamed him "Pee Wee."

What Thomas lacked in stature, he made up for with his skills, particularly his supernatural ability to make shots against defenders who towered over him. During the 1979-1980 season, Thomas' freshman year, he escorted the Hoosiers to a 21-8 record and the Big Ten Championship. Leading his team in scoring (423 points), assists (159), and steals (62), Thomas was named to the Associated Press All-Big Ten team, the first freshman to receive the honor. Thomas was so popular at Indiana that classmates greeted him with standing ovations when he entered lecture halls following a game day.

His sophomore year, Thomas delivered the Hoosiers to the 1981 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament title game, where they beat the North Carolina State Tar Heels 63-50, with Thomas accounting for twenty-three of his team's points. Over the course of the tournament, Thomas scored ninety-one points and had forty-three assists in five games. He was named the tournament's outstanding player.

Thomas's terrific tournament play generated a lot of attention, and he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He wondered if it was time to join the NBA. Thomas wanted to finish school, but he also wanted to get his mother out of the ghetto.

Thomas decided to turn pro. During the June 1981 NBA draft, the Detroit Pistons had the second pick, and they selected Thomas. Thomas signed a contract for $400,000 a year, which, coupled with his bonus, brought the total to more than $1 million. He immediately bought his mother a house in the suburbs. When Thomas quit college, his mother made him promise to finish his degree. Thomas took classes the next several off-seasons, graduating from Indiana with a degree in criminal justice in 1987.

Helped Pistons Rebound into Winning Team

When Thomas joined the Pistons, they were at the bottom of the league, lurching their way to a 21-61 record during the 1980-81 season. But with Thomas in the lineup playing guard during the start of the 1981-1982 season, the Pistons got off to an 8-5 record. During his first month in the big leagues, the twenty-year-old Thomas averaged twenty-one points per game. He added pizzazz to the Pistons' game, and attendance rose. The Detroit News proclaimed Thomas "Isiah the Savior."

Awards and Accomplishments

1980 Named to the Associated Press All-Big Ten team, the first college freshman to receive the honor
1981 Led Indiana Hoosiers to the NCAA basketball championship; named tournament MVP
1982 NBA All-Rookie team
1982-93 Played in All-Star Game every season but his last
1984 All-Star game MVP
1984-85 Became first player in NBA history to average more than 20 points per game and make more than 1,000 assists in the same season
1984-85 Set NBA record with 1,123 assists
1985 Named Michiganian of the Year
1986 All-Star game MVP
1988 Set NBA Finals record for most points in a quarter (25), and most field goals in one quarter (11)
1989 Led Pistons to the NBA championship
1990 Led Pistons to the NBA Championship
1990 Named NBA Finals MVP
1996 Named to the NBA Greatest 50 Players of All Time Team
2000 Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; uniform No. 11 retired by Pistons

A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story

Isiah Thomas's mother's life story was dramatized in a 1989 NBC-TV movie starring Alfre Woodard in the title role. The movie showed how the single mother worked to free her children from poverty as they came of age on the crime-riddled streets of Chicago's West Side. For the most part, Mary Thomas kept her children on the straight and narrow, making up with love what she lacked in money.

The movie depicts many telling events from Isiah Thomas' life, including the time Mary Thomas went to Mayor Richard Daley to complain that case workers wanted to move her family into a violence-plagued housing project-and she wasn't going to go. The movie also told about the time a gang showed up on the family's doorstep eager to recruit the Thomas boys. Mary Thomas, however, pointed her shotgun at them and threatened to blow them across the expressway. She explained that there was only one gang in that house, the Thomas gang.

The movie, and Mary Thomas' life, served as an inspiration to other mothers facing the same prospects she did. Originally broadcast as a "Magical World of Disney" Sunday night feature, the movie won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Prime Time Program.

Throughout his life, Isiah Thomas always gave his mother credit for his success, and the movie shows why.

Thomas finished the season averaging seventeen points per game for a total of 1,225 points. He handily

made the All-Rookie and All-Star teams. The Pistons won thirty-nine games, their best finish in five years.

