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After Detroit: The Strange Saga of Isiah Thomas

In Basketball, Sports on April 7, 2012 at 12:54 PM

There was a time when Isiah Thomas had the city of Detroit in the palm of his little hand.

A hand so small he couldn’t palm the ball to dunk it, by the way.

But that never stopped the gritty kid from the streets of Chicago from being a superstar on the basketball court. First in the Windy City as a prep standout, then as Bobby Knight’s floor leader for the Indiana Hoosiers, where as a sophomore he led the team to the NCAA title.

Knight loved Thomas’s feistiness, nicknaming his pint-sized guard “Pee Wee”. After being selected in the first round by the Detroit Pistons, Thomas slowly guided the team to respectability and then greatness, winning back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. He was the undisputed leader of the Bad Boys – the first NBA team to gladly embrace the dirty work of playing defense from whistle to whistle.

Since he left Detroit in 1994 after an inglorious end to his playing career, Isiah has had a checkered career in basketball. Here’s a timeline, with all of the bumps, bruises, embarrassments, and drug overdoses of his post-Motown years:

April 19, 1994: This was supposed to be his farewell tour: Isiah had announced he was retiring after the season, his 13th for the Pistons. In a game at The Palace against the Orlando Magic, Isiah was getting beaten all over the court by a rookie guard named Anfernee Hardaway. Late in the third quarter, Isiah felt a pop in his ankle. It was his Achilles tendon tearing. It was the last in a series of injuries that plagued Thomas in his final season. A hyper-extended knee, broken rib, broken hand, strained arch, calf injury, and cut hand had preceded the achilles tear. “I felt like I got shot with a cannon,” Isiah said. He scored 12 points in the game on 4-of-18 from the field with six assists. The Pistons were routed 132-104. It was the final time he played in the NBA. True to his Chicago street background, Isiah was tough to the end. He walked off the court.

“I don’t believe a basketball player should lay on the floor and cry when he’s hurt. I know guys growing up in my neighborhood today. If you’re a basketballer or a hooper, you take the pain.”

The injury served to deprive Isiah of a dream: to play on the U.S. Basketball team in the World Championships. He had been named to Dream Team II before the 1993-94 season, but the injury forced him off the team. Previously, Michael Jordan and others had conspired to keep Thomas off the first Dream Team, and in 1980, Isiah had been unable to play on the Olympic Team due to the U.S. boycott of the Games.

Summer 1994: Even though his playing career had ended, at the age of 33, Isiah still had plenty of basketball left in his blood. Having been a Piston for his entire NBA career, and having enjoyed a good relationship with owner Bill Davidson, it was assumed he would stay a part of the franchise. But Thomas was never offered a front office position with the Pistons, which rankled him. It was a result of his competitive and occasionally tempestuous relationship with those around him. What made Isiah a great leader on the court – his ability to direct and take control of a game, his ability to rise to the occasion, his tenacious spirit – also served to irritate some people off the court.

October 1994: Feeling stung by the Pistons, Isiah bolted Detroit as abruptly as he and his teammates had shuffled off the court the afternoon back in 1991 when the Chicago Bulls had swept the Bay Boys in the Eastern Conference Finals. There were no handshakes and well wishes when Isiah left Motown. He was hired to be the GM of the Toronto Raptors, an expansion team slated to join the NBA for the 1995-96 season.

Thomas had less than a year to assemble a team. He first hired Brendan Malone to be his coach, stealing him away from the Pistons where he’d been a highly regarded assistant. His next steps were taken in a special expansion draft held after the 1994-95 season. The Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies took turns scavenging players from the other NBA rosters. Isiah selected guard B.J. Armstrong from the Bulls with Toronto’s first selection. Pickings were pretty slim, and both expansion teams went for younger players with most of their first 5-6 picks. Things started to fall apart almost immediately for Isiah, however, when Armstrong announced that he would not play in Toronto. Thomas tried to convince Armstrong to change his mind, but eventually had to trade the guard. It was the fitst of many personnel issues he would encounter in Toronto.

Isiah did have one of his former teammates on his bench in Toronto that first season: shot blocker and NBA locker room comedian John Salley. But Salley was witness to a bizarre first season with the expansion team.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Salley said. “Every day in the newspaper was a full page explaining a referee’s call. They had to explain basketball to these people.”

The Raptors got off to a dubious beginning: on the eve of the first regular season game in franchise history, Isiah was awoke to a phone call telling him that guard Alvin Robertson had been arrested for kicking a naked prostitute out of his hotel room because he didn’t want to pay her. The Raptors bailed Robertson out of jail just hours before tip-off against the New Jersey Nets. Amazingly, Robertson goes 11-for-14 from the field and leads Toronto with 30 points as Isiah’s team wins the game, 94-79.

