Isiah Thomas Explained

Position:Point guard
Born:30 April 1961
Chicago, Illinois, USA

Isiah Lord Thomas III (nicknamed "Zeke"[1]) (; born April 30, 1961) is a retired American professional basketball player who played point guard for the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association (NBA) from 1981 until 1994. He led the "Bad Boys" to the NBA Championship in the 1988-1989 and 1989-1990 seasons. After his playing career, he was an executive with the Toronto Raptors, a television commentator, an executive with the Continental Basketball Association, head coach of the Indiana Pacers, and an executive and head coach for the New York Knicks. During the NBA's 50th anniversary, he was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

Early life and college career

Isiah Thomas was born on April 30, 1961, in Chicago, Illinois. The youngest of nine brothers and sisters, he commuted from the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago to play high school basketball at St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois.[2] He would wake up at 5 am and commute 90 minutes to attend the prestigious private school.[2] He played for Bob Knight's Hoosiers at Indiana University. In 1981, Thomas led the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament National Championship and earned the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award. After accomplishing this in his sophomore season, Thomas made himself eligible for the NBA Draft.

NBA playing career

In the 1981 NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons chose Thomas and signed him to a four-year $1.6 million contract. Thomas made the All-Rookie team and started for the Eastern Conference in the 1982 All-Star Game.

In the opening round of the 1984 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and the Pistons faced off against Bernard King and the New York Knicks. In the pivotal fifth game, Thomas was having a subpar performance, while Bernard King was having an excellent game. However, Thomas scored 16 points in the last 94 seconds to force the game into overtime. King and the Knicks, however, held on to win in overtime.

In the 1985 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and his team went to the conference semi-finals against the 15-time NBA champion Boston Celtics led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson. Detroit couldn't shake the Celtics in their six-game series, eventually losing.

In the 1987 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and the Pistons went to the Eastern Conference Finals and faced the Boston Celtics. It was the farthest the team had advanced since moving from Fort Wayne when they were the Zollner-Pistons. The Pistons were able to tie the Celtics at two games apiece. Detroit's hope of winning Game 5 was dashed at the Boston Garden with seconds remaining in a play by Larry Bird: Thomas attempted to quickly inbound the ball, Larry Bird stole the inbound pass and passed it to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup.

In 1988 the Pistons' first trip to the Finals saw them face the Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Prior to the series, Thomas and Johnson would exchange a courtside kiss on the cheek prior to tip-off as a sign of their deep friendship. After taking a 3-2 series lead back to Los Angeles, Detroit appeared poised to win their first NBA title in Game 6.

One of Thomas' most inspiring and self-defining moments came in Game 6. Although he had severly sprained his ankle late in the game, Thomas continued to play. While hobbling and in obvious pain, Isiah scored 25 points in a single quarter of the contest, an NBA finals record. However, the Lakers won the game 103-102 on a pair of last-minute free throws by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following a foul called on Bill Laimbeer. With Isiah Thomas unable to compete at full strength the Lakers were able to take advantage and narrowly clinched their second consecutive title in Game 7, 108-105.

In the 1988-89 season, Thomas, along with fellow teammates Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, Vinnie Johnson, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards, John Salley, Bill Laimbeer, and Mark Aguirre, guided his team to a then-franchise record 63-19 record. Detroit played a brash and dominating brand of basketball through the playoffs that led to their nickname "Bad Boys". With Boston's injuries persisting, the Pistons defeated Michael Jordan and the up and coming Chicago Bulls in the Conference Finals, to set up an NBA Finals rematch with the Lakers. Thomas and the Pistons then won their first of back-to-back championships when they defeated the Lakers in a 4-game sweep. The following year, Thomas was voted NBA Finals Most Valuable Player of the 1990 NBA Finals after averaging 27.6 points per game, 7.0 assists per game, and 5.2 rebounds per game in the series with Clyde Drexler's Portland Trail Blazers. The Pistons continued to play well between 1991 and 1993 but were not able to return to the NBA Finals as they were eclipsed by the growing Chicago Bulls dynasty. An aging and ailing Thomas tore his Achilles' tendon in April 1994 and decided to end his career as a player the following month in May.