During the 1983-1984 season, Thomas led the Pistons to a 49-33 record. They faced the New York Knicks in the playoffs. The teams split the first four games of the series. During the fifth and deciding game, the Pistons were down 106-98 with just under two minutes to play. This is where Thomas showed his stuff. In ninety-four seconds, Thomas dropped in a lay-up, a three-pointer, five free throws, and three jump shots for sixteen points, tying the game at 114. The Pistons lost in overtime, but fans reveled in Thomas's play.

As Thomas gained star status on the court, he began using his name to help improve his community. Thomas wrote a weekly kids column for the Detroit Free Press, starred in an anti-drug film, and frequented inner-city schools, telling kids to stay in school and fight for their dreams. He also persuaded the mayor of Detroit to hold "No Crime Day" on September 27, 1986, so neighborhoods would be forced to focus efforts on dealing with crime, gangs, and drugs.

During the mid-1980s, Thomas realized that the Pistons needed a fresh image to help them compete. Though the Pistons had improved, other teams still thought of them as perennial losers. Over the next few years, Thomas helped redesign the team into the "Bad Boys" of the NBA. It was mostly a trick of perception, which worked. As the Pistons developed a more aggressive image, their play improved. They also picked up better players, like Dennis Rodman in 1986. Finally, in 1988, the Pistons achieved their dream of making it to the NBA Finals, where they faced the defending champs, the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson .

The series was intense. Going into game six, Detroit led three games to two and needed one more victory for the title. The Lakers, playing at home, led 53-46 at the half. Thomas came out the second half determined to win. He scored a speedy fourteen points to put the Pistons back in the game, then promptly sprained his ankle. Thomas sat out thirty-five seconds, then insisted on going back in. Blocking out the pain, Thomas scored eleven more points for a third-quarter total of twenty-five, setting an NBA Finals record for most points scored in a quarter.

According to Ron Knapp's biography on Thomas, Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Downey wrote up Thomas' game this way, "He was out of this world. He was making shots off the wrong foot, off the glass, off the wall." Though Thomas scored forty-three points, Detroit lost 103-102, leaving the series tied at three games apiece. A gimpy Thomas suffered through the final game of the series as Detroit went down 108-105. Even though his team lost, Thomas became a champion of sorts. Fans were amazed with his skill and determination, which broke through even in the toughest moments.

Won Back-to-Back NBA Championships

The Pistons ended the 1988-89 season 63-19. They rolled through the playoffs, then knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA championship. That season, the Pistons exemplified basketball as a team sport. Their shared skills got them through. The Pistons were the NBA champs, yet none of the players stood out among the league's best. None of the team members made the All-NBA team, no one averaged at least twenty points per game, or was even among the league's top twenty in scoring. It had truly been a team effort. The Wheaties cereal company couldn't figure out who the team's star player was, so they put six of the Pistons on the front of the box.

The "Bad Boys" continued the 1989-1990 season looking like a championship team. They had a 25-1 record during a hot streak in January and February. With a season-ending record of 59-23, they again entered the playoffs and made it to the Finals, where they faced the Portland Trail Blazers. The Pistons were down ten points with only seven minutes left in the first game. Thomas once again hit his nerve to score twelve points in the last seven minutes, giving the Pistons a 105-99 win. Throughout the rest of the series, Thomas' play kept his team in the series. In game four, Thomas hit twenty-two points in the third quarter alone. The Pistons repeated as champs, with Thomas earning Finals MVP honors.

Retired as Player, Became Coach

The Pistons fell apart during the 1993-94 season. Thomas appeared in his 12th All-Star game, but the Pistons ended the season 20-62. During the season's final home game, Thomas tore his Achilles' tendon. Rumors flew that the Pistons were interested in trading Thomas to the New York Knicks for a No. 1 draft pick. Thomas couldn't see himself playing for another team, so he decided to retire, though he later questioned the move.

As Thomas wrote in his book on the fundamentals, "I wish I'd given it more thought. I think I had more basketball in me than I realized at that point, and since then I've thought that it wouldn't have been so bad to win a championship or two for New York and then hang up the sneakers."

Though he feels he may have retired prematurely, Thomas's statistics tell the story of a complete player. Thomas retired as the Pistons' all-time leader in points (18,822), assists (9,061), steals (1,861), and games played (979).