Isiah held the 7th pick in the ’95 NBA Draft. He chose Damon Stoudamire, a diminutive point guard out of the University of Arizona who was quickly nicknamed “Mighty Mouse.” In some ways, Stoudamire did “save the day” – winning NBA Rookie of the Year as he averaged 19 points and nine assists per. He was just the type of player Isiah loved – small, gutsy, with a chip on his shoulder. A mini-Isiah.

The Raptors posted a 21-61 record in their first season, then Isiah drafted center Marcus Camby in the ’96 Draft, hoping to pair the big man with his flashy young point guard. Camby had a great rookie season, as the team improved by nine games. Isiah brought in a new coach – Darrell Walker – another former Piston buddy. But despite the improvements in the standings and the young nucleus Isiah was building, the next season was a disaster both on the court and off.

The Raptors won just 16 games in the 1997-98 season. Walker was fired and replaced with Butch Carter, who had the Indiana roots that Isiah admired. But Isiah didn’t even see him finish the season. In December, after a 17-game losing streak put the team record at 1-19, majority owner John Bitove sold his interest the team, and Thomas tried to put together a deal to secure control of the franchise. When he failed, he resigned. Not long after he left, Stoudamire demanded a trade and was jettisoned to Portland.

Isiah’s legacy in Toronto was wiped away following the ’97-98 season when Camby was dealt to the Knicks and Tracy McGrady, another Isiah first round draft pick, was sent to Orlando a few years later. Thomas had actually drafted good players, defying the experts in picking Stoudamire, and had the core of a talented team, but ownership issues, front office dissension, and the difficulties of motivating players to want to play in Canada, where fan support was abysmal and the income taxes were suffocating, did him in.

August 3, 1999: Following his failed attempt to win ownership control of the Raptors, Isiah forked over $10 million to purchase the Continental Basketball Association, which essentially served as a development league for the NBA. The CBA had teams in mid-sized markets, mostly in the Midwest and the South. Thomas wanted to bring more young players into the CBA, so he reduced the weekly salary to make it less attractive to older former NBA players looking to hang on. He also spent money marketing the league and re-introducing a league All-Star Game. His changes drew notice, and in March of 2000 the NBA offered Isiah $11 million for the CBA. Thomas balked, a move that would haunt the league. Shortly after being rebuffed, the NBA launched their own development league, effectively killing the CBA. Isiah stayed as principal owner of the CBA for about a year longer, but eventually the CBA was sent into bankruptcy. Several team owners were furious with Isiah for his mismanagement and destruction of the CBA.

September 2000: Isiah was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. In his acceptance speech he still felt the need to display his playground swagger: “Not that I wanted to be bigger, but I wanted them to be smaller. Because if we were all the same size, I would have killed them.”

October 2, 2000: Isiah was announced as the new head coach of the Indiana Pacers, returning to the state where he had been a college star under Bobby Knight. He replaced Larry Bird, an even more beloved Hoosier. Bird had been successful on the sidelines, guiding the Pacers to two conference finals and the NBA Finals in his last season. But Bird had promised to only coach for three years, and he kept his word. Isiah immediately tried to put his stamp on the team, again wanting to bring in young players. He had success with young guys like  Jermaine O’Neal, Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Al Harrington, and Jamaal Tinsley, but he wasn’t able to bring the Pacers back to the Finals. In three seasons his teams played just above .500 and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs each year. Fans blamed Isiah’s lack of coaching experience, and when Bird returned in 2003 as President of Basketball Operations, his first move was to let Isiah go.

December 22, 2003: He didn’t stay unemployed for very long. The New York Knicks hired Isiah to be their President of Basketball Operations, hoping to reverse a downward spiral. The team had failed to make the playoffs the last two seasons and their roster was aging and mismatched. Like in Toronto, Thomas again had complete control regarding basketball decisions. The hiring however, was doomed from the start.

From day one, Isiah was not a popular figure in the Big Apple. His mediocre record as a Pacers head coach didn’t impress the fans or the media. His early roster decisions pissed off his players. In contrast to his earlier MO in Toronto, Isiah turned to veteran players on his arrival in New York. He brought in Anfernee Hardaway, the guard who had schooled him in his final NBA game. He hired Lenny Wilkens, a legendary coach who by 2003 was a fossil who had difficulty relating to his players.

