The following excerpt is from Elliott Kalb's first book, "Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball?" Kalb, 42, one of network television’s leading information men for the last two decades, has closely followed the NBA for nearly 35 years. Upon graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Kalb was one of the first employees of NBA Entertainment (then NBA Films) where he logged nearly every game of the 1983-84 season, and produced features that aired on national broadcasts. Kalb became NBC Sports’ Senior Statistician and Director of Information on its NBA coverage beginning in 1990. When the NBA moved to ABC, Kalb moved with it, extending his streak of working every NBA Finals game for 13 years.

MVP: 0
MVP Voting: 5th in 1984
NBA Titles: 2
All NBA First Team: 3
All NBA Second Team: 2

When Isiah entered the NBA, he joined a terrible Pistons team that had won only 16 and 21 games in the previous two seasons. Immediately, Detroit improved by leaps and bounds in Thomas’ rookie season and won 39 games. In that 1982 season, Detroit made two in-season trades. One brought a bruising center named Bill Laimbeer (from Cleveland) and the other brought the microwave—Vinny Johnson (who got hot early; acquired for Greg Kelser). By 1984, head coach Chuck Daly was aboard. The 1985 draft was memorable for the drafting of Joe Dumars. The Pistons selected John Salley and Dennis Rodman in the 1986 draft. A team was built to topple the mighty Celtics and Lakers. There would be enough time to squeeze in a pair of NBA Championships and three Eastern Conference championships in a row before the sleeping giant in Chicago awoke.

Thomas was a big part of the Bad Boys, of course.

He was the captain, the unquestioned leader. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 1990 Finals, when he averaged 27.6 points, 7.0 assists, and 5.2 rebounds against Portland. In Game One, Isiah scored 16 points in the 4th quarter (finishing with 33 for the game) rallying the Pistons from ten points down with seven minutes remaining. He scored 22 points in a quarter later in those Finals.

But that was only a small chapter in Thomas’s big game heroics.

He had 24 points in the third quarter of a 1987 playoff game against the Atlanta Hawks. A player earns millions if he scores 24 points in a playoff game—much less a quarter. It is something not even Jordan, O’Neal, or Chamberlain ever did.

He set an NBA Finals record in 1988, when he scored 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6. He did that with a severely sprained ankle. The Pistons lost that series, after going back to Los Angeles up 3 games to 2. The Lakers prevailed 103-102 in Thomas’s big game.

But maybe his most memorable playoff performance was in the 1984 playoffs versus the Knicks when he scored 16 points in the final 94 seconds in the fourth quarter of the deciding fifth game.

Detroit's #11 Isiah Thomas.
Photo: Harry Scull Jr./Contributor

The most memorable 94 seconds of Isiah Thomas’ career. During the regular season, the Pistons won 49 games, and the Knicks 47. Detroit had won four of six against New York during the season.

Both franchises were awakening from some doldrums. The Knicks hadn’t won anything more than a best of three playoff series since 1974. The Pistons hadn’t been in the playoffs since 1977, and hadn’t advanced in the postseason since 1976. The Knicks were led by Bernard King, who was a scoring machine, averaging over 26 points per game over the season.

New York struck first in Detroit’s Silverdome, by a score of 94-93. Bernard King scored 36 points.
In the second game, Detroit jumped out to a 38-33 first quarter lead. King had 23 consecutive points for New York in the quarter. He would score 46 points in the game. Isiah dished out 13 assists and scored 11 points. It was Bill Laimbeer (31) and Kelly Tripucka (27) that did most of the offensive damage for the Pistons.

New York pushed Detroit to the brink of elimination in the third game, winning 120-113 as King scored 46 more points.

Isiah Thomas was always a great playoff performer. In the fourth game, he scored 22 points, pulled down 7 rebounds, and dished 16 assists. The Pistons sent the series back to Detroit—this time at Joe Louis Arena. Bernard King scored 44 points in the deciding game, but Isiah led a furious rally to send the game into overtime. The Knicks won the game 127-123 but Isiah played valiantly, scoring 35 points and getting 12 assists.

Matt Dobek: “I remember Bernard King averaged about 40 points per game in that series, and in the fifth game we were down late in the game. Isiah willed the game into overtime. I’ve never seen anything like those 16 points in 94 seconds.”

He was always in the shadow of Magic Johnson.

A Closer Look at Isiah Thomas’ Stats
Year Regular Season Postseason
1986 20.9 ppg 26.5 ppg
1987 20.6 ppg 24.1 ppg
1988 19.5 ppg 21.9 ppg
1989 18.2 ppg 18.2 ppg
1990 18.4 ppg 20.5 ppg
Career 19.2 ppg 20.4 ppg

Magic vs Isiah:

Magic Johnson won a National Championship in college in 1979.

