Legends profile: Isiah Thomas
Isiah “Zeke” Thomas was one of the greatest “small men” ever to play professional basketball. His only peer at point guard in the NBA during the 1980s was the Lakers’ Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who at 6-foot-9 brought unique physical skills to the position.
Thomas, who stood barely over 6-feet, was in his day the grittiest performer to play the position, a feisty competitor who offered no quarter and expected none in return. Like Johnson, Thomas possessed the skill and determination to take over a game at will.
Thomas helped build a last-place Detroit Pistons team into back-to-back NBA champions in the late 1980s. Thomas’ sunny smile belied an inner toughness that made him a key member of a scrappy, physical group of players dubbed the “Bad Boys” of Detroit.
“I call him the baby-faced assassin,” an opposing coach once told the Charlotte Observer, “because he smiles at you, then cuts you down.”
Like many of his teammates, Thomas was tempestuous, edgy, vocal and not opposed to balling up his fist when he felt the need. And he knew how to handle pain; he often played with injuries resulting from his rough-and-tumble style.
That fighting spirit, coupled with a shrewd business sense, served Thomas well as president of the NBA Players Association in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and continues to serve him well in his post-playing days, whether as a coach or executive, roles he filled with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and as the former coach at Florida International University.
Though Thomas was an unselfish player, his personal achievements were impressive. In 13 years with Detroit, he became the franchise’s all-time leader in points, assists, steals and games played. He made the All-Star Team in all but his final year and was named NBA Finals MVP in 1990.
Along with Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Utah’s John Stockton, Thomas became the fourth player in NBA history to amass more than 9,000 assists. His 13.9 assists per game in 1984-85 set an NBA record for the highest single-season average ever, until Stockton bested it with 14.5 in 1989-90.
Thomas refused to let his height limit what he could do on the court. He was a dangerous shooter from any spot on the floor, a smart passer and a smooth, clever playmaker. He was also known for his full-speed, acrobatic drives into the teeth of the toughest and tallest frontcourtmen. Thomas took whatever defenses gave him, whether it was a 3-pointer, the baseline, the lane or an alley-oop opportunity. He combined intelligence, court savvy and physical gifts to attain true NBA superstardom. Off the court, Thomas was a tireless charity worker known for his sincerity and compassion.
Isiah Lord Thomas III came into the world in 1961 under the harshest of circumstances. He was the youngest of nine children growing up in one of the poorest and dangerous neighborhoods of West Chicago. His family sometimes went without food or heat, and the lack of bed space forced some of the kids to sleep on the floor. Isiah’s father left the family when he was 3 years old, leaving Isiah’s mother to raise the children.
Mary Thomas, whose courage inspired a 1990 television movie, did her best to shield her children from the drugs, violence and crime that plagued the area. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, one night, when thugs came looking for Isiah, his mother got out her sawed-off shotgun and warned them, “There’s only one gang here, and I lead it. Get off my porch or I’ll blow you off it!” Another night, when Isiah got home late, she grounded him for the entire summer.
Rick Majerus, then a Marquette assistant coach who tried to recruit Thomas, remembered, “You talk about abject poverty, human failing, suffering — they had all that in Isiah’s neighborhood. You’d go in there and here was this young guy who’s got this big smile. He was unbelievably optimistic for someone who had gone through all the misfortune that has occurred in his family. He was very focused.”
Thomas played high school ball at St. Joseph’s in Westchester, where he led the team to the state-title game as a junior in 1978. In 1979, he was a member of the gold medal-winning United States team at the Pan-American Games.
That fall Thomas enrolled at Indiana University. The street-hardened freshman impressed coach Bobby Knight from the outset, averaging 14.6 points and 5.5 assists in his first season. That summer Thomas was selected to play on the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, but a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games robbed him of the Olympic experience.
As a 19-year-old sophomore, Thomas (16.0 ppg, 5.8 apg) steered the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA Championship. Following that season he passed up his final two years of collegiate eligibility and entered the 1981 NBA Draft.
The 1980-81 Pistons, who finished 21-61, were the second-worst team in the league. Detroit was one of the few franchises that didn’t have a player capable of scoring 20 points per game. The hapless club made Thomas the second overall pick in the 1981 draft behind DePaul’s Mark Aguirre, a childhood friend of Thomas’ who later became his teammate. (Thomas, who had promised his mother he would finish college, received his degree in criminal justice six years later — on Mother’s Day.)
In 1981-82, with center Bill Laimbeer and rookie forward Kelly Tripucka also aboard, the Pistons posted an 18-game turnaround and climbed to third in the Central Division. Thomas had a solid first year (17.0 ppg, 7.8 apg, 150 steals), stepping into the point guard position and leading the team in assists and steals.
He was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team and made the first of his12 straight trips to the NBA All-Star Game. The 20-year-old rookie started, scored 12 points and dished out four assists in the East’s 120-118 win at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
The competitive spirit fostered by Thomas’s childhood manifested itself in his on-court performance. Although just a second-year pro, Thomas assumed the role of floor general, leading the team in assists, steals and minutes played. His 22.9 scoring average in 1982-83 was the second-highest on the team and the highest of his career.
As a team, however, the Pistons posted no improvement in the standings, finishing at 37-45. But the league started to take notice of the little man with the big smile who seemed to be able to do with the basketball whatever his heart desired. Thomas was tough from start to finish, and he was particularly focused in a game’s final minutes.
During the mid-1980s, Thomas, Magic and Sidney Moncrief were the best all-around guards in the league. Still needing to carry much of the Pistons’ offensive load, Thomas scored more than 20 points per game in each season from 1982-83 to 1986-87. The quick-handed guard was among the NBA’s most prolific ball thieves.
But above all, he was the consummate quarterback, consistently placing near the top of the league in assists. He was selected to the All-NBA First Team from 1983-84 to 1985-86 and while he kept his own point totals healthy, Thomas fed Laimbeer, Tripucka, John Long and Vinnie Johnson a steady diet of scoring opportunities. He also showed he could play with anyone, being named MVP of the 1984 and 1986 All-Star Games. In those games, Thomas recorded 15 and 10 assists, respectively.
When Chuck Daly came aboard as coach in 1983-84, the Pistons became a playoff team once again. They were quiet in the first three years of Daly’s reign, getting no further than the East semis. But then, in 1987, Detroit came within one game of reaching the NBA Finals.
The Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics was one of the roughest of the era. Recriminations flew off the court, while elbows and expletives were traded on it. The experience was a painful one for Thomas. With five seconds left in Game 5 and Detroit leading 107-106, Larry Bird stole a Thomas inbounds pass and fed Dennis Johnson for a layup, giving Boston a 108-107 win. The war came to a head in Game 7 and after 48 minutes of pounding, Boston survived, 117-114.
Thomas emerged from the series more driven and competitive than ever. The Pistons now had one of the league’s most talented and bruising lineups, with Thomas, Laimbeer, Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars.
With Thomas in top form, Detroit finished 1987-88 at 54-28 and won the Central Division title. Thomas’ statistics dipped a bit (19.5 ppg, 8.4 apg), but only because he was part of a complete team with few, if any, weaknesses. He could concentrate more on helping to bring out each player’s individual talents.
In 1987-88, the Pistons reached the NBA Finals for the first time since moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne in 1958. In a painful repeat of the previous season’s loss to Boston, Detroit lost a seven-game heartbreaker to the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers. (Before the Game 1 tipoff, Thomas and close friend Magic Johnson exchanged what may have been the first on-court kiss in league history.)
Holding a 3-2 series lead, the Pistons lost Game 6, 103-102, despite 43 points from Thomas (25 points in one quarter, setting an NBA Finals record), who played on a badly sprained ankle. Los Angeles, behind James Worthy’s 36 points and 16 rebounds, sweated out Game 7 in a 108-105 win.
Thomas and the Pistons peaked in 1988-89, when their 63-19 record was tops in the league. Detroit picked up Thomas’ buddy Aguirre from the Dallas Mavericks in a controversial midseason trade for Dantley, giving the Pistons still more scoring power. Seven Pistons averaged more than 13.5 points, a tribute to Thomas’ unselfishness and slick playmaking.
The Bad Boys pulled out all the stops in the playoffs, sweeping Boston in three games and Milwaukee in four to reach the Conference Finals against rival Chicago. Despite a great effort from the Bulls’ Michael Jordan, Detroit won in six games and advanced to meet the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Los Angeles, though dominant throughout the decade, was ill-prepared for the series. In his last season, 42-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was ineffective and guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott were slowed by hamstring injuries. The overpowering Pistons swept the Lakers for their first-ever NBA title.
The Pistons played and intimidated their way to a second consecutive NBA Championship in 1989-90, becoming the second team since the 1968-69 Boston Celtics to win back-to-back crowns, and the sixth team ever to do so. During the season they used a 25-1 midseason tear to finish with a 59-23 record.
Thomas was named MVP of the Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, averaging 27.6 points and 7.0 assists. After the series, Thomas told HOOP Magazine: “We never quit. We always feel we are going to win, no matter what the score is. It’s all a battle of will. You have to keep asking yourself, ‘How bad do you really want it?'”
The Chicago Bulls, with scoring champion in Jordan, took the division title away from the Pistons in 1990-91. Thomas was slowed by a sprained foot, a pulled leg muscle, and an injured wrist in that playoff run and Detroit’s dynasty came to an end when the Bulls swept the Pistons in the Eastern Conference ffinals.
Lingering physical problems slowed Thomas in the twilight of his career, and the aging Pistons faded further into the shadow of Jordan and the Bulls. By the 1993-94 season it was clear that Thomas, at 32, was nearing the end of his playing days. That season he suffered a hyperextended knee, a broken rib, a strained arch, a calf injury and a cut left hand. Then, in his last home game against Orlando, he tore an Achilles tendon, effectively ending his career.
Thomas retired with 18,822 points (19.2 ppg), 9,061 assists (9.3 apg), and 1,861 steals over 979 games — all Pistons records. He shot .452 from the field and .759 from the free-throw line. In 1996-97, Thomas was honored as a member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and in 2000, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Thomas’ many business ventures and his stint as president of the NBPA groomed him well for life after basketball. After his retirement he became part owner of the expansion Toronto Raptors, who began play in the NBA in the 1995-96 season.
As the team’s executive vice president, Thomas was charged with molding the character of the expansion club, and one of his first moves was to draft a talented, under-sized point guard — Damon Stoudamire, who became Rookie of the Year in 1995-96. He also was responsible for the Raptors’ drafting of Marcus Camby and Tracy McGrady in future Toronto drafts.
He also continued his charity work with educational, anti-crime and anti-poverty programs; during his playing career, Thomas had paid college tuition for more than 75 young people. He spoke of this work to the Los Angeles Times with typical Thomas bluntness: “As a person and as a human being, if the only thing I’m remembered for is playing a stupid game of basketball, then I haven’t done a very good job in my life. Basketball isn’t everything to me.”