Thomas, however, did not leave the court. In 1994, he became part-owner and general manager of the Toronto Raptors. In 1997, he joined NBC as an NBA analyst and sportscaster, and in 1999, he purchased the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) for about $10 million. Thomas intended to boost interest in the nine-team league by adding Webcasts and lining up more sponsors. He dreamed of turning the CBA into an official minor league farm system for the NBA. With Thomas at the helm, the CBA became the only professional sports league in the hands of a minority owner.

In 2000, when Thomas became head coach of the Indiana Pacers, NBA rules forced him to put the CBA into a blind trust, and the league crumbled.

Thomas' time with the Pacers has been much more promising. In his first two seasons (2000-2001 and 2001-2002), Thomas coached the team to an 84-81 record. But he realizes, just as it took the Pistons years to build a championship team, it may take a few years for the Pacers. Once again, Thomas is chasing that dream of an NBA championship-this time as a coach.

He also devotes time to his family. In 1985, he married his college sweetheart, Lynn Kendall. They have two children, Joshua Isiah and Lauren.

Remembered as Inspiration to Others

Thomas will long be remembered for his brilliant shooting displays, particularly during post-season play. His 1988 record of twenty-five points in a single NBA Finals game quarter still stood in 2003.

Thomas's achievements, however, transcend the court. His success story continues to be an inspiration to youth growing up poor today. That Thomas moved from a life of stunting poverty into the basketball hall of fame is amazing. His story helps other children believe that they can do the same.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Address: c/o Indiana Pacers, 125 S. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis, IN 46204. Fax: (317) 917-2599. Phone:(317) 917-2500. Email: PacersInsider@Pacers.com. On-line: http://www.nba.com/pacers/news/fan_mail.html.

SELECTED WRITINGS BY THOMAS:

(With Matt Dobek) Bad Boys, McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Career Statistics

Yr Team GP PTS FG% 3P% FT% RPG APG SPG BPG TO PF
DET: Detroit Pistons.
1981-82 DET 72 1225 .424 .288 .704 2.9 7.8 2.08 .24 299 253
1982-83 DET 81 1854 .472 .288 .710 4.0 7.8 2.46 .36 326 318
1983-84 DET 82 1748 .462 .338 .733 4.0 11.1 2.49 .40 307 324
1984-85 DET 81 1720 .458 .257 .809 4.5 13.9 2.31 .31 302 288
1985-86 DET 77 1609 .488 .310 .790 3.6 10.8 2.22 .26 289 245
1986-87 DET 81 1671 .463 .194 .768 3.9 10.0 1.89 .25 343 251
1987-88 DET 81 1577 .463 .309 .774 3.4 8.4 1.74 .21 273 217
1988-89 DET 80 1458 .464 .273 .818 3.4 8.3 1.66 .25 298 209
1989-90 DET 81 1492 .438 .309 .775 3.8 9.4 1.72 .23 322 206
1990-91 DET 48 776 .435 .292 .782 3.3 9.3 1.56 .21 185 118
1991-92 DET 78 1445 .446 .291 .772 3.2 7.2 1.51 .19 252 194
1992-93 DET 79 1391 .418 .308 .737 2.9 8.5 1.56 .23 284 222
1993-94 DET 58 856 .417 .310 .702 2.7 6.9 1.17 .10 202 126
TOTAL 979 18822 .452 .290 .759 3.6 9.3 1.90 .25 3682 2971

The Fundamentals: Eight Plays for Winning the Games of Business and Life, HarperBusiness, 2001.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Knapp, Ron. Sports Great Isiah Thomas. Hillside, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1992.

Rappoport, Ken. Guts and Glory: Making it in the NBA. New York: Walker and Company, 1997.

The Sporting News Official NBA Register, 2001-2002 Edition. St. Louis: The Sporting News, 2001.

Stewart, Mark. Isiah Thomas. New York: Children's Press, 1996.

Thomas, Isiah. The Fundamentals: Eight Plays for Winning the Games of Business and Life. New York: HarperBusiness, 2001.

Periodicals

Brown, Roxanne. "How to Save Inner-City Children from Gangs." Ebony (May 1990): 29.

Nance, Roscoe. "Looking Good Being Bad." USA Today (December 17, 2002).

Wertheim, L. Jon. "Nice Rebound." Sports Illustrated (November 18, 2002): 36.

Other

"Isiah Thomas Coach Info." NBA.com. http://www.nba.com/coachfile/isiah_thomas/?nav=page (January 5, 2003).