Thomas, a 6-1, 185-pound point guard, ranks as one of the best players of all-time. His toughness and competitive fire won many admirers as well as adversaries over the years. He was named to the All-NBA First team three times and is the Pistons' all-time leader in points, steals, games played and assists. Thomas ranks fifth in NBA history in assists (9,061, 9.3 apg) and ranks ninth in NBA history in steals (1,861). Thomas was known for his dribbling ability as well as his ability to drive to the basket and score. His number 11 was retired by the Detroit Pistons.

International career

Thomas was selected to the 1980 Olympic team, but like all American athletes he was not able to play in Moscow due to the Olympics boycott. The boycotting countries instead participated in the gold medal series, a series of games against NBA teams, a French team and the 1976 Olympic gold medal team in various U.S. cities, recording a 5-1 record (losing to the Seattle SuperSonics). Isiah shot 22-55 from the field and 14-17 from the line. He led the U.S. in assists with 37 (the next highest total on the team was 17) and averaged 9.7 points per game.[3]

Despite his talent, Thomas was left off the original Olympic Dream Team, possibly as a result of his alleged feud with Michael Jordan.[4] After Tim Hardaway left the team due to injury he was named to Dream Team II for the 1994 World Championship of Basketball, but did not play due to his Achilles tendon injury that caused his retirement.[4] He was replaced by Kevin Johnson.

Post-NBA career

Toronto Raptors

After retiring Thomas became part owner and Executive Vice President for the expansion Toronto Raptors in 1994. In 1998, he left the organization after a dispute with new management over the franchise's direction and his future responsibilities. During his four-year tenure with the team, the Raptors drafted Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby and high-schooler Tracy McGrady.


After leaving the Raptors, Thomas became a television commentator (first as the lead game analyst with play-by-play man Bob Costas and then as part of the studio team) for NBA on NBC. Thomas also worked a three-man booth with Costas and Doug Collins.


Thomas became the owner of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) from 1998 to 2000. After his purchase of the CBA for $5 million, the league was forced into bankruptcy and folded, after Thomas rejected an offer from the NBA for $11 million to make it an official minor league of the NBA.[5] Many CBA managers blamed Thomas for the league's failure, citing mismanagement and out-of-control spending on his part. Many such managers publicly declared that Thomas ran the league into the ground, possibly on purpose to eliminate the non-NBA-owned minor league in order to make room for the NBA-owned NBDL.

Indiana Pacers

From 2000 to 2003, Thomas coached the Indiana Pacers, succeeding Larry Bird, who previously coached the Pacers to the NBA Eastern Conference title. Thomas attempted to bring up young talents such as Jermaine O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley, Al Harrington, and Jeff Foster. Unfortunately the Pacers under Thomas were not able to stay at the elite level as they went through the transition from a veteran-dominated, playoff-experienced team. In his first two seasons with the Pacers, the team was eliminated in the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets who did happen to go to the NBA Finals in those years.

In his last year with the Pacers, Thomas guided the Pacers to a 48-34 record in the regular season and coached the East squad at the 2003 NBA All-Star Game. The game was also Michael Jordan's final All-Star game. Thomas was criticized for overplaying Jordan during the game as an attempt to make up for their past feud. As the third seed, the Pacers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the sixth-seeded Boston Celtics. With blossoming talents such as Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Al Harrington and Jamaal Tinsley, along with the veteran leadership of Reggie Miller, the perception existed that the Pacers' unfulfilled potential stemmed from Isiah Thomas' inexperience as a coach. In the off-season, Larry Bird returned to the Pacers as President of Basketball Operations, and his first act was to replace Thomas with Rick Carlisle.

Hall of Fame

In 2000, Thomas was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, in his initial year of eligibility.

New York Knicks

On December 22, 2003, the New York Knicks hired Thomas as President of Basketball Operations. Thomas was ultimately unsuccessful with the Knicks roster and fanbase. At the end of the 2005-06 season, the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league and the second-worst record. He traded away several future draft picks to Chicago in a deal for Eddy Curry including what turned out to be two lottery picks in talent-rich drafts.

On June 22, 2006, the Knicks fired coach Larry Brown, and owner James Dolan replaced him with Thomas under the condition that he show "evident progress" or be fired.

