In the imagined pantheon of my favorite Detroit sports heroes, few players have a shrine as prominent as the one devoted to Isiah Thomas.
Mongoose quick and utterly fearless even against players a foot taller and 100 lbs. heavier, the leader of the Bad Boys Pistons didn’t merely come to embody Detroit’s blue-collar sports ethos — he expanded its very definition.
He wasn’t the first pro player to show Detroit what toughness was when he arrived here in 1981 by way of the University of Indiana and Chicago’s south side. But for my generation of Detroit sports fans, Thomas was the first to marry all that dirt-under-the-nails rhetoric we traffic in around here to a legacy of consistent triumph.
Barely 6 feet tall, Thomas stood night in and night out as the biggest Piston on the court, joining with Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and the rest to transform a perennial also-ran into the NBA’s most feared and physical unit. Zeke shot the ball with the brazen confidence of Delta Force sniper. He drove the lane like his body was made of iron. He handled the rock as if by telekinesis.
And most importantly, he won.
Starved for a Championship
When Isiah Lord Thomas III came to Detroit, the city was starved for a championship…in any sport. The Tigers hadn’t won it all since 1968. The Lions and Red Wings hadn’t made noise since the ‘50s. And the Pistons hadn’t done squat ever.
Although the Tigers beat Thomas and the Pistons to a championship, winning the World Series in 1984, it would be the Bad Boys who would become the established power by the end of that decade—winning back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90 and cementing their place as one of the most iconic (and hated) units in NBA history.
Under Thomas’s leadership, the Pistons didn’t just make their mark. They left a bruise. And so, his legacy in Detroit is a brilliant one, defined by sacrifice, leadership. perseverance and, ultimately, victory.
I’d like to see that legacy remain intact…which is why, for all my love for Zeke, I’m pretty sure I don’t want Isiah Thomas to come back to take over the team.
As the Pistons march toward an offseason of tumult and drastic change, rumors are swirling that Thomas could be a candidate to replace Dumars as the team’s general manager and Laimbeer a candidate to take over as head coach. (Thomas hasn’t said much about his prospect himself, and the front office has stayed mum, too.)
But while this may excite some, it gives me pause for worry. Because as glorious and successful as it was on the court, Isiah’s basketball career post-retirement has been abysmal, its wake pocked with horrendous trades and hires, broken front offices, ugly feuds, strange personal ordeals and, most damning, a sexual harassment lawsuit.
We’ve got lowlights:
* In 1994, Thomas became part owner of the Toronto Raptors, then an expansion team. In one of his first moves, he hired friend and former Pistons assistant Brendon Malone. Malone went 21-61 his season and was fired in ’96 after he and Thomas clashed over the team’s roster. Two year later, in 1998, Thomas (who’d also made good moves, such as the drafting of Tracey McGrady) surrendered his share of the Raptors and left the franchise amid a dispute with the other members of the management team.
* In 1998, Thomas bought the Continental Basketball Association for $10 million. When the NBA came to Thomas with an offer to invest with hopes of turning the CBA into a developmental league, Thomas declined. Instead, he put the league in a blind trust and went off to coach the NBA Indiana Pacers. In 2001, the CBA—which had survived since 1946—filed for bankruptcy and folded, with some CBA execs accusing Thomas of mismanaging the league and its money.
* Two years after the CBA died, Thomas took a job as President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks in what would be come his ugliest and most notorious stint as an executive. In his first full season as president, Thomas traded for talented but troubled point guard Stephon Marbury, but the Knicks still only managed to go 33-49. He hired the legendary Larry Brown in 2005. Still, despite having the highest payroll in the NBA at the time, the Knicks finished the 2005-2006 season at 23-59 and dead last in the Eastern Conference. Thomas fired Brown at season’s end and took over as coach.
* Also in 2006, a former Knicks employee, Anucha Browne Sanders, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Thomas and Madison Square Garden (MSG), which owns the team. The suit maintained that Thomas made repeated sexual overtures to Browne Sanders, allegations that Thomas denied. A jury found Thomas and MSG liable of harassment. MSG (but not Thomas) was ordered to pay Browne Sanders more than $11 million in punitive damages.
* As coach of the Knicks, Thomas improved the team’s record to 33-49 in 2006-2007, but the team’s chemistry continued to worsen. One of the strangest beefs erupted between Thomas and Marbury, the guard he’d pinned so many hopes on the season. In Nov. 2007, Marbury left the team and began threatening to reveal negative information about Thomas if he wasn’t allowed back into the team’s starting lineup. "Isiah has to start me," Marbury fumed, according to the source. "I've got so much (stuff) on Isiah and he knows it. He thinks he can (get) me. But I'll (get) him first. You have no idea what I know." Meanwhile, on the court, the team struggled. The Knicks suffered the third-worst defeat in franchise history, falling to the Celtics 104-59. As chants of “Fire Isiah” filled the Garden during every home game, the team finished the 2007-08 season 23-59. Thomas was fired before the start of the 2008 season.
* In Oct. 2008, Thomas was rushed to a New York area hospital after he overdosed on sleep medication in what was characterized by local media as a suicide attempt. A local police chief accused Thomas of falsely claiming it was his daughter who required the medical attention. Thomas later admitted to the overdose, but said it was accidental, not a deliberate attempt to kill himself.
* In 2009, Florida International University hired Thomas as head basketball coach. The team went 7-25 in his first year. While at FIU, Thomas made plans to take a consultant’s position with the Knicks, but scuttled the idea when he was told that holding both positions was against league rules. The Golden Panthers fired Thomas last April, dissatisfied with his 26-65 record over three years.
As a player, Zeke rates as one of the greatest NBA stars ever and, arguably, the greatest Piston of all time (with apologies to Dave Bing). A son of the Midwest, a product of the ‘hood, a superstar with a genuine affinity for this hardscrabble city, Isiah will always be regarded as one of Detroit’s own. However, with Pistons staggering toward the end of Dumars’ front-office run and new owner Tom Gores still wiping the wetness from behind his ears, the team can ill afford to court more stagnancy and failure and limited vision.
Isiah brings a lot of baggage to the table, perhaps too much for a franchise at the crossroads. And nothing about his track record as an executive suggests that Thomas would make navigating the uncertain future any easier.
Right now, Thomas’ legacy as a Piston is unmarred, a shining testament to the mix of grit, talent and will that defined his play and his brilliant leadership.
I’d like to see it stay that way.