Phases of Isiah

Recalled as the greatest Piston, Thomas also was uniquely complex

Dick Raphael (NBA/Getty Images)
The Mount Rushmore of Detroit sports would stand with that of just about any city’s. Just narrowing the field to a final four is no small challenge. The slam dunk has to be Gordie Howe, still universally acknowledged as one of the three greatest hockey players ever. Joe Louis probably goes next, for his cultural significance as much as his boxing prowess.

After that, you can flip a coin on a number of worthy candidates, including Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Barry Sanders and Steve Yzerman. The Pistons surely would have their own short list of contenders, including Dave Bing, Bob Lanier and Joe Dumars. But Isiah Thomas has to be first on that list, for his pure basketball ability but also for what he represented to a franchise adrift when he arrived in 1981, a mere 20-year-old, part cherub, part assassin.

Surely, I’ve never encountered a more complex character in 25 years of observing and connecting with Detroit’s prominent sports figures.

There was the early Isiah, a thrill ride, when fans were happy just for the highlight-reel fodder he provided and the respectability he conveyed to the Pistons, who in the 24 years since landing in Detroit before his arrival had advanced past the first round of the playoffs exactly three times and never any farther.

There was the middle Isiah, who burned with maniacal intensity to win a title and gain the same validation accorded to the few players he considered his peers – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, namely.

And there was the late Isiah, not as at peace with his success as he might have imagined and sometimes embittered that winning hadn’t granted him or his team universal adulation.

There are a few dozen Isiah images, interludes and exchanges seared into my memory bank. Here are two:

A conversation we had on a Friday afternoon in May 1987, two days after the Pistons had achieved a franchise first – winning a second-round playoff series. They beat Atlanta. Remember Isiah’s victory dance on that Sunday afternoon at The Palace, the Game 4 win to put them ahead 3-1, after a critical basket late in the game? Three nights later, they closed out the Hawks with a Game 5 road win.

Two days later, they were awaiting the start of their second-round series with Boston. After practice at the Silverdome, and after the first wave of reporters had left, I asked him if he had a few more minutes. We sat near his locker, in the corner near the entrance to the shower area, on metal stools, and talked for nearly an hour.

I’ll remember that conversation for two reasons, mostly. In my mind, though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the end of the innocence. That Boston series elevated the Pistons to the national stage. That series, coupled with the explosive growth the NBA was about to undergo, and with the onset of the Internet age looming, would render that type of conversation almost impossible today.

I’ll also remember it for evoking that flash of anger in his eyes. (Remember the video, years later, of Isiah putting his hands around assistant coach Brendan Malone’s neck to keep from doing the same to an opponent or an official? Yeah, that flash of anger. Isiah had the most expressive eyes of any athlete I’ve ever come across.) I was building to a question about how he, among the thousands of kids his size who played on Chicago playgrounds with NBA dreams, managed to beat the odds. In the course of the question, I referred to his “natural athletic ability” – and he cut me off, those eyes flashing. To Isiah’s thinking, any allusion to his talent dismissed the thousands of hours he’d spent on that pavement, honing his skills. We bantered. I said all of those hours didn’t make him the quickest guy I’d ever seen with the ball, he kept shaking his head and insisting it was his drive that mattered.

In the 1992 playoffs, the Pistons – just two years removed from their second consecutive NBA title and one year from reaching their fifth straight conference finals – were bounced in the first round by the Knicks. It wasn’t an upset. The Knicks had home court.

The Pistons won Game 2 at the Garden 89-88 and came home with a chance to close out the best-of-five series. But they lost Game 3 in overtime. Late in the game, there was a critical possession with Isiah being guarded by Mark Jackson. Jackson was in his athletic prime, five years into his NBA career, but he was never blessed with the type of athletic skills – sorry, Isiah – as Thomas. Isiah threw everything at Jackson – the head feints, the speed dribble, the crossover, rocker steps … nothing. He couldn’t shake him.

It wasn’t quickness that got Isiah to the NBA. Tons of guys who never left that playground probably had comparable quickness. It was the whole package that got him there – the fire, the smarts, the vision, and, yes, the work ethic that honed the shot, the ballhandling, the mental discipline. But it was the quickness that set him apart, elevated him to the top of his profession. I’ll always remember that moment as the one where the separation had evaporated.

More on Isiah coming.