Isiah Thomas’ quick departure from Detroit — a city he once ruled in popularity — remains the most mysterious local sports story of the year.
Which only fits the character.
Although Thomas was highly celebrated, he was rarely understood, and, in his later years here, quietly criticized. Not so quiet were his critics around the league (Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, half the Utah Jazz).
Part of this unpopularity came, no doubt, from his competitive drive, his desire to win at everything, to find the best angle, to attack an opponent’s weakness, to be as coldhearted as necessary to win. This is what got Isiah out of the nowhere streets of Chicago as a child, what pushed him to a national championship with Indiana, and what made him a great professional player. He didn’t like the nickname “The Smiling Assassin,” but when it came to his basketball performance, it was appropriate.
In the nearly two hours I interviewed him, he showed his combative side more than once. He confronted me on several issues (how the media treated him), challenged me on others (denying that the Dream Team didn’t want him) and agreed with me on others still (that he should have shaken Jordan’s hand after losing the Eastern Conference finals in 1991).
He also surprised me a few times — like the explanation he gave when asked why the Pistons finally surrendered their crown to the Chicago Bulls. He said the problem began with a Piston.
* Why did Chicago finally beat Detroit?
“They won the mental game. Jordan beat us mentally because he got to know certain people on our team. He got to really understand what drove us as people. He was able to use that to divide us.”
* How did he divide you?
“Well, he got to know certain people on our team.”
* You mean Joe Dumars?
“Yeah. They got to be friends, so Jordan got to get inside our inner workings and find out who was who and what made this guy tick. When you look back on it, you see the games that he played in the media, and how he moved that guy and moved that guy. . . . It was masterful.”
* You’re saying his friendship with Dumars was a strategy?
“In my opinion, yes.”
* And that’s why Chicago was successful against you in the end?
“Well, Bird and Magic were never friends, and the Lakers and Celtics were never friends. You just can’t let people know you.”
* Did you tell Joe not to get friendly with Jordan?
“Yeah, but I think Joe is smart enough as a person that he makes his own friends. I don’t want to say that’s the reason why they beat us, but all of a sudden, we weren’t the big bad bear anymore. And when you’re not the big bad bear, they say, ‘OK, I’ll go in and take this lay-up.’ ”
* But Jordan wasn’t really friendly with the rest of you.
“You only need to be friends with the guy who’s guarding you.”
* Come on. There didn’t seem to be any letup when Joe played Jordan.
“There was no letup in effort. However, if you go back and look, there’s a difference in attitude when Jordan drove to the basket and Laimbeer would hit him. OK. A year before, two years before, it was like, ‘Ohhh, Laimbeer hit me.’ Now it’s like, ‘I know Laimbeer’s not that tough a guy, so hey, get off me.’ ”
* And Jordan learned that through Joe?
“Well . . . in competition . . . you just can’t let the guy know you as a person, because the thing that really drives you or scares him is the fear that he has of you.” The handshake incident
* Speaking of Jordan, in retrospect, don’t you wish you had just shaken his hand after they beat you in the Eastern Conference finals — given the fuss not shaking his hand caused?
“Yeah, I do. If I had the chance to do it all over again, looking back, yeah, if I had known it was gonna cause that much of a stir. And then, for the
sportsmanship aspect of it. I would because he was greater in defeat than I was. . . . When we beat them, he was very honorable about it, he shook hands and everything. . . . I’ve always been . . . well, losing doesn’t sit well with me.”
* What about your personal relationship with Jordan?
“I never knew him. He never knew me. I didn’t really want to go to dinner with him, and I don’t think he wanted to go with me. Not that we didn’t like each other. But I played for Detroit, and he played for the Bulls, and I went home and was with my family and he did the same. Now, had we been two single guys who didn’t have responsibilities, and if he wasn’t as high profile and you didn’t have endorsements and people looking at your every move, OK . . . maybe you can have a relationship.”
* Did you ever want to just sit down and straighten things out between you?
“In my mind, there wasn’t really anything to straighten out, because he and I weren’t friends. We’ve never been friends.”
* What about the oldest rumor concerning you two, that you conspired to keep the ball away from him during the 1985 All- Star Game?
(Laughs.) “I don’t know how something like that gets started. Let me paint the scenario. Terry Cummings led us in shot attempts that game. I think he had 16. Larry Bird was second, I think, with 15. Jordan was third with 13. I had 12, and then it kind of fanned out.”
(Cummings actually took 17, Bird 16, Thomas 14 and Jordan nine.)
“Now what you’re telling me is that I came in the locker room that had Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Micheal 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?
“It’s like the perception of Isiah is that, hey, he can get anybody to do anything that his little head dreams of.” The Dream Team snub
Those who believe Thomas was a culprit in that All-Star Game also thought he got his comeuppance by being left off the Dream Team, which captured the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In retrospect, many people think Thomas should have been on that team. But he was clearly snubbed at the time.
* Should you have been on that team?
“I definitely feel I should have been on it. The way that team was picked
— clearly I had accomplished more in basketball than nine of the guys on that team.”
* Why were you left off?
“I don’t know. Private phone conversations? Private selection committee? Does anybody really know? I had a long talk with Chuck (Daly) about it, and he said he didn’t know.
“But you know what, Mitch? Most people think I was on the Dream Team. When I travel around the world, people thought I was on it. And when I played against the guys the following season, all of ’em, to a man, said, ‘Hey, you should have been there. Wish you had been there. Sorry about what happened.’
“Even Jordan — and he was supposedly the guy who stopped me from being on the team.”
* Do you think that’s true?
