Someone once told me Isiah Thomas planned to run for mayor. Why not? He loved power, he had ambition, and at the time — this was a few years ago