Thomas, Isiah Lord, III

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THOMAS, Isiah Lord, III

(b. 30 April 1961 in Chicago, Illinois), basketball player who spent thirteen seasons with the Detroit Pistons, becoming the franchise's all-time leader in points, assists, steals, and games played, and one of the best point guards in National Basketball Association (NBA) history.

Thomas was the youngest of nine children born to Isiah Lord Thomas II, a foreman at a manufacturing company, and Mary Thomas, a homemaker. Thomas's father was the first African-American foreman hired by International Harvester. After the plant closed, his father was only offered work as a janitor, and the stress from this job loss led to his parents' divorce. Thomas's father left the family when Thomas was three.

Mary Thomas took whatever jobs she could to make ends meet. She worked as a cook and found employment at a community center, a church, and with the housing authority. But providing for her two girls and seven boys was nearly impossible. The family of ten shared a three-bedroom home they could not afford to heat. Thomas remembered sleeping on the closet floor or on the ironing board in the hallway. He also remembered being hungry.

From his earliest days, Thomas tagged along with his older brothers, playing basketball at a nearby pocket park. By the age of three he could already captivate a crowd with his basketball skills. His brothers played in a local youth league and the younger Thomas provided the halftime entertainment. The coach would slide a team jersey over Thomas's head—a jersey so big it drooped to his ankles—and he dribbled around the court, slinging in shot after shot.

Since Thomas was the youngest, his family called him "Junior," although his friends and later his fans called him "Zeke." After some of Thomas's brothers gave in to the street (two to heroin and one to pimping), the family kept a strict eye on Junior, hoping he would be the one to make it to the NBA. Thomas's mother feared so much for the future of her youngest son that she convinced the basketball coach Gene Pingatore to give Thomas financial aid so he could enroll at the Catholic, suburban Saint Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois. Thomas had to get up in the predawn hours to catch a bus for school.

During his junior year Thomas provided the spark that led the Saint Joseph Chargers to a 32–1 record and a second-place finish in the state high-school basketball tournament. By his senior year of 1979, Thomas was recruited by college teams across the nation. He chose to attend Indiana University at Bloomington and was coached by Bobby Knight. During his first season (1979–1980) as a Hoosier, Thomas was named as a guard to the All–Big Ten team, the first freshman to receive the honor. During his sophomore year Thomas led Indiana to the 1981 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship title and stood at a crossroads—should he continue with the Hoosiers or turn professional? As a role model for underprivileged kids, Thomas wanted to complete college, but he also knew that entering the NBA would provide him with money to help his family.

In the end he decided to turn professional before completing college, and was the second pick in the June 1981 draft. The Detroit Pistons drafted Thomas, offering him a four-year contract worth $1.6 million. The first thing Thomas did was buy a house in the suburbs for his mother, who made him promise to finish school. Thomas spent the off-seasons working on his college degree and earned a B.A. in criminal justice from Indiana in 1987.

When Thomas joined the Pistons, they were one of the NBA's worst teams. But with Thomas the team won eight of its first thirteen games at the start of the 1981–1982 season. Home attendance nearly doubled and headlines in the local papers proclaimed, "Isiah the Savior." Thomas finished his rookie year with 1,225 points, an average of 17 per game, and 565 assists, earning a place on the All-Rookie and All-Star teams. In 1985 he married Lynn Kendall, and the couple later had two children.

During his career with the Pistons, Thomas was one of the most dazzling NBA point guards. At six feet, one inch tall, and 182 pounds, Thomas was a runt by NBA standards. He gained fame, however, for his uncanny ability to get off shots against players who were several inches taller. Thomas was a crowd pleaser, a master of deception and change of pace. He was a pressure player who could pull through when time was running short. When the Pistons needed points, Thomas got the ball. He once scored sixteen points in the last ninety-four seconds of a 1984 playoff game. He also set an NBA record for the most points scored in a playoff quarter (twenty-five).

Thomas spent thirteen years in the NBA, all with the Detroit Pistons. He led the Pistons to the NBA finals three years in a row, helping them win the championship in 1989 and 1990. Thomas was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1990 finals. He was named to the NBA All-Star team twelve consecutive times and became the all-time Pistons leader in points (18,822), assists (9,061), steals (1,861), and games played (979). Thomas was one of only four players to amass more than 9,000 assists in a lifetime, along with Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and John Stockton.

In 1994 Thomas retired from playing for the NBA after an Achilles tendon injury. He worked as an NBA analyst and television sportscaster for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) starting in 1997 and became an executive with the Toronto (Canada) Raptors. Thomas also became a part owner of American Speedy Printing Centers and OmniBanc, a multistate bank holding company owned by African Americans that aims to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods. In 1999 Thomas purchased the nine-team Continental Basketball Association, with plans to develop it into a minor league with ties to NBA teams.

Thomas was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, the same year he became head coach of the Indiana Pacers. During his first season, he coached his team to the finals. Although most people remember Thomas for his playing past, he is only at the start of his coaching career and will likely continue to make the record books—and headlines—for years to come.

Thomas and Matt Dobek chronicle Detroit's 1988–1989 championship season in Bad Boys (1989), which also includes Thomas's insights about his game and life. There are many short biographies on Thomas; one of the best is Ron Knapp, Sports Great Isiah Thomas (1992). Thomas also has been the subject of many magazine articles, including William Nack, "I Have Got to Do It Right," Sports Illustrated (19 Jan. 1987); Johnette Howard, "The Trials of Isiah," Sport (June 1992); and Dave Kindred, "He Made His Mama Proud," Sporting News (23 Oct. 2000).

Lisa Frick

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Thomas, Isiah Lord, III

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