Isiah Thomas built a legacy as an unflappable competitor on the basketball court, from his title run at Indiana University to his back-to-back NBA championships with the Detroit Pistons, but it was his decisions without the ball that would leave it tarnished. Chicago-born Thomas arrived on the national stage as the leader of the University of Indiana's 1981 championship team. Drafted by the Pistons that year, the 6'1" point guard did not record all-world stats, but proved a ferocious leader in clutch situations and became a perennial All-Star. Through the late 1980s, the Thomas-led Pistons earned their "Bad Boys" moniker for brutal defense on their way to two championships in 1989 and 1990. Their playoff meetings with the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls became epic clashes, particularly as a bitter rivalry with Michael Jordan and the Bulls heated into one of sports' great rivalries. Upon retiring in 1994, Thomas bounced through a succession of front-office and coaching positions, most notably a high-profile and disastrous five-year-stint as president of basketball operations and coach of the New York Knicks. Renowned as a "babyfaced assassin," Thomas became a Detroit legend but, for many hoop wags, his play would wind up secondary to a reputation for caprice and arrogance.
He was born Isiah Lord Thomas III on April 30, 1961 in Chicago, IL, the youngest of nine children raised by single mother Mary Thomas in a housing project in the Windy City's North Lawndale neighborhood. As Isiah's talents developed, Mary managed to enroll him at St. Joseph High School in suburban Westchester, IL. He became a star point guard, led St. Joseph to the Illinois state finals as a junior, and was tabbed as one of the hottest blue-chip recruits in the U.S. Graduating in 1979, he chose to attend Indiana University and earned a starting spot as a freshman for controversial coach Bobby Knight. In the 1980-81 season, Thomas averaged 16 points and 5.8 assists a game, leading the Hoosiers through the NCAA Tournament to the championship game, where he scored 23 points to seal the national title and garner tourney MVP honors. He entered the NBA draft that spring and was selected by the Detroit Pistons with the No. 2 pick, just after friend and fellow Chicago high school legend Mark Aguirre. The hapless Pistons improved 18 games over the previous season behind Thomas' 17 points and 7.8 assists per game and the hot-shooting of fellow rookie Kelly Tripucka and veteran guard John Long, all of which helped Thomas be selected to the first of 12 All-Star Games. He improved his numbers in ensuing years, averaged an astounding 13.9 assists per game in the 1984-85 season, was named First Team All-NBA three straight years, and All-Star Game MVP in 1984 and 1986.
Controversy swirled in the wake of the '85 All-Star contest, however, as insider buzz suggested Thomas, reputedly irked by the arrogance of East teammate Michael Jordan, had encouraged other players not to pass to the Chicago Bulls' rookie sensation. Jordan only scored seven points in the alleged "freeze-out," but Thomas long denied the story. The Pistons did not become true contenders until rebuilt as less a run-and-gun and more a bruising defensive squad. Frontcourt muscle Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman played enforcer for Thomas' feisty, sometimes precipitous on-court play and earned the Pistons their "Bad Boys" rep. In 1987, the team took perennial rivals the Boston Celtics, led by Larry Bird, to seven games in a bruising, heated Eastern Conference Finals but lost. They returned for a rematch the next year and finally downed the Celtics to advance to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Detroit took L.A., led by Thomas' friend Magic Johnson, to the wire but lost in seven games in spite of a blistering 43-point Game 6 performance from Thomas. The next year, buoyed at mid-season by a trade for Aguirre, the Pistons recorded a league-best 63-19 record before storming back through the playoffs. Though Jordan's emerging Bulls went six games with the Bad Boys in another brutal Conference Finals, the Pistons earned a rematch with the Lakers and made short work of them in four games to take the 1989 title.
In spite of an even tougher and more venomous bout with the Bulls the next year, the Pistons prevailed and repeated in the 1990 Finals with a 4-1 series win over the Portland Trailblazers. Thomas virtually took over games in the clutch moments and averaged 27.6 ppg, 8 apg and 5.2 rpg to take MVP trophy. The ascendant Bulls proved too much the next year, unseating the Pistons for the Central Division title and, upon meeting them again in the Eastern Finals, dethroned the champs in a sweep. Thomas stunned fans and even TV analysts toward the end of Game 4 when, having been pulled, he led other Pistons off the court and into the locker room while play was ongoing and never shook the winners' hands. The Bad Boys were dismantled, and Thomas' rep suffered again the next fall. In the wake of Magic Johnson's retirement on the stunning announcement he had contracted HIV, word reached Johnson that Thomas had begun questioning his friend's sexuality inside NBC cloisters. When Johnson, Jordan, Bird and a bevy of NBA greats suited up for the U.S. Olympic basketball team the next summer, Thomas was passed over for the so-called "Dream Team" in what for years after would be a controversial slight.
Injuries slowed Thomas and, after the 1993-94 season, he retired with career tallies of 19.2 ppg and 9.3 assists per game. He was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary Team in 1996 and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. He hired on with the expansion Toronto Raptors in 1995 as executive vice president of basketball operations. In 1999, Thomas led a group that purchased outright ownership rights to the NBA-affiliated minor league, the Continental Basketball Association. His tenure proved brief and disastrous as Thomas overspent league income, rejected a buy-out offer from the NBA, and then bailed on the league by taking a job coaching the NBA's Indiana Pacers in 2000. The CBA entered bankruptcy the following year. Thomas's first coaching stint proved inauspicious until, in the 2002-03, he guided the Pacers to a 48-34 record. Still, the team exited the playoffs in the first round each year, and, when Bird assumed the Pacers' presidency of basketball operations between seasons, he brought in Rick Carlisle as head coach. In December 2003, Madison Square Garden hired Thomas as president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks. Thomas would make unfathomable trades and horrendous draft-picks for the Knicks in putting together a talented, disjointed team with little chemistry.
The Knicks' payroll was the highest in the league in the 2005-06 season, even as the team posted a 23-59 record. In the middle of the season, former MSG executive Anucha Browne Sanders sued Thomas and the company for sexual harassment. The suit eventually cost MSG $11.5 million to settle. Between seasons, Thomas and Knicks owner Jim Dolan fired coach Larry Brown and startled hoop-watchers with Brown's replacement: Thomas. New York continued to lose, but Thomas disregarded the New York media's relentless fusillades of critique and insisted he would remain coach until he had turned the team around. In April 2008, as the Knicks wound down another 23-59 season, Dolan replaced Thomas as head of basketball operations and told him he would not be returning the next season as coach. The official story suggested Thomas would remain with MSG in a "consulting" job. In October 2008, he was hospitalized in Westchester County, NY, after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Authorities ruled the OD accidental, and Thomas insisted it was not a suicide attempt. In 2009, he hired on with Florida International University as its head basketball coach. Tasked with rebuilding an anemic program, he managed to compile a record of 26-65 in three seasons and was fired in spring 2012. Later that year, the NBA hired Thomas as an in-studio analyst for its NBATV channel.
By Matthew Grimm