Isiah Thomas was big even though he was little.
That’s a twist on an old quote from William "The Refrigerator" Perry, the onetime Chicago Bears’ 340-pound defensive lineman who assured fans that he’d been big even when he was little. In Thomas’ case, it was all about height, not width, as the quick, feisty point guard routinely challenged and beat men who stood a head higher than him.
Thomas was barely six feet tall by the time he reached the NBA, but over his 13 seasons -- in the first 12 of which he earned All-Star invitations -- he loomed over the game in accomplishments, accolades and talent. From his arrival as the No. 2 player picked in the 1981 draft, Thomas competed and rubbed elbows with, sometimes raw, peers on the short list of the league’s greatest ever: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan.
Pound for pound, inch for inch -- a couple of boxing qualifiers to compare fighters across weight classes -- it’s possible that Thomas deserved consideration for the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. Or as his beloved coach with the Detroit Pistons, Chuck Daly, once said: “I’m not sure that if he had been five inches taller he wouldn't have been the greatest player in the history of the game.”
Casual fans sometimes look at the NBA as the sport where size matters most. But what Thomas reminded so many was, it was the size of one’s heart and the size of one’s will, that really made the difference.
Thomas’ backstory was so improbable, so filled with drama and long odds, that it was turned into a TV movie. “A Mother’s Courage: the Mary Thomas Story” (1989) starred Alfre Woodard, Leon and Jamey Sheridan and, no matter how authentic, still paled next to the family’s true life day-to-day grind on Chicago’s West Side.
Thomas himself was the youngest of nine children, spoiled by some of his six brothers and two sisters, yet forced to fend for himself when the older siblings moved on and moved out. Their mother Mary, raising the children alone when Isiah’s father left, gained fame in media coverage years later for when she greeted a group of Vice Lords gang members -- eager to recruit some of the family’s boys -- with a sawed-off shotgun. “There’s only one gang here,” she essentially told them. “The Thomases.”
That’s what it was like for Thomas, growing up and learning the game on the city’s mean streets not far from old Chicago Stadium. Mom ran a youth center at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. Isiah’s brothers, well, he learned as much what not to do from them as any positive lessons.
The family’s youngest -- in some ways its last, best hope -- caught a break when he was able to attend high school at St. Joseph’s in Westchester, Ill., a mostly white suburb 10 miles farther west. That “break” involved daily 90-minute commutes each way to start his school day -- three buses and a long walk -- but it forced Thomas to focus on his academics and grew his game under coach Gene Pingatore (later known from the documentary “Hoop Dreams”).
Getting Westchester St. Joe’s to a second-place state tournament as a junior and leading the Chargers to a 57-5 record over his final two seasons, had the college recruiters buzzing. Thomas chose Indiana and its demanding coach Bobby Knight, and wound up as the pocket-sized dynamo who led the Hoosiers to the NCAA men’s championship in 1981.
All of which is to remind us how much Thomas had endured, how much he had absorbed and how much he had survived by the time he stepped on the floor for his first two NBA games against rust-belt rivals in Milwaukee and Chicago. That meant banging with the Bucks’ burly 6-foot-3 former Hoosiers guard Quinn Buckner for his first taste of NBA action.
If that wasn’t enough, his second-ever game was spent coping with 6-foot-7 point guard Reggie Theus so close to home on the Bulls’ court.
Thomas’ best-known nickname is “Zeke,” but it’s easy to understand how he picked up a couple more as he dragged Detroit to prominence in the 1980s. “Pocket Magic” was a straight comparison to his friend Earvin, the Lakers’ 6-foot-9 “Showtime” marvel who had talent scouts searching for big point guards for a spell.
Another of Thomas’ nicknames, “Baby-Faced Assassin,” played off his sweet, smiling demeanor, covering for his cutthroat competitiveness.
That ability to smile as he left his rivals beaten on the side of the court is what carried Thomas through his all-Pistons, all-the-time career and made him such a marvelous fit for Detroit.
Their toughness (and occasional antics on the margins of basketball decorum) earned them their “Bad Boys” label, the opposite of the Lakers’ slick, breezy style and more suited to nightly battles through the years with Eastern Conference powers such as Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Chicago.
Those matchups, sometimes treated as blood feuds, gave Thomas an outlet for his passion to win and to prove his worth regardless of size.
Then again, the way he talked and approached the game, almost any court would do.