The Knicks made the playoffs in the first season of the Isiah Era, but never again. Thomas made a series of disastrous trades, the worst when he dealt multiple draft picks to the Bulls for center Eddie Curry. Two of the picks ended up being lottery picks, while Curry started just 208 games for the Knicks in five injury-riddled seasons. Thanks to his own ego and his solid relationship with team owner James Dolan, Isiah named himself head coach prior to the 2006-07 season, replacing Larry Brown, who lost 59 games in his only season under Thomas. By this time, Knicks fans were ready to hang Isiah from the Madison Square Garden rafters.

As coach, Thomas was overmatched in New York, wilting under the spotlight. His team won just 56 games in two seasons. Most frustrating to Isiah was his team’s lack of defensive intensity. On December 16, 2006, Isiah blew up at his team, challenging them to commit hard fouls against the Denver Nuggets.After a flagrant foul by Knicks guard Mardy Collins on Nuggets guard J. R. Smith in the closing seconds of the game, a fight erupted between the two teams. The fight briefly spilled into the stands, and also stretched to the other end of the court. All ten players on the floor at the time were ejected after the altercation was finished. When suspensions were announced, seven players were suspended without pay for a combined total of 47 games. Several witnesses, including some Knicks personnel, blamed Isiah for instigating the brawl.

In April of 2008, Donnie Walsh was hired to replace Isiah as President of Basketball Operations. It was widely speculated that Isiah would be fired at the conclusion of the season, and sure enough, a few weeks later, Isiah was told he would not return as head coach. Thomas posted an overall winning percentage of .341 as head coach of the Knicks, the fifth worst mark in franchise history.

Activities off the court were also damaging to Isiah’s reputation while he was in New York. An employee of the Knicks (Anucha Browne Sanders) charged Thomas with sexual harassment. Sanders eventually won the suit and the Knicks agreed to pay her $11.5 million in damages. Despite the embarrassment, Thomas remained in employ of the Knicks, serving as a consultant to Walsh.

October 24, 2008: Police were called to Isiah’s New York City home when he was reported unconscious and unresponsive. He was taken to the White Plains Hospital where it was determined that he had overdosed on Lunesta, a medication prescribed for sleep. There was confusion as Thomas and his family apparently tried to cover up the details of the overdose, at one point attempting to make it appear as if his 17-year old daughter had been taken to the hospital. Thomas was quickly released, but the New York tabloids have a field day with the incident.

April 14, 2009: In a surprising move, Isiah accepted the position as head coach at Florida International University, located in Miami. Thomas explained that he wanted to build the program into one of “the best in the country.” The statement was met by derision from New York fans, and is puzzling to NBA watchers who weren’t sure why Thomas wanted to take a job at a small school with no history of hoops success. Thomas stated that he would donate his first season salary to the university. “I didn’t come here for the money,” he explained. His tenure started oddly: in the press conference announcing his hiring, a school official introduced him as “Isiah Thompson.”

June 2011: It was reported and confirmed by the Pistons, that Isiah was on a short list of candidates for the vacant head coaching job in Detroit. However, his old back court teammate Joe Dumars, the longtime President of Basketball Operations for the Pistons, hired Lawrence Frank instead. At the same time, Knicks owner Dolan pressured Donnie Walsh to bring Isiah back as GM. Walsh retaliated by threatening to resign, and Dolan backed off. Thomas continued to have dialogue with Dolan about basketball decisions and the Knick roster, undermining Walsh.

August 6, 2011: Thomas announced that he had taken a role as a special consultant with the Knicks, though he planned to continue his job as head coach at FIU. Knicks fans responded with vitriol, and the NBA and NCAA scrambled to see if the move violated any of their rules. It did, and five days later Isiah and the Knicks announce that the arrangement had been nullified. Despite this, it was widely believed that Isiah was instrumental in the February trade that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York and that he continued to help the Knicks front office as an unofficial advisor. With his relationship with Knick ownership still solid (somehow), there was good reason to believe this was true. Asked if he would return to the Big Apple, Isiah replied that he had “no desire to return” to the Knicks as president or as Walsh’s replacement.

April 6, 2012: Oh, how the mighty had fallen. Isiah was axed by FIU. After taking the Panthers to an 8-21 record in his third season, the NBA Hall of Famer was relieved of his duties in inglorious fashion: via telephone while in the middle of interviewing an assistant coach in his office.

“I am very disappointed that I won’t get a chance to finish the job I set out to do when I got here,” Thomas told The Miami Herald. “I was told I’d have five years to build FIU, and I felt I was well on my way to doing it…. Nobody told me I’d have two or three years. I was told five years.”

Since his final game in a Pistons uniform, Isiah has been trying to duplicate the basketball success he had as a floor leader in Detroit. The road leading to the Palace of Auburn Hills is named 2 Championship Drive, largely thanks to Isiah, but Thomas seems to have lost his way since he left Motown.

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