This is the fourth in a series of biographies I am reading/reviewing about Detroit sport legends: Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, and Isiah Thomas. Although each played a different game, there are several common threads: each played either the entirety or majority of their career in Detroit, each had Hall-of-Fame careers, each brought championships to the Motor City, and each had a somewhat notorious reputation.
Isiah (Zeke) Thomas is the only living member of this set, and his biography had a distinctly different feel than the others. The first three told all: the good and the bad, but I thought the Thomas bio was a bit too generous in its praise and too gentle in its critique. As the name implies, the biography details Thomas’ career as a player, and then as a basketball executive, coach, and even owner of a minor-league basketball league.
Thomas’ playing career was stellar. ESPN ranks him as the 5thgreatest point guard of all time, and 26thamong players of all positions. Zeke led Indiana University to a National Championship, and the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA Championships. He was a perennial All-Star and was inducted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. As a player, he was one of the best ever.
Thomas’ greatest success after his playing days was probably that of General Manager and part owner of the expansion Toronto Raptors beginning with the 95-96 season. Thomas made some unpopular and questionable moves, such as selecting undersized point guard Damon Stoudemire, whose size and playing style was reminiscent of Thomas, as the Raptor’s first ever draft pick, Stoudemire silenced the critics by winning Rookie of the Year honors. As a team the Raptors exceeded expectations on the court and at the box office each of their first two seasons. When Thomas left early in the third season, the Raptor’s record plummeted. And even though the Raptors didn’t have a winning season during Thomas’ tenure, he was largely responsible for creating basketball culture in Toronto. Challen, a Canadian, gave Thomas some well-deserved, and often overlooked, credit for bringing the NBA to Canada and ensuring its continued success.
The rest of Thomas career as executive and coach are not so impressive. As a General Manager, his teams rarely made the playoffs and as a coach, he had a losing record. When his teams did make the playoffs, they were eliminated first round.
The notorious reputation I mentioned? He had a petty feud with Michal Jordan that marred his reputation and probably cost him a spot on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. You don’t run afoul of the greatest ever without consequence. He had another flap with Larry Bird that may have cost him a head coaching position with the Pacers. And then there’s the “Bad Boys” reputation of the Pistons – they were hated around the league – because they won.
Like the other Detroit legends I read about, Thomas dubious reputation was mostly undeserved and overstated. In spite of a few personal foibles, he takes the high ground with his critics and always wears a smile. Unlike the other three – The Isiah Thomas story isn’t finished yet. He may yet win another championship.
In a way, he already has. The Toronto Raptors just won their first ever NBA Championship. It is impossible to measure Thomas’ impact on the championship so many years after his departure – but he definitely made an impact. The Raptors organization recognized this and paid him courtside honors at game one of the finals.
And by the way, – the other Canadian expansion team from 95-96, The Vancouver Grizzlies – no longer exists.