Arguably the fanciest dribbler in basketball history was Curly Neale, the Harlem Globetrotters guard who could enthrall a crowd at a high school gym with five minutes of zigging, zagging, sliding, and otherwise playing a hoops version of a drum solo.
Beyond Neale, there was Boston’s Bob Cousy, whose magical ball skills served the dual purpose of delighting fans while delivering victories with Bill Russell and their Celtics teammates. Allen Iverson drew oohs and ahhs with his crossover maneuver, same as Tim Hardaway and a few others. And currently, Kyrie Irving is considered by many to have the NBA’s best handles.
Thomas, however, can match any of those court magicians with his elusiveness with the ball. And he did it with a purpose, pulling and prodding at the integrity of a defense before delivering sweet passes to his Pistons teammates.
Much like his buddy Magic, Thomas balanced his game between winning and entertaining. It was an outlet not just for his competitive streak but for his creativity as well.
“One of the most spectacular players in the game,” Daly called him.
Opponents who tried to keep up found themselves daydreaming on occasion. As Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins said, “I wish I could play with him.”
Even as Thomas and Detroit were making their move as a championship contender, the point guard was garnering attention as a star of stars. He was the first player in league history to start All-Star games in his first five seasons. And his ability to play his best when surrounded by the best earned him All-Star Most Valuable Player trophies in 1984 and 1986.
More than All-Star acclaim, though, Thomas burned for team success. He and the Pistons came close in 1987, until Boston eliminated them after Bird’s famous late inbounds steal in Game 6.
In 1988, Detroit reached The Finals and it was Thomas’ turn for heroics. In Game 6 against the Lakers, he suffered a badly sprained right ankle, an injury bad enough to have shut down many players. But sensing that this might be the Pistons’ best shot for a ring, their leader relaced his sneaker and hobbled back in the third quarter. Playing on 1 1/2 legs, he scored 25 points in that period on his way to 43 in the game, getting into a zone that blocked out not only Los Angeles’ defense but any pain. Detroit led by two heading into the final 12 minutes, only to lose 103-102. Two days later, again at the Forum, with Thomas gimpy, the Lakers nailed down their second straight championship.
So it was on to 1989 for Detroit. “The Bad Boys” capped a 63-19 regular season by ripping through the East with an 11-2 postseason mark. The Finals were anticlimactic -- for everyone but the Pistons and their fans -- when Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and Finals MVP Joe Dumars swept the Lakers (this time, Johnson and Byron Scott were limited by hamstring injuries).
The Pistons repeated the following spring. They again slammed Jordan and his Bulls in the East finals, then beat Portland 4-1. This time, it was Thomas earning the MVP honors for the championship round, based on his 27.6 scoring average, 7.0 assists and 54.2% shooting.
It tells us plenty about his ability to peak that the Pistons guard raised his game when it mattered most. In 16 Finals games spread across three championship series -- 1988, 1989, 1990 -- he averaged 22.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists while shooting 48.0% overall and 46.2% on 3-pointers.
All of the events, achievements, lessons and hard knocks mentioned above came before Isiah Lord Thomas III turned 30 years old. What’s transpired since could make for a pretty good made-for-TV sequel.
His playing days ended relatively early, both from an accumulation of many pesky and painful injuries, then all at once when he tore an Achilles tendon at the end of the 1993-94 regular season.
There was, of course, the notorious snub from the 1992 Dream Team. Thomas seemingly would have been a natural to join what’s billed as the greatest basketball team ever assembled. But his invitation never came. The precise reason has morphed through the years -- Michael Jordan wanted no part of him from their Bulls vs. Piston friction, team organizers pre-emptively didn’t ask Thomas to avoid putting the burden on Jordan, or none of the Dream Teamers lobbied for the face of “The Bad Boys” they had come to dislike. But it was a slight Thomas’ game didn’t deserve, never mind the interpersonal relations, and one that has stuck with him ever since.
Still, Thomas kept moving. He took over as president of the new Toronto Raptors almost immediately after retiring as a Piston. He bought and revived a successful printing business. There were stints coaching the Indiana Pacers, running and coaching the New York Knicks, buying and running the old Continental Basketball Association, running the basketball program at Florida International University, untold charitable and community initiatives, and, in a reprise of his broadcast work at NBC, a lengthy, ongoing run as a popular analyst on NBA TV.