Isiah Thomas won a National Championship in college in 1981.

When Magic’s Michigan State team won, it was against Larry Bird’s Indiana State team that was so hyped it became the highest rated basketball game of all time.

When Isiah Thomas won a National Championship, it was on the same day that the President of the United States got shot. The game was an afterthought to most Americans.

Magic Johnson was All NBA First Team for nine straight seasons, beginning in 1983.

Isiah Thomas was All NBA First Team for three straight seasons, beginning in 1984.

Magic Johnson was MVP of the All Star game on two separate occasions.

Isiah Thomas was MVP of the All Star game on two separate occasisions.

When Magic was MVP of the 1992 Game, it represented one of the all time “feel good” stories in the NBA. Johnson, forced to retire prior to the 1992 season due to contracting the HIV virus, still was on the ballot and was voted in as a starter. Despite not playing all season, Johnson scored 25 points on 9-12 FG and had nine rebounds in the 1992 game.

The most memorable All Star memory of Isiah Thomas is probably the 1985 game, where big-fish Isiah “froze out” Michael Jordan in his first all star game. Jordan would hit only 2-9 FG in 22 minutes in that game. No one mentioned anything about a freeze during the game. It was the hot rumor after the All Star game had ended.

Anything you can do, I can do better is the theme of this comparison: Isiah would lead the league in assists—Magic did it four times. Isiah would lead the Pistons to back-to-back Championships in 1989 and 1990. So what. Magic led the Lakers to back-to-back titles first; in 1987 and 1988.
Isiah was not only competing (and losing) to Magic Johnson all those years, but then Michael Jordan came along.

Isiah couldn’t win for losing. Even when Thomas led the Pistons past the Lakers in the 1989 Finals, everyone remembers that the Lakers were shorthanded as both starting guards (Magic Johnson and Byron Scott) had hamstring injuries. Magic really only played one game of that series.
Jordan’s arrival in the mid-80s posed a unique threat to Thomas. Johnson was at least out on the west coast, performing his Magic. But Jordan—damn it, did he have to land in Chicago, of all places!

Chicago was where Thomas was king of the courts growing up. Isiah was a schoolboy hero in the Windy City. By 1984, Thomas was one of the truly elite players in the NBA. Michael Jordan was drafted by the Bulls—and suddenly, the Bulls were competitive. The Detroit Pistons (and anyone wearing the uniform) would be the bad guys.

Is it any wonder that Thomas would adopt the persona of his favorite football team—the Oakland Raiders? “Just Win, Baby”.
Magic and Larry and Michael were credited with reviving the league. Isiah and the Pistons were credited with bringing down the beauty of the game with their “Bad Boy” antics.

Magic and Larry and Michael were able to join forces in the summer of ‘92 (the “Good” Power Rangers) against the forces of evil. They were teammates on the Original Dream Team—the first professional team selected to represent the United States in Olympic play. The innuendo and world’s worst secret those days was this: that Jordan wouldn’t give up his summer and play if Thomas were a part of the team. Many people were saying and writing that Thomas’s walk-off the court with Laimbeer as the Pistons were being dethroned by the Bulls hurt him in his bid to be on the Olympic team.
It’s a joke that Thomas wasn’t a part of the 1992 Olympic team. Thomas was a part of a more meaningful Olympic team—the 1980 squad—that never got to compete because the President of the United States said so (more meaningful because it was comprised of amateurs). Thomas should have had the very first invitation to the ball. In a “make-good” of sorts, Thomas was asked to compete as a member of the 1994 U.S. Team in the World Championships. Why Thomas even accepted (none of the original Dream Teamers would be on this team; it would be made up of secondary stars past their prime like Dominique Wilkins; punks like Derrick Coleman and Larry Johnson; and rookies like Shaquille O’Neal.) Of course, Isiah tore his Achilles Tendon on April 19, 1994 and was unable to compete even in this. He announced his retirement on May 11, 1994.

Isiah wasn’t even accepted as a true hero by the Pistons fans or management. Isiah retired in a season the Pistons won 20 games and lost 62. Instead of handing the keys of the kingdom to Isiah, they kept their head coach (Don Chaney) for another season. It was teammate Joe Dumars who eventually became President of Basketball Operations; and stepped into the front office as soon as his playing days ended. A rift with Pistons owner Bill Davidson meant that Isiah was forced to go elsewhere—leave the country, in fact—as a part owner of the Toronto Raptors.

For various and complicated reasons, it was a no-win situation and Thomas parted ways with the franchise a few years later. Thomas was the majority owner of the Continental Basketball Association (1999-2000), but the NBA (with their own designs on a minor league) helped kill the CBA. The league now has its own NBDL (National Basketball Development League).