Sketch by Lisa Frick

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Thomas, Isiah 1961–

Isiah Thomas 1961

Former professional basketball player, entrepreneur

At a Glance

Moved to Toronto

Became Owner of the CBA

Sources

To many sports fans and writers, Isiah Thomas was the best small man ever to play professional basketball. The six-foot-one-inch Thomas served as a point guard for the Detroit Pistons from 1981 to 1994, earning a spot on the All-Star roster for 12 consecutive years and leading his team to back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. Thomas, who joined the Pistons when he was just 19, was a ruthless competitor on the court but dedicated himself to civic causes and social issues in his spare time. The passing of the years eroded Thomass playing ability and his reputation as a good-natured, accessible superstar, but his competitive drive and dedication to the game of basketball cannot be questioned.

Detroit Free Press columnist Charlie Vincent called Thomas the spirit and the heart and the soul of a team that wormed its way into our hearts. He came with a smile that made us all think he was a choirboy but showed us, in time, thaton the floorhe could be an assassin. Vincent added that Thomas showed a generation of Detroit fans how a winner behaves. He has given us memories of glory and of leadership and courage. Thomas retired from basketball on May 11, 1994, following months of speculation about his future and a rumored $55-million retirement package. This has been a great life for me, Thomas told reporters. I think I enjoyed myself more than any other player who ever came through the NBA. Thomas was expected to become a color commentator for televised basketball coverage and to devote more time to his extensive business dealings.

Im in love with basketball, Thomas once told Sports Illustrated. Its my release. Its my outlet. If I get mad, I go shoot. Its my freedom. Its my security. Its my drug; its my high. Thomass love of the game has at times bordered on obsession. As a rookie Piston point guard in 1981, he set a goal of being part of an NBA championship team. At times, that goal seemed out of reach no matter how hard Thomas played as an individual. Time and maturity seasoned his game, however, and he finally led the Pistons to their first-ever championship in 1989.Sport magazine contributor Johnette Howard wrote: Like many other superstarsat least the smart onesThomas learned long ago that piling up statistics is less intriguing than chasing or craving what he cannot guarantee. Like winning. By that measure, regardless of what anyone else says, he is an unqualified success.

At a Glance

Born Isiah Lord Thomas III, April 30, 1961, in Chicago, IL; son of Isiah Lord II (a plant foreman) and Mary (a civil service employee) Thomas; married Lynn Kendall (a teacher), 1985; children: two. Education: Indiana University, B.A., 1987.

Career: Professional basketball player with Detroit Pistons, 1981-94. Member of U.S.Olympic basketball team, 1980; vice-president of National Basketball Association Players Association, 1986-89, president, 1989-94; vice president of basketball operations, Toronto Raptors, 1994-97; NBA analyst and sportscaster, NBC Sports, 1997-; chairman and chief executive officer, Continental Basketball Association, 1999-00; Indiana Pacers, coach, 2000-.

Selected awards: Named to NBA All-Star Team, 1982-92; named All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, 1984 and 1986; Elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, 2000.

Addresses: Office Continental Basketball Association, Two Arizona Center, 400 North 5th Street, Suite 1425, Phoenix, AZ 85004.

Isiah Lord Thomas III grew up in the heart of Chicagos West Side ghetto, the youngest of seven boys and two girls born to Mary and Isiah Thomas II. He was well behaved, but spoiled, Mary Thomas told Sports Illustrated. I cant say I didnt treat him special. He was the baby. He got special attention. Isiah II was a plant supervisor who pushed his children to read, barred them from watching anything but educational television, and lectured them to stick together and protect one another. When Isiah III was an infant, his father lost his job as a supervisor at International Harvester and could not find comparable work elsewhere. He was forced to work as a janitor at extremely reduced wages, and the stress of his disappointment caused friction in the family. My father was frustrated by his intelligence, Thomas told Gentlemans Quarterly. He was a black man coming up in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. Being very intelligent and not being able to express that intelligence made him a very angry man. Sometimes he took that anger out on our family.

Eventually, Isiah II and Mary Thomas separated, and the childrearing duties fell primarily to Mary. She was a strict disciplinarian who required her children to be home by the time the street lights came on. Born a Baptist, she turned the family toward Catholicism and thus came under the wing of a local church, Our Lady of Sorrows, and its schools. Fearlessly protective of her family, there was little that Mary Thomas would not do to shield her children from the gangs that prowled their neighborhoods streets. Once she chased gang members from her front porch with a shotgun when they came to recruit her sons. Her courage and determinationespecially where Isiah III was concernedwere the subject of a 1987 made-for-television movie.

