by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It’s over! It’s all over! The Pistons win the NBA championship, the seventh game of the final series, and the sellout crowd at the Pontiac Silverdome is screaming, delirious, dancing in the aisles. And here comes Isiah Thomas, the hero of the game, bursting into the locker room. And there he goes. Out the back door.

The back door?

Within seconds he is in the parking lot, where he jumps into his car, still in uniform, the sweat still moist on his skin, and hits the gas. Off he drives, fast as a blink, one mile, two miles, five miles, off, until he reaches a park, any park, quiet and empty and very far from the celebration he just started.

“And then?” someone asked of his dream. “What do you do in the park?”

“I sit there,” he said, shrugging, “and be happy.”

This is Isiah Thomas’ championship fantasy, the pancake he flips on the grill of his imagination. And OK. ‘Tis the season for such dreaming. ‘Tis the NBA playoffs. But what do you make of a fantasy such as that? Leave the building and go to a park? What would Freud call it? The Id and the He-go? Oedipus Zeke?

Call it classic Isiah. For Thomas, who has led this Pistons team since he was 20 years old, is today, at 25, still a fascinating mix of innocence and grizzle. He can be seriously silent. He can laugh as if hearing God’s first joke. He creates basketball brilliance, and studies its implications, like a kid who invents dynamite in his basement, then hides in the attic to peek at his family’s reaction.

For all his wellspring of talent — and you felt a splash of it Friday night in his 34-point performance against Washington — for all his years in Chicago’s mean streets, the time under Bobby Knight at Indiana, the wins, the losses, the travel the coaching changes, the new teammates, there is still wonder inside Isiah Thomas. There is still a wide-eyed fascination.

And here is what he sees today: Happy days. For this, he says, is the best team he has ever been on.

“There’s no comparison. We’re better in every aspect of the game. In years past, we used to really have to gear up to play in playoff-type basketball. With the team we have now, all we have to do is be ready to play.”

“Do you think you’ll surprise people in the playoffs?” he was asked.

“The only people we’ll surprise are people outside the game,” he said quickly. “Everybody inside basketball already knows how good we are.”

On Friday night, Thomas himself looked awfully good, a one- man force in the Pistons’ 106-92 opening-round win over the Bullets. Tonight he will go at it again. By now Detroit has come to recognize his game: a happy-faced whippoorwill weaving through sequoia trees, in, out, in, out, driving to the basket, dishing off, arching soft high lay-ups, almost cooing as he goes, drawing your attention like a magnet draws steel.

That is his style. It has been for a while. So those who just tuned in to this season Friday night may have said to themselves, “Yep. Same as usual. Still the Isiah Thomas Show in Detroit.”

They are mistaken.

Friday night aside, this has not been the easiest of seasons for Thomas. Change is never easy. And with the addition of Adrian Dantley, Sidney Green, Dennis Rodman, John Salley and Kurt Nimphius, he has had to change. His game has been resculptured. At times he has heard it criticized (“He tries to do too much,” goes a gripe among certain media members). Meanwhile, all year long, he has had to tiptoe around his mouth, making sure he said nothing that could be interpreted as trouble between him and Dantley “because if I did, it would be headlines the next day.” And on top of everything, he has had to endure a persistently sore left knee that kept him from practicing Saturday and may require surgery after the season.

Yet the team has jelled. That is largely to his credit. The personality clash with Dantley never materialized. Once the Pistons got used to each other, they got used to winning, tying the best record in club history with 52 victories. And while he is no longer the leading scorer (Dantley averaged 21.5 points a game, Thomas 20.6), playoff time will reveal that Thomas is still the leader. Even Dantley will tell you: “This is Isiah’s team. He is the man.”

“Are you comfortable with that phrase, ‘Isiah’s team’ ?” Thomas was asked.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he said.

“Do you like it?”

“I never thought about it to like it or not. You gotta understand, ever since I was 19 years old, when I first came here, it was my team. I was the leader of the team.”

“You were, or you were expected to be?”

“I was,” he said.

Did you know that Isiah Thomas often drives to Detroit area parks by himself and watches kids play basketball? He never gets too close, he says, and he never interferes. “I just like to watch. See if the ball goes in. Since I was a kid I always went to the park. I even swing on the swings.”

“Still?” he was asked.

“Yep,” he says.

He swings on the swings. You hear that, you look at him, that kindergarten grin, and it’s hard to remember he is a six- year veteran in this league. That he has waited a fair time to be on a championship team. That he has played more than 400 grueling professional games, his knees and ankles and wrists taking the nightly pounding.

He has been with the Pistons longer than any player on their roster, and the changes he has seen — and brought about — in the franchise are significant. Years ago, this was a mediocre team that had to be dragged into the win column. “Now,” Thomas said, “there’s not a player in this league who wouldn’t want to play in Detroit.

“You talk about Detroit now, you’re talking about a great place to play basketball. We sell out every night, we lead the league in attendance.

“In this league, a guy gets traded to Boston, he’s happy. A guy gets traded to LA, he’s happy. A guy gets traded to Detroit now, he’s happy. Ask Sidney Green, who came from Chicago. That’s the change. That’s what’s happened.”

He sighed.

“It happens with winning.”

Thomas takes a lot of pride in the winning, the changes, his contributions. Pride runs deep in him. And this is the other side of Isiah; older, wiser, stubborn enough to play hurt. Despite his gentle public persona,

he is protective of his turf, of his role, of his leadership. He is giving it away to no one.

“You know, even if I never won a championship,” he said, “but the team won one after I left, I could take a lot of gratification in that.”

“How’s that?” he was asked.

“Because I started it. I more or less planted the seed for this franchise to be good for a very long time.”

“How does one person do that?” he was asked.

“By winning a lot of games.”

Now, he said, it is time to win more. The Pistons have been a team in recent years that makes the playoffs, then exits early. Thomas has had enough of that. So have the fans. “I think this is the basketball team the Detroit fans have been waiting for,” he said. “The fans here are not like the fans in, say, Boston. In Boston, they expect their team to make the finals. Here the fans are ecstatic if the team has a legitimate chance.” “Does this team fit that description?” he was asked.

“Oh yes,” he said.

So it’s fantasy time, the playoffs, you dream about winning it all. And Thomas, the veteran youngster, can still fantasize about that big moment, that getaway drive in his sweaty uniform, with the echo of championship holler still in his ears. Drive to the park? Sit in the park? That is really what he’d do if the Pistons won it all?

“Well,” he said, after a pause, “that’s mostly what I fantasize. But there are times I think it would be nice to celebrate, too. You know, hang in the locker room, pour the champagne on each other, go real crazy and everything.”

“Wait a minute,” someone interrupted. “Those are two pretty different fantasies.”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it,” he said. CUTLINE Isiah Thomas: “There’s not a player in the league who wouldn’t want to play in Detroit.” Isiah Thomas has kept the Pistons working in harmony this season.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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