Isiah’s right. He doesn’t deserve this. I’ve been watching the news since I got home from Portland, and frankly, I have to keep rubbing my eyes to make sure I’m not seeing things.
By now, of course, you are familiar with the story of Isiah’s rather loose connection to a gambling investigation. Or worse, you are vaguely familiar. That’s the problem. Most people only remember headlines and pictures. So six months from now, they will be saying “Isiah Thomas . . . He had a gambling problem, didn’t he?”
Let’s be clear right from the start: As of this moment, Isiah Thomas has been accused of nothing, except, perhaps, not having the greatest luck in choosing friends. One of them, Emmet Denha, is under federal investigation for gambling. He is also the godfather of Isiah’s son. He also owns a store where Isiah has cashed checks for the last three years. So? I don’t see anything criminal there involving Thomas, do you?
Yes, initially there were rumors that Isiah was somehow guilty, that he may have hosted high-stakes dice games at his house. Suddenly, today, that’s not such a hot rumor anymore. Besides, Thomas has vehemently denied it. “I think gambling is one of the stupidest things you can do,” he told reporters. And later, he said, “I am involved in a friend of a friend of a friend’s problem. The people involved — I don’t even know them. I’ve never even met them.”
The FBI has said repeatedly Thomas is not the one being investigated. As for cashing checks at a store or through personal connections, although it sounds odd to you, it is not unusual for big-name sports and entertainment stars, who are not crazy about waiting in line at a bank.
So what did he do wrong? Nothing, so far as I can tell. Yet if you watched or read the reports on this thing — particularly the initial story on Channel 2 Friday — you might have thought Isiah’s code name was Al Capone. I’m telling you, I’m still shaking my head. Truth should be first priority
Now, lest you think me an apologist for athletes, let me say that I don’t always see eye to eye with Thomas. He got angry with me three years ago for not rushing to his defense in the “Larry Bird/black and white” controversy, and, for some reason, has held a bit of grudge ever since.
But I told Isiah then, as I’d tell him now, our job as journalists — much as we might like certain athletes — is not to make them look good at all costs. That’s a public relations director’s job. Our job is to report the truth, or as much of the truth as we can uncover. If the athletes look good in that light, fine, great, more power to them. But if they make a mistake, reporters are not human erasers; we can’t cover it up. We can only try to explain it.
In the Bird incident — in which Thomas was accused of being a racist — I tried to do that, to explain it. I said it was not a smart comment to make, Isiah should have known better, but I also did not feel one comment made him a racist. Maybe Isiah wanted more. Maybe he wanted me to pretend he never said anything; how dare people accuse him? Sorry. That’s not my job.
But it is also not my job, or anyone else’s in this town, to blot a man’s reputation unfairly. And that seems to have happened. I replayed Channel 2’s report from Friday. They talked about gambling. They talked about curious checks. They talked about alleged dice games. It was not until the last line of their long report that they said, “Isiah may turn out to be nothing more than a witness in this case.”
That should have been the first line.
You see how this stuff gets started. Blown out of proportion
The exaggerated tone continued in the newspapers Saturday and Sunday, which included bold, large-type headlines often reserved for war breaking out, and on TV, where reports took up nearly half the allotted time for all the evening news. Eleven minutes on Channel 7? I hardly think this qualifies as that important, do you?
Look. I am not declaring Isiah innocent of everything. I am not an FBI investigator. Personally, I have a hard time believing him to be any sort of big gambler, since I know him pretty well and it doesn’t fit. Here is a guy who came up hard from the streets of Chicago; he has worked for every dollar he’s made. Why would he throw money away on the roll of a dice?
Besides, while he is not as angelic as he might have you believe, he is sincere about being a role model for kids. Lying and gambling won’t get you that. Thomas has come out and said he has done nothing wrong. And, just as in the Bird incident, we can only go on what comes out of his mouth. If for some reason, Isiah should be lying, well, let that be on his head; it will surface sooner or later. But in this country, we still believe in innocent until proven guilty, and I see no reason to dip Thomas — in his finest hour — into the muddy waters of hearsay.
Yet people will do it. There are already jokes about Thomas and the point spread, Thomas and the crap table. But next time you hear one, think about this: A few days ago, after the Pistons won the title, a handful of lunatics went crazy in our streets, got violent, and now across the world, people are reading stories about how all of Detroit celebrates sports wins by killing people. Wait a minute. We didn’t do it! It’s not fair, this guilt-by-association stuff.
Now you know how Isiah feels.