Thomas spent most of his free time playing basketball at tiny Gladys Park, next to Chicagos Eisenhower Expressway. According to Ira Berkow in the New York Times, the young Thomas was a prodigy in basketball the way Mozart was in music. At age three, Amadeus was composing on a harpsichord; at three, Isiah could dribble and shoot baskets. Thomas was tutored by his older brothers, some of whom were top-notch players in their own right. Thomas recalled those days fondly in Sports Illustrated. Go anywhere on the West Side and say, Meet me at the court, and theyd know what you were talking about, he said. Thats where I really learned to play. There were some basketball players there. You could always get a game there. Any time of day, any time of night. Me and my brothers used to go over there with snow shovels in the winter so we could play.

When Thomas was 12, the street gangs began moving in more ferociously, and some of his older brothers succumbed to the lure of drug abuse and crime. Mary Thomas moved the family five miles west to Menard Avenue, but trouble seemed to follow. Those were probably the worst times as a kid, Thomas told Sports Illustrated. We very rarely had heat. We had an oil furnace but no money to buy oil. In the winter, it was always cold, and you had to sleep all the time with your clothes on. Everything broke down in the house once we bought it. I mean everything was a disaster. Sleeping in a closet and eating food donated by concerned church members, Thomas was tempted to follow the lead of his brothers and turn to drug dealing as a way out of poverty. His brothers and his mother convinced him otherwise. They told him that he might well lead the family into better circumstances with his basketball skills.

Most of the coaches in the Chicago area considered Thomas too small to have any significant impact on a basketball program, but Thomass brothers persuaded coach Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph High School to give Isiah a sports scholarship. St. Joseph was located in a white suburb of Chicago. Thomas had to commute three hours each way to and from school, taking three buses and arriving home well after dark. He struggled to acquire discipline in the classroom and on the court and, by his junior year, he led St. Joseph to a second place finish in the state high school championship tournament. As a senior, Thomas was one of the most coveted college prospects in the nation.

More than 100 colleges recruited Thomas. His family wanted him to stay home and attend DePaul, but he chose to go to Indiana University and play for temperamental coach Bob Knight. Thomas made All-Big Ten his freshman year and was named a consensus All-American as a sophomore. That year he led the Hoosiers to the NCAA championship game, where Indiana routed the North Carolina Tar Heels, 63-50. With 23 points in the championship match, Thomas was named NCAA tournament Most Valuable Player. Despite his All-Star performance as a freshman and sophomore, Thomas was not happy at Indiana. He and Knight clashed frequently. Finally, in 1981on the advice of his friend Magic JohnsonThomas decided to leave college and apply for the NBA draft.

Thomas was selected second in the opening round of the 1981 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, a hopelessly foundering organization that had won only 37 of 164 games the previous two seasons. At the tender age of 19, Thomas became burdened with the chore of rescuing the NBAs worst team. A Detroit News headline hailed him as Isiah the Savior, and Pistons season ticket sales jumped 50 percent. Even the club brass talked about making the NBA Finals as they announced Thomass four-year, $1.6 million contract. Undaunted by the expectations, Thomas turned in a successful rookie season, averaging 17 points per game and leading his team in assists and steals. He improved further in his second season, averaging nearly 23 points and 8 assists per game. Both years he represented the Pistons at the All-Star Game.

Through his first four years in Detroit, Thomas consistently outplayed his teammates. He was the first player in league history to be voted to the All-Star team in his first five seasons, and in 1984 and 1986 his performances in the All-Star game were so spectacular that he was named the contests Most Valuable Player. By 1984 he had managed to guide the Pistons to their first winning record in seven seasons, and he was given a new ten-year, $12 million contract that was specifically designed to keep him in Detroit for his entire career. He responded to this vote of confidence in the 1984-85 season by compiling an NBA-record 1,123 assists, an average of 13.1 per game.

