Eleven Things You May or May Not Know About NBA Legend (#11) Isiah Thomas

by by Chris Cohen

illustration by by Becca Levinson


In 1996, Isiah Thomas was voted by a committee of players, journalists, and executives as one of the 50 Best Players in NBA History. In 2000, Isiah was inducted into the Professional Basketball Hall of Fame, his first year of eligibility. During the late 1980s and early ’90s, he led the “Bad Boy” Detriot Pistons, upsetting the balance of power between Boston and Los Angeles teams that had dominated the league for most of the 1980s. The team understood its nickname; Dennis Rodman said of another member, Bill Laimbeer, that “he was more than a thug, but that’s all he’ll ever be remembered for.” The team won the 1980 and 1990 titles.


Isiah is considered to have played his best basketball during the playoffs, and he is responsible for two particularly memorable individual performances. In the 1984 playoffs, Thomas scored an incredible 16 points against the Knicks in the final 94 seconds of a game to force overtime. During the 1988 finals against the Lakers, Isiah scored 25 points in the last quarter while visibly limping from a sprained ankle. This remains the record for points in a quarter of a Finals game.


Isiah may have led a conspiracy to give the rookie Michael Jordan the cold shoulder during the 1985 All-Star game. Rumor has it that the other All-Stars resented the attention the younger player was reciving. Jordan attempted only nine shots despite starting the game. Thomas has denied any plot to not involve the rookie, but the relationship between the two remained chilly—Isiah’s Pistons walked off the court with seven seconds remaining in a 1991 playoff defeat at the hands of Jordan’s Bulls, forgoing postgame handshakes.


Isiah has a strained relationship with another great, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Magic Johnson. Before their relationship soured, the two famously kissed before a contest in the 1988 playoffs. It has been alleged that Isiah spread rumors that Magic was gay after he was revealed to be HIV-positive. Thomas, whose brother died of AIDS, has denied these allegations in an interview with Sports Illustrated, saying he was the “first to shake his hand and hug him and give him a kiss, to let people know that's not how the virus is spread” in the 1992 All-Star game.


A feud with two of the greatest players in league history had its consequences. Although he’s clearly one of the best players of his generation, Isiah was left off of the 1992 “Dream Team” that cruised to a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, apparently due to his acrimonious relationship with Jordan and Magic. However, in a Sports Illustrated interview about his book When the Game Was Ours, Magic said nobody wanted Isiah on the team: "Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics. Nobody on that team wanted to play with him. ... Michael didn't want to play with him. Scottie [Pippen] wanted no part of him. Bird wasn't pushing for him. Karl Malone didn't want him. Who was saying, 'We need this guy?' Nobody.''


Isiah retired from the League in 1994. In 1999, he purchased the official minor League of the NBA, the Continental Basketball Association, for $10,000,000. The CBA was founded in 1946, a few months before the NBA. After two years of managing the CBA, Isaiah was recruited to become the head coach of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. As NBA rules prohibit a coach from running another league, Thomas was forced to sell his league. The NBA revoked the CBA’s status as an official developmental league, undermining Isiah’s attempts to sell. Rather than decline the Pacers job, Thomas placed the league in a trust, freezing the assets of the league and forcing its temporary closure.


Isiah pursued a career as a basketball executive and coach, starting with the Pacers job, then with the New York Knicks. His tenure as president of the Knicks from 2003 to 2008 is widely considered to have been a disaster; the Knicks had the highest payroll but the second-worst record in the league in the 2005-06 season, paying large contracts to players that never saw consistent playing time.


He was also a failure as a coach. The Knicks responded to the poor play of their 2005 team by firing all time great coach Larry Brown (incidentally also #11 in his playing days) and replacing him with Isiah, the team president. Towards the end of his tenure as coach the New York Daily News reacted to news of the firing of a different NBA Coach, Chicago’s Scott Skiles, by running the headline “Coach Fired, but it’s not Isiah Thomas!”


Besides poor play, the Isiah era was marred by a sexual harassment scandal in which a Knicks marketing executive named Anchua Browne Sanders, alleged that Thomas had come on to her, and created an environment hostile to women, firing her when she complained. Highlights from the trial included Isiah implying that it was less offensive for a black man than a white man to call a woman a “bitch,” but later backtracking, saying “It’s very offensive for any man—black, white, purple” (emphasis mine). The jury awarded Browne-Sanders $11,000,000 in damages, but Thomas remained president and coach of the team.


Isiah was eventually fired from the Knicks and is now the basketball coach of Florida International University. The school is not a traditional basketball power, and they have finished both of Thomas’ seasons with losing records.


The NBA still may not have seen the last of Isiah. The Knicks announced they had taken Isiah on as a “consultant” in 2010, before someone pointed out that holding both positions violated NBA rules. Thomas remained the coach of FIU, but this June he told sports talk radio host Stephen A. Smith that if James Dolan, the owner of the Knicks, offered a position with the Knicks he “probably would, because I think I could help him.”

CHRIS COHEN B’12 will always be remembered as a thug.