“I don’t know. The man said he didn’t. I can only take him at his word.” The fallout with Magic
The relationship between Magic Johnson and Isiah was hailed as a friendship that transcended the basketball court. They kissed each other before games. They spoke about each other by bursting into smiles and jokes. But then things changed. They seemed to distance themselves, and the fond comments disappeared.
Naturally, all kinds of rumors began about the nature of their fallout.
* What was that all about?
“The falling out Magic and I had is that I got to the finals with the Pistons and he got to the finals with the Lakers, and in order to win the ultimate prize, you gotta do some things out on the basketball court that you wouldn’t necessarily do to your friend.” (Laughs.)
* Such as?
“The series we lost to them in seven? You remember Game 4 at the Silverdome? I’m driving down the lane and he decks me. Do you remember that? I bruised my tailbone. That, in my mind, was what crossed the line. He was saying, ‘I can’t be friends with you anymore. The Lakers gotta win.’
“My son was born the next day, June 15. And he couldn’t even come to the hospital or my house to visit my son. Do you remember that?”
* He would have come under other circumstances?
“Well, yeah, if I wasn’t playing for the Pistons.”
* Were you stunned by that?
“I was stunned. I was hurt. However, they beat us in seven.
“I came out to LA later that summer, and usually I would stay at his house. This time he said, ‘You gotta stay in a hotel,’ because next year he knew we were gonna play in the finals again. So in my mind, I said, OK, this is how the game is played.”
* The ugliest rumor about your falling out suggests that you spread stories about Magic being gay — before and after he announced he had the AIDS virus. You read that, no doubt.
“I read it. I heard it. And I’m not gonna sit here and dignify it with a response.
“That’s just like me saying Mitch, why’d you rape that woman? Fifty percent of the people are gonna say, Mitch raped a woman, and 50 percent are gonna say Mitch never raped a woman. But still, once the question is asked, you gotta defend yourself.
“How can I defend that?” Isiah vs. the media
During the years, Thomas went from being a media favorite to a media pariah. Once delightfully spontaneous in interviews, he became more guarded, more manipulative, and he got into confrontations with reporters — one of them a physical confrontation, when he grabbed Channel 2’s Virg Jacques by the throat. The sinking of his relationship with reporters was felt in his last two Piston press conferences, when many of the questions were combative and suspicious.
Not surprisingly, when we talked about this, he had some very definite opinions.
* Do you think you’ve been treated fairly by the media in your career?
“I think what happened in the media is that you never saw an athlete as diverse as myself. You had a hard time understanding and judging that.”
* Why would being diverse throw the media off?
“Because I was a guy who was able to be a chairman of a company that had
$150 million worth of revenue flowing through it — and also be able to play basketball.”
* Yeah, so?
“You never acknowledged that side of it. The only side you spoke of was what you saw on the court. The other side you ignored. It didn’t make sense in your stories. But when you talk about a person you’re trying to define and you concentrate on basketball, you’re only talking about maybe two percent of what Isiah Thomas is all about.
“The next time a guy comes along like me, you’ll look at him differently.”
* You really think that’s it?
“If my personality was intimidating to some people, that wasn’t my fault.”
* Maybe you intended to be intimidating.
“No, I never turned down requests from anybody. Even you and I had our battles, but whenever you would come and ask a question, I would answer it.”
* A lot of reporters in this town didn’t know what they were getting from you in the later years. They didn’t trust you.
“That’s not my fault. There were so many rumors. I read your story recently when you said the most common question is: ‘Is Isiah Thomas who he pretends to be?’ It’s like, what I am and what I stand for and what I’m all about — you guys didn’t want to believe it. That wasn’t my fault.”
* Nobody made up the incidents in your life — like that time you grabbed Virg Jacques.
“Do you know what prompted that? That whole allegation thing?”
* It was about gambling.
“Yeah. I was mad. I had a right to be. You know what I’m saying? (Laughs.) I’ve come to find out that there are two different audiences. There’s the media, and there’s regular people. And regular people have always stood up and fought for Isiah Thomas.”
* And of those two groups, which would you say gets to see you up close more often? Which gets to see your real behavior the most?
“I would say the average guy on the street.”
* What have you learned about life in the public eye?
“That your critics in life always bark the loudest. And the people who support you — they support you after your critics have made their remarks.”
* If you could sum up your career in a single word . . .
“I’d just say, ‘Winner.’ ” Mitch Albom’s complete conversation with Isiah Thomas can be heard in a special “Sunday Sports Albom” on WJR-AM (760) at 8 p.m. Monday. EXCERPTS Excerpts from Mitch Albom’s interview with Isiah Thomas:
* On a rivalry with Joe Dumars:
“No. He was the ultimate backcourt mate. People tried to make a rivalry between us. People wanted that. But he and I were smart enough as people and cared enough about each other that we would never let that happen.
“Can I be friendly with Joe in my new job? As an owner, you can’t really have that type of friendship with a player. It’s called tampering. The relationship will have to change until Joe becomes an owner himself.”
* On his college coach, Bobby Knight:
“He was the best coach I ever had, and the smartest coach I ever had. He was very intimidating as a man. I was going to church one Sunday, and I was confessing to Father Higgins, who was my pastor at the time, and Knight said to me something like ‘At Indiana we play basketball. You confess on your own time.’ Like I said, he was intimidating.”
* On his responsibilities with the Toronto Raptors:
“My primary responsibilities will be everything that’s involved in basketball operations, from hiring the janitors to the uniforms to putting the players out on the court. It’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s a challenge that gets your juices flowing.”
* On his greatest accomplishment in basketball:
“Winning back-to-back championships, and taking a team from (winning) 21 games, no hope, no spirit, no vision, no nothing, and changing a mind-set not only of a whole basketball team, but of a whole city and state.”