Not only did Thomas shine on the court, he also earned the affection of basketball fans everywhereand especially in Detroitfor his well-publicized anti-crime work, his open dedication to his family, and his accessibility to the media. Howard noted of Thomas: Half the beat reporters in the NBA had his home phone number, and it wasnt uncommon for him to sit for an hour after a practice, talking about some societal issue such as racism or his latest take on the game. Perhaps inevitably, however, pressures began to mount on the affable superstar as the Detroit Pistons became a legitimate playoff contender in 1986. A turning point in the evolution of Isiah Thomas occurred during the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics.

Under new head coach Chuck Daly, the Detroit Pistons improved enough to challenge for the 1987 NBA championship. That year, Thomas averaged almost 20 points per game in the playoffs as the Pistons advanced to an Eastern Conference showdown with the Celtics. The winner of the best-of-seven series would advance to the NBA playoffssomething the Pistons had never done. The series was hard-fought and seethed with emotion. By Game Five each team had won twice, and as Game Five drew to a close, the Pistons clung to a one-point lead and had possession of the ball. With one second left to play, Thomas in-bounded the ball. His pass was stolen by Larry Bird of the Celtics. Bird lobbed the ball to teammate Dennis Johnson, who scored the winning basket as the buzzer sounded. The dramatic loss stunned the Pistons, who went on to lose the series in seven games.

Just after Detroits loss to the Celtics, another Piston, rookie Dennis Rodman, told reporters that Larry Bird was overrated because he was white. Asked to comment on his teammates statement, Thomas responded that while Bird was a very, very good basketball player, if he were black he would be just another good guy. The backlash among media and fans was immediate. Even though Thomas apologized to Bird at a press conferenceand clarified his remarks by explaining that he felt an inherent racial bias existed in basketballhis reputation was severely damaged. Howard wrote in 1992 that in the wake of that controversy, neither [Thomas] nor his image has ever been the same. Howard added: Looking back on it now, Thomas greatest sin mightve been that his thinking and candor put him ahead of his time.

Thomass honeymoon with the media ended just as the Pistons achieved their greatest success. Beginning in 1987, the Pistons adopted surly tactics both on- and off-court that led to their being nicknamed the Bad Boys. With Thomas as team captain, the Bad Boys turned in a strong 1987-88 season and capped the year with an Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Celtics and a bruising, seven-game championship run versus the Los Angeles Lakers. Playing with a jammed finger, a bruised eye, facial cuts, and a badly sprained ankle, Thomas threatened to steal the series for the Pistons, especially in Game Six, when he scored 43 points and 8 assists. Los Angeles won the championship in seven games, but the Pistonsand Thomashad finally shed their losing image. The next two seasons would belong to Detroit.

With Isiah Thomas at the height of his ability, the Pistons won the NBA championship in 1989 and again in 1990. These championship teams were often embroiled in controversy, both for their aggressive style of play and for their combative attitudes off-court. Rolling Stone contributor Jeff Coplon wrote that the Bad Boys were perceived nationwide as goons, thugs, terrorists. When they took the court, a hockey game broke out. Normally placid opponents blew up bumps into scuffles, scuffles into brawls. In the cultish NBA, if the Celtics were white Americas team, and the Lakers were Club Hollywood, the Pistons belonged to Qaddafi. Piston-bashing was suddenly a blood sportespecially among those most threatened by Detroits rise. In 1988-89 Detroit compiled the best regular-season record in the NBA, winning 65 of 82 games. A six-game Eastern Conference Finals victory against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls set the stage for another showdown with the Lakers. This time, the Pistons swept Los Angeles in four games and returned to Detroit with the championship.

Even greater triumph awaited Thomas the following year as Detroits Bad Boys advanced again to the championship series, this time against the Portland Trail Blazers. In a series remembered for its physical play, the Pistons won in just five games to clinch back-to-back championship victories. Sports Illustrated correspondent Jack McCallum credited the strong Detroit showing to Thomas. The Piston captain, wrote McCallum, kept the tempo at a controlled, even pace, which disrupted the fast-breakingTrail Blazers. And when he wasnt doing that, he was creating something from nothing, with long-distance jump shots, body-twisting drives and steals in the open floor. By the time the Pistons had beaten the Blazers to clinch their second straight championship there was only one great guard still playing basketballIsiah Lord Thomas III.

