He made nice. Went out like a diplomat. He smiled, laughed loudly, and anyone he could possibly thank, he thanked. He thanked family, friends, children, teammates, his owner, his coaches, the ball boys, the water boys, reporters, trainers, the guys who cooked the food, the guys who laid out his uniform and socks, the guys who made plastic splints for his injured feet. Thirteen years in the National Basketball Association, two years in college, four years of high school ball — he went through all of it. At one point during the news conference, a cynical radio host leaned over and whispered:
“Let me get this straight. Did he get the bicycle on his 12th birthday or his 13th?”
Ah, well. Such is the curious reaction to Isiah Thomas, who was always more inspiring on court than off. You can’t blame him for a long good-bye. How else do you sum up a life? And that is what basketball is to the player Julius Erving calls “the greatest little man in NBA history” — not a career, not a job. A life.
“How do you let go of a thing that has shaped you?” Thomas, 33, said Wednesday, holding up an imaginary ball and gazing like a child. “If not for this basketball . . . I wouldn’t even have met my wife.”
And he wouldn’t have wound up here, Detroit, a city he once had no desire to see and now has no desire to leave. Thomas, the Pistons’ all-time leader in points, steals and assists, was a lot of things during his storied career, some great, some not so great, some championship-caliber, some straight off the streets. He did good things and he did ugly things and he made some enemies and he probably didn’t get the credit he deserved and he definitely didn’t get the praise, the endorsements, or the Olympic gold medals that peers such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird carried off into their sunsets. But through it all, the one thing Thomas had that they never could was this city.
He owned it. He defined it. He represented it.
So funny, isn’t it, that on Wednesday, as he hobbled to the stage with his Achilles tendon injury — a walking contradiction, a basketball player on crutches, a kid from Chicago’s streets now wearing silk suits and $100 ties — funny, isn’t it, how this thought occurs:
Everybody here knows his name.
And so few know who he is.
Of all the questions a sportswriter gets asked in this town, the most frequent is: “What is Isiah Thomas really like?” Or, “Is Isiah really the guy he pretends to be?” Or, “What’s the deal with Isiah?”
How can you answer? There is no denying Thomas is a complex man, a powerful, intelligent, image-conscious entertainer who can flash a smile and use a smile in the same minute. Maybe because he came here so young — he was only 19 when he was drafted — and grew up before our eyes, we have so many conflicting pictures.
We see the childlike Isiah of the early 1980s, who seemed to laugh from jump ball to buzzer; and we see the spiteful Isiah of 1991, who led his teammates in a deliberate snub of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
We see the heroic Isiah who scored 25 points in a single championship quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers — while playing on a gimpy ankle — and the bully Isiah, who sucker- punched his own teammate, Bill Laimbeer, during practice.
We see the role model Isiah, so loved by our city’s youth, and the unpopular Isiah, whom players from Adrian Dantley to Charles Barkley have privately — and publicly — lambasted.
We see the businessman Isiah who, just a few months ago, called his own news conference to announce a lucrative arrangement that would secure his future in the Pistons front office. “I will be a Piston for life,” Thomas crowed.
Yet Wednesday, in that very same room, he said this: “I won’t have any future role in the Pistons organization.”
“It just didn’t work out,” Thomas said. And later, “All the jobs were full.”
Meanwhile, Bill Davidson, with whom Isiah supposedly had the original arrangement, only added to the confusion.
Was ownership the issue?
Davidson: “No comment on that.”
Was there ever a deal like the one reported in the media?
“There was never such a deal.”
Would you like Isiah to stay in the organization?
But he just said he has no role with the Pistons.
“That’s what he’s saying now.”
Hmm. These two should take their act on the road.
But you know what? Stuff like this follows Thomas around. Misinformation. Coy responses. Rumors. Sometimes he’s the victim. Sometimes he’s the culprit. And you know what else?
It doesn’t matter. Not anymore.
What will be, will be. At his best on center stage
Better, on this morning after his good-bye, to remember Thomas for the show he put on, because ultimately, that’s what entertainers are remembered for, isn’t it? The show? And Thomas — at his best on center stage — was impossible to ignore.
You can still see him screaming into the teeth of a defense, gliding, pumping and somehow dropping the ball in the basket while taller men swatted awkwardly at him, like a camel’s tail swats at flies.
You can still see him dancing at center court, arms behind his back, holding the basketball and spinning in a delirious circle.
You can still see him jumping into Mark Aguirre’s arms, Rick Mahorn’s arms, John Salley’s arms, you can still see that night he scored 16 points in 94 seconds in a playoff game against the New York Knicks, or the night he made 13 shots in a row, or that heroic twilight against the Lakers at the Forum, when he could feel his ankle going south and threw in 25 unbelievable points in the third quarter in a desperate attempt to win the championship before his leg went useless.
“Some guys know how to play,” said Vinnie Johnson, his longtime backcourt mate, “and some guys know how to win. Isiah knew how to win.”
And win he did. He won two championships, was Most Valuable Player of one,
appeared in 12 All-Star games, was MVP of two, he set all kinds of assists records, rewrote the Pistons stats book and — perhaps most remarkably — never had anyone describe him as “short,” even though, for his game, he is.
“I recently watched my highlight reel,” Thomas, 6-feet-1, said Wednesday, in his own unique way, “and I looked at a list of all the things I’ve done. And if someone said. ‘You’ve got to do it all again,’ I wouldn’t even attempt it. . . .” What to remember?
A few nights ago, Thomas, Vinnie Johnson and Joe Dumars jumped in a private plane and flew to Springfield, Mass., to see Chuck Daly’s Hall of Fame induction. What a nostalgic journey, when you think about it. Here was Daly, now working in New Jersey, yet being immortalized for what he did in Detroit. And here were Johnson, now retired and doing radio commentary, and Dumars, the truly active player in the group, left to captain a ship that barely resembles the Bad Boys vessel of the late 1980s.
And Thomas, on the cusp that night, going from player to ex-player at 30,000 feet. What must he have been thinking during that trip?
“I’ll never get on a court again,” he said Wednesday, almost wistfully.
“The toughest thing of my life is to let it go.”
He took questions. He spoke of memories. He denied rumors and deflected criticism. He was, in the course of the afternoon, charming, overbearing, sincere and a spin doctor. All those things. Give him credit for versatility.
Towards the end of the news conference, Thomas compared leaving the game to a poster he had on his wall at college, a picture of a dove above the phrase, “If you love something, set it free. If it was yours, it will come back to you.”
“I love basketball,” Thomas said, “but I know it will never come back to me.”
And yet, Thomas will come back to basketball, in highlight reels and videos, in photos and media guides, in books and newspapers and stories told from father to son and mother to daughter, about hot nights in the Palace when Bad Boys flags flew from the stands and you couldn’t go anywhere in this city and not talk basketball.
Who was Isiah Thomas? We never really knew. A mixed bag, seems the fairest
way to put it. But here is the wonder of memory: all the rumors, the ugliness, the fisticuffs, the off- court shenanigans, all those things that were indeed a part of Thomas’ career will ultimately sink like leaves on an autumn lake, leaving only this picture: Isiah streaking down a basketball floor, scissoring the ball through his legs, then pulling up and launching a rainbow jumper, backpedaling as it kisses through the net, licking his lips, a tiger with a taste, ready for more.
That’s the snapshot you take of Thomas. In uniform. In action. It’s the magic of the stage, the beauty of time. And, for a fellow who both delighted and confused, it’s the nicest way to say good-bye.