Is it any wonder that he sometimes put his foot in the mouth, and said the wrong things? Sometimes, this great leader said and did things that upset people. The two most memorable:
In 1987, the Pistons were on their way up—and the Celtics on their way down. Boston was the defending champion, and unbeatable on their home court. In the crucial Game 5, Dennis Rodman blocked a shot by Larry Bird and the Pistons had the ball out of bounds with seconds to go. Chuck Daly was trying to call a timeout, Isiah inbounded the ball to an unsuspecting Bill Laimbeer—and the Celtics made a miraculous steal and won the game. After the series, a distraught Dennis Rodman made the claim that if Larry Bird were black, he’d be just another guy. Isiah then made a mistake far worse than his pass in Game 5. He went on record as agreeing with Dennis. Bird accepted the apology at a hastily called press conference before the NBA Finals.

Newly hired New York Knicks General Manager and Team Presedient Isiah Thomas answers questions from the media during a press conference.
Ray Amati/NBAE via Getty Images

In 1991, the Pistons were on their way down—and the Bulls were on their way up. Detroit had held off Chicago in playoff series in 1988 (five games), 1989 (six games) and 1990 (seven games). By Memorial Day weekend, it was clear that the Bulls would not be denied any longer. Chicago took the first two games in Chicago, and Detroit needed a pair of victories on that holiday weekend to defend their championship. In Game 3, Isiah played his ass off: he played 47 minutes, and scored 29 points with 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Teammate Joe Dumars made just 3 field goals in 10 tries, and the Bulls took the game 113-107 to go up 3-0 in the series. In the fourth game, Isiah didn’t go quietly (16 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) but Dumars got into foul trouble and again hit just 3-10 field goals for 6 points. The Bulls were going to their first Finals. In the final minute of Game 4, Thomas, Dumars, and Bill Laimbeer joined together and walked off the court early before the game had concluded. To me, it was a show of unity—of guys who had won together and now lost together. It was not taken well by their opponents or the league. To them, it was a show of disrespect.

The good news is that Thomas found a team to run in the New York Knicks. Once again, Thomas is the underdog. If he succeeds, he’ll topple the Pistons and Bulls and Celtics and ex-Celtics like Larry Bird currently running the Pacers. It’s perfect for Zeke. Just Win, Baby.

In his playing days, Thomas made the All Star game in his first 12 seasons. He retired fourth on the all time list for career assists. He took a franchise that began in the league playing in 1949 in Fort Wayne and delivered the only two Championships the team has ever won.

You have to hand it to Thomas. He had few allies among the NBA’s big boys. He battled Karl Malone and Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Despite his size, he more than held his own.

Who’s Better, Who’s Best: Isiah Thomas or Walt Frazier

Walt Frazier: “Isiah was the quintessential point guard. He rarely turned the ball over. I saw some aspects of his game that were similar to mine. First off, composure. He never got rattled, and took good percentage shots.”

Pete Vecsey: A tie. I can’t choose. I love them both.

Kevin Loughery: “ Frazier vs Isiah Thomas: I have to go Clyde. He was a better rebounder and better defender. Isiah had the toughness, though. Zeke was an incredible streak shooter.”

Nate Archibald: “Clyde could do more than handle the basketball. He was an all around guard. He could guard big guards or small forwards. Remember, he had guys on his team who could handle the ball and were distributors. Those Knicks had 4 or 5 of the most knowledgeable players ever.”

Matt Guokas: Clyde was so…elegant…graceful…he moved so smooth. Isiah—more bulldog—feisty—he played with a vengeance. Frazier accomplished the same as Thomas, but did it with a much different gait. Isiah did whatever it took. I played against Frazier for ten years, and I never saw him change facial expression. Isiah would take on the big guys—he would shoot his team back in the game—he did whatever it took.

I always told Zeke that he was my fifth guard all-time, trailing only the big 4 of Oscar, West, Magic, and Michael. Of course, that was long before Kobe came on board. And before I seriously studied Cousy. It’s harder to keep this favorite of mine as the seventh best guard. I’ve had to re-examine all my preexisting rankings. I’m not sure that the New York legend (Frazier)—can take a backseat to Thomas. But then, Frazier played on a bigger stage with a better cast. Thomas will rank ahead of Frazier for now. But here comes Tracy McGrady, speeding along the expressway to stardom, as well. Isiah was everything right about the NBA. He played the game with a passion. He played the game with emotion. He played like he had a chip on his shoulder.

This material has been excerpted from "Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball?" by Elliott Kalb. All rights reserved.


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