Thomas was named Most Valuable Player of the 1990 championship series. Returning home to celebrate with his wife, he discovered that he was the target of media scrutiny for alleged gambling improprieties. Although no formal charges were brought against him, the negative publicity only alienated him further from the media and fans he had once courted so gallantly. As regular season play began in the 1990s, Thomass statistics fell off somewhat, and he began spending more time alone with his family. He was sidelined in the 1991-92 season after receiving a blow to the head in a game against the Utah Jazz. Also, Thomas was probably the best-known NBA player who was not selected for the celebrated 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, allegedly because of pressure from reigning basketball superstar Michael Jordan, with whom Thomas had long feuded. That omission was particularly difficult for Thomas, because he had been a member of a 1980 Olympic basketball team that was forced to boycott the Olympics by President Carter.

Through these and other controversies, Thomas remained the Pistons team captain. He also served a four-year stint as the president of the NBA Players Association. As he ended his eleventh season in the NBA, Thomas reflected on his career in Sport magazine: You gotta understand, he said. Im 6-1. If I was 6-9, I could be nice. If I was 6-9, or 6-6 and could jump out of the building, I could be nice. But being 6-1, having to try to be successful in a league where everyone else is 6-7, 6-8, 6-9, youve got to have a little fire in your gut, or youll be like every other 6-1 guy is supposed to be in the leagueaverage. I didnt want to be average. You have to do what you have to do. And I had no problems doing that.

As a team, the Pistons fortunes ebbed as those of the Chicago Bulls rose. The Pistons were defeated by the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1991, crushing their hopes for a third straight NBA title and prompting calls for rebuilding. In December of 1993, rumors suggested that Thomas was about to leave the Pistons for the New York Knicks. Instead, on January 7, 1994, the Pistons called a press conference to announce that Thomas had signed a long-term contract that would take him past retirement. This is one of the happiest days of my career, and one of the happiest days of my life, Thomas told the Detroit Free Press when the agreement was announced. Soon after the contract was signed, more rumors circulated that Thomas would retire at the end of the season.

On April 19, 1994, Isiah Thomas played his last game as a Detroit Piston, although his retirement would not become official until May 11. Thomas left his final game in the third quarter with a torn Achilles tendon, after scoring 12 points and serving up 6 assists against the Orlando Magic. Reflecting on his years in the NBA, Thomas told Vincent, I have no regrets. As a basketball player, you gave everything to your sport, gave everything to the organization and to the team you played for. You leave it all out on the floor. So its not disappointing to me at all. Following his retirement party, Thomas ended rumors about his taking a front-office position with the Pistons franchise, telling reporters, All the jobs were full.

Thomas met many of the goals he set for himself as a rookie in the NBAand exceeded even his own sky-high expectations. The leader in every category in the history of the Pistons franchise, Thomas also left the game as the fourth all-time NBA leader in assists and steals, and the 28th all-time leader in scoring. Thomas retired with 18,822 career points, 9,061 assists, and 1,861 steals in 979 games. Thomas told Jet magazine: Im living the dream I had since I was a little boy. How many kids, especially kids who grew up as poor as I did, ever live to see their dreams come true? Im just lucky Ive had the opportunity.

Following his retirement from the NBA, Thomas turned his attention to becoming a successful businessman and entrepreneur. Along with his business partners, he purchased American Speedy Printing Centers, Inc. With Thomas serving as principal shareholder and co-chairman of the board of directors, American Speedy Printing Centers emerged from bankruptcy to become a highly profitable company. In 1994 he became a principal investor in OmniBanc Corp, the nations first multistate African American owned bank holding company. The goal of OmniBanc was to revitalize economically disadvantaged inner cities communities. As Thomas remarked in American Banker, Anytime you have the chance to revitalize the community that you came fromits a very exciting challenge and a very exciting opportunity.

Moved to Toronto

On May 24, 1994, Thomas was introduced as the head of basketball operations for the expansion Toronto Raptors, the first NBA franchise located outside the United States. As part of his duties, he was charged with helping to shape the team, which debuted during the 1995-96 season. At a press conference in Toronto at the time of his announcement, Thomas remarked, I think its the dream of most professional athletesto make this kind of cross-over once the playing days are over. Im so excited to get on with the job at hand.