During the following season the Knicks became embroiled in a brawl with the Denver Nuggets, which Thomas allegedly instigated by ordering his players to commit a hard foul in the paint.[6] However, he was not fined or suspended. NBA Commissioner David Stern said that he only relied on "definitive information" when handing out punishments.[7] Later in the season, nine months after James Dolan demanded "evident progress", the Knicks re-signed Thomas to an undisclosed "multi-year" contract.[8] After Thomas was granted the extension, the Knicks abruptly fell from playoff contention with a dismal finish to the season.

During the 2007 Draft, Thomas made another trade by acquiring Zach Randolph, Fred Jones, and Dan Dickau from the Portland Trail Blazers for Steve Francis and Channing Frye.

Thomas also compounded the Knicks' salary cap problems by signing fringe players such as Jerome James and Jared Jeffries to full mid-level exception contracts. Neither player has seen any significant playing time and both are often injured and when able to play are highly ineffective.

Despite the constant criticism that he received from Knicks fans, Thomas maintained that he had no intention of leaving until he turned the team around and he predicted that he would lead the Knicks to a championship, stating that his goal was to leave behind a "championship legacy" with the Knicks, just as he had done for the Detroit Pistons. This prediction was met with widespread skepticism.[9]

On April 2, 2008, Donnie Walsh was introduced to replace Thomas as President of Basketball Operations for the Knicks. Walsh would not comment definitively on whether or not Thomas would be retained in any capacity at the time of his hiring.

One night after the Knicks tied a franchise record of 59 losses and ended their season, news broke that in talks with Walsh the week before, Isiah had been told he would not return as Knicks head coach the following season. He was officially 'reassigned' on April 18 "after a season of listless and dreadful basketball, a tawdry lawsuit and unending chants from fans demanding his dismissal."[10] As part of the reassignment agreement Thomas was banned from having contact with any Knicks' players under the rationale that he could willingly or unwillingly undermine Donnie Walsh and the new head coach.[11]


Michael Jordan rivalry

In the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, Thomas was joined on the Eastern Conference squad by star rookie Michael Jordan. Jordan wound up attempting nine shots, a relatively low number for a starting player. Afterward, Thomas and his fellow veteran East players were accused of having planned to "freeze out" Jordan from their offense by not passing him the ball, supposedly out of jealousy over the attention Jordan was receiving. No player involved has ever confirmed that the "freeze-out" occurred, but the story has been long reported, and has never been refuted by Jordan.[12] Thomas has ridiculed the idea of him being the mastermind behind a supposed "freeze-out" as being "ludicrous" citing that he was a relatively young player on a team including Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Moses Malone.[13]

In the Eastern Conference Finals of the 1991 NBA Playoffs, the two-time defending champion Detroit Pistons faced the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls for the fourth consecutive season in the playoffs. The Pistons had defeated the Bulls in each of the first three meetings, but this time they suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls.The series was marked by a number of verbal, physical, and match-up problems. With 7.9 seconds remaining in the fourth game, Thomas and eight of his teammates walked off the court, refusing to shake hands with the members of the Bulls.

In 1992 Thomas was passed over by the United States men's national basketball team (popularly known as the Dream Team). Rumors have swirled that Thomas was left off the team because Jordan did not want him as a teammate on account of their bitter rivalry, which had begun with the alleged "freeze-out" and had continued through their playoff battles. Thomas also believed that his place on the Olympic team had been stolen by Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton. An angered Thomas complained publicly, and later vented his frustration by having a high-scoring game against Stockton. The next game they played, on December 14, 1991, Karl Malone elbowed Thomas in the head as he drove to the basket. Thomas needed 40 stitches above his eye to close the wound. Malone was fined and suspended for the incident.

Sexual harassment lawsuit

In October 2006, Thomas and Madison Square Garden were sued for sexual harassment by Anucha Browne Sanders. The matter came to trial in September 2007 and Thomas was determined to have made demeaning statements to Sanders, as well as making sexual advances and repeatedly telling her that he was in love with her.[14] Madison Square Garden was ordered to pay Browne Sanders $11.6 million, one of the largest sexual harassment judgments in history.

"I'm innocent, I'm very innocent, and I did not do the things she has accused me in this courtroom of doing" Thomas said after the decision. "I'm extremely disappointed that the jury did not see the facts in this case." Thomas admitted under oath that he did in fact call Sanders a "bitch". During his testimony, Thomas also claimed it was appropriate to exchange hugs and kisses with co-workers.

