It was as if he’d traded his halo for an eye patch and a pair of brass knuckles. Was that Isiah Thomas? Sweet Isiah Thomas? Detroit’s precious chunk of the big rock candy mountain? That Isiah Thomas? Running down court and waving a fist and pushing his chest into Atlanta opponents and hollering “YOU CAN’T WIN! YOU’RE IN MY HOUSE NOW!”
“Tell him, Isiah!” screamed a fan.
“Show him who’s boss!” added another.
What an explosion! Here was Thomas, who was off in the first half, missing nine of 12 shots, the whole Detroit team was clanking, yet he came out for the second half as if someone had poured liquid heat in his shorts.
His third quarter was the kind of thing they reserve for movies. There should have been a disco soundtrack underneath, with every shot by No. 11 swishing from way out, or curling in, or coming from a scoop, a hook, a swirl, a twist, a free throw, another free throw, a steal, a steal, a steal. This was uncanny, this was magic, and so with his jumper with 2:19 left Thomas tied the NBA record for points in a quarter, 23, and with two seconds to go he freed a high, arching, top-of-the-key shot and it swished and — presto! 25!
— he was history.
And so were the Hawks.
At least for tonight.
Warrior. That killer smile “Did he say anything at halftime?” coach Chuck Daly was asked, after the Pistons followed Thomas’ lead and beat Atlanta, 108-99, for a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series. “Did he give you any indication he would take over like that?”
“All he said the entire halftime,” Daly said, shrugging, “was ‘twenty-four minutes. Twenty-four minutes.’ “
All he would need was 12. And make no mistake. The “warrior” word is appropriate. The only difference between the way Isiah Thomas wages war and the way most other NBA players do is that Isiah smiles through the whole thing. How can you get mad at that grin? Even when he’s telling you forget it, you’re history, go home, you die.
He said it in so many words Friday night, and then he said it in so few words. “YOU CAN’T WIN!” he taunted over and over during that strangely frenzied run, “YOU CAN’T WIN!”
He yelled it at Doc Rivers, his defender, and big Kevin Willis, and big Dominique Wilkins, he was possessed, people looked at each other and shrugged, but he never let up. He came dashing down court every play, driving or dishing. Once with Rivers he engaged in a rat-a-tat-a-tat dribbling exhibition between his legs — a basketball version of the Ali shuffle — grinning and laughing until he finally lost the ball. Didn’t matter. He got it back next play, and the next and the next. Did he really score 25 points in one quarter? He really did.
“What was that all about with Rivers?” someone asked him afterward.
“Well, Doc and I have been going at it for a long time,” he said. “I respect him. He’s a great player. I just told him tonight I gotta have it.”
He got it. Hawks eat their words There was reason for his fireworks. Thomas guards his team’s reputation like a pirate guards his treasure chest. When someone asked him if his verbal assault was motivated by anything in particular, Thomas bit his lip.
“They (the Hawks) have said some things about our basketball team, let’s say some . . . unkind things. I’ll leave it at that.”
Whatever they said, the Hawks will surely apologize if Thomas promises to let up. His spirit hovered all over the Silverdome this night — not the kindred one we take for granted, but an angry, determined force that said:
“Enough with being the runner-up. Let’s go after a championship.”
The Pistons won the game, moved ahead in the series, and served notice this would not be an easy home for victory. Not by anyone but the team that lives here.
“What does the record mean, Isiah?” someone yelled at Thomas in the locker room. “Twenty five points in one quarter? What does it mean?”
“It means we won a basketball game,” he said.
Score one for the warrior.
Thomas — who finished with 35 points — actually took a seat early in the fourth quarter with four fouls. But he never really left the game. His inspiration was there like a drill through a tooth, and so Pistons were flying, jamming, stealing, Chuck Daly was slamming his fist in the air until the final buzzer and the Detroit victory.
Through it all, the little warrior sat on the bench, observing the fire he had wrought.
And when it was over, Isiah Thomas, with his mouth closed, simply sat there and grinned.