In late 1997, Thomas abruptly resigned as general manager of the Toronto Raptors and left town. Rumors circulated that Thomass relationship with Raptors majority owner Allan Slaight had soured after Thomas failed to purchase sole ownership of the team. Although Thomas owned a nine percent share of the Raptors, he wanted complete control of the organization. His sudden departure dealt a severe blow to the teams morale. As Raptors forward Walt Williams told Macleans, Isiah is a big part of why a lot of the guys are here.

Shortly after leaving the Raptors, Thomas signed a deal with NBC in December of 1997 to become an analyst for NBA games. With experience as both a player and NBA executive, NBC felt that Thomas would bring an interesting perspective to the job. Although Thomas was excited about the new opportunity, he had almost no experience as a broadcaster and realized that he had much to learn. As quoted by Jet magazine, Thomas remarked, I understand that I come into this as a rookie, that Im very young and very green. I dont come into this professing to be the top guy, but as a young guy with a lot of talent.

Became Owner of the CBA

Thomas had long professed a desire to purchase his own NBA franchise. That goal had gone unfulfilled. However, in 1999, Thomas purchased the nine-team Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Suddenly, he was the sole owner of nine franchises scattered across the United States. Thomas voiced his plans for the CBA in Black Enterprise, My goal is to one day form an official affiliation with the NBA where each team will have its own CBA team and you can call up or send down players, similar to what they have in baseball. He also planned to expand the CBA and increase its visibility through increased promotion and marketing. Our goal is to continue to grow the league through acquisitions and mergers. Weve looked at some citiesand theres considerable interest in smaller cities wanting to have the second-best league in the world playing in their towns. Unfortunately, Thomas will never see the affiliation come to pass as owner. He sold the CBA, so he could become the next coach of the Indiana Pacers. Now, he has the chance to become a part of another championship-winning NBA team.

In May of 2000, Thomas was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. This distinction placed him alongside other Detroit sports legends such as Al Kaline, Ty Cobb, and Gordie Howe. At a press conference held at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the same arena where Thomas led the Pistons to championship glory, his trademark competitiveness shone through. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, Thomas remarked, I kid Magic and Jordan all the time that if I was taller, they never wouldve gotten the championship from me. If I had been 6-5 or 6-6, 1 would have killed all of those guys all of the time. The press conference also featured a five minute video highlighting some of Thomass greatest moments on a basketball court. After watching the video, Thomas quipped in the Detroit Free Press, I look at that video and I think to myself, Man, I was good.

Sources

American Banker, October 20, 1994, p. 6.

Black Enterprise, November, 1999, p. 28.

Boston Globe, November 1, 1981; April 26, 1985; June 7, 1987.

Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1987.

Detroit Free Press, April 25, 1987; April 28, 1987; January 4, 1994, p. Dl; January 8, 1994, p. B3; April 20, 1994, pp. IE, 6E; May 12, 1994, pp. 1A, 6A, 1C, 8C-10C; May 25, 2000, p. 1A.

Detroit News, October 11, 1981.

Dollars & Sense, May 1994, pp. 21-22.

Ebony, May 1990.

Gentlemans Quarterly, February 1988, pp. 190-193, 238-242.

Inside Sports, April 1984, p. 64; November 1987, p. 21; June 1994, pp. 38-39.

Jet, December 11, 1989, pp. 36-38; October 22, 1990, p. 48; October 14, 1991, p. 49; January 31, 1994, p. 48.

Los Angeles Daily News, June 19, 1988.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner, June 6, 1987.

Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1986; June 7, 1988; June 11, 1988; June 20, 1988.

Macleans, December 1, 1997.

Newsday, June 2, 1987; May 30, 1988.

Newsweek, December 14, 1981, p. 130.

New York Times, April 27, 1981; June 2, 1987; January 8, 1994, p. 32; January 9, 1994, sec. 8, p. 5.

Oakland Press (Michigan), April 3, 1994; April 4, 1994, p. Dl; April 18, 1994, p. Bl; April 24, 1994, pp. D1-D2, D13-D14.

Philadelphia Daily News, June 15, 1988.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 1988.

Rolling Stone, May 4, 1989.

Sport, February 1986, p. 59; May 1988, p. 24; June 1992, pp. 66-70.

Sports Illustrated, January 19, 1987; May 18, 1987; June 25, 1990, pp. 32-36; January 21, 1991, p. 46; January 17, 1994, p. 71.

Mark Kram and David G. Oblender

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