Racism allegations

During Thomas's sexual harassment trial, Anucha Browne-Sanders testified that Thomas had told her he did not care about these "fucking white people" or these "fucking season ticket holders." Thomas denied these allegations.[15]

After a heated 1987 playoff game against the Boston Celtics, Dennis Rodman said that Larry Bird was overrated because he was white in a league full of mostly black players. In response, Isiah said, "I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player. He's an exceptional talent, but I have to agree with Rodman. If he were black, he'd be just another good guy."[16]

Drug overdose

On October 24, 2008, Thomas was taken to White Plains Hospital Center near his New York City area home after taking an overdose of Lunesta, a form of sleep medication. According to Harrison, New York police, they were called to Thomas's house, where, finding him unconscious but breathing, they had him transported to the hospital. Police Chief David Hall stated that they "are calling this an accidental overdose of a prescription sleeping pill.” He was released from the hospital later that day.

In the opinion of Harrison Police Chief David Hall, Thomas tried to "cover up" the incident by claiming his 17-year old daughter required medical treatment when in actuality he was the patient. Referring to Thomas' 17-year-old daughter, Hall said, "And why they're throwing her under the bus is beyond my ability to understand."

Career NBA statistics


Coaching record

TeamYearRegular Season
IND2000-01824141.5004th in CentralLost in First Round
IND2001-02824240.5124th in CentralLost in First Round
IND2002-03824834.5852nd in CentralLost in First Round
NYK2006-07823349.4024th in AtlanticMissed Playoffs
NYK2007-08822359.2805th in AtlanticMissed Playoffs

External links

Notes and References

  1. Web site: That Was Then ... This is Now: Zeke and Franchise. NBA,com. 2008-09-27.
  2. News: The Devil Wears Nikes; Liking Isiah Thomas against my better judgment. Metcalf. Stephen. 2006-06-29. 2008-11-02.
  3. Web site: Games of the XXIInd Olympiad -- 1980. 2008-09-27.
  4. News: Sports People: Basketball; Thomas Is Named To Dream Team II. 1994-01-11. New York Times. 2008-08-24.
  5. CBA Museum, Isiah Thomas Years
  6. "Melo apologizes; Isiah reportedly under investigation"
  7. "Suspensions total 47 games from Knicks-Nuggets fight"
  8. "Thomas shows 'evident progress'; earns new deal"
  9. Isiah Thomas predicts a title
  10.;_ylt=AtQTwADx6O5zxhSiq_slFN68vLYF?slug=ap-knicks-thomas&prov=ap&type=lgns Isiah Thomas fired as coach of New York. He was fired on april 18, 2008 Knicks
  11. ESPN - Report: Ex-Knicks coach Thomas banned from contacting players - NBA
  12. Wolff, Alexander."Look of a Winner", Sports Illustrated, accessed October 3, 2007."There was the famous freeze-out at the '85 All-Star Game, at which Isiah Thomas led a movement of several veterans to keep the ball out of the hands of their uppity rookie teammate."
  13. Albom, Mitch. "Why is Isiah leaving Detroit - Part 2", Detroit Free Press, accessed 2008-04-30."I don't know how something like that gets started... what you're telling me is that I came in the locker room that had Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Michael Ray Richardson and whoever else was on that team, and I said, 'Hey, Bird, hey, Doc' -- and I'm a young guy myself -- 'hey, let's not give Jordan the ball.' Do you know how stupid that sounds? Do you know how ludicrous that sounds?"
  14. News: Isiah Thomas, Madison Square Garden Settle Sexual Harassment Suit. 2007-12-10. FOX via The Associated Press. 2008-09-27.
  15. News: Plaintiff: Isiah Thomas cursed white fans. Destefano. Anthony M.. 2007-12-19. Newsday. 2008-09-27.
  16. News: Follow That Bird; Why does every white basketball player get compared to Larry Legend?. Levin. Josh. 2005-12-12. Slate. 2008-09-27.
  17. Web site: Isiah Thomas Career Stats. NBA Encyclopedia. NBA Media Ventures, LLC. 2007-11-04.