Isiah 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 frontcourts. 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 points, 5.8 assists) 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 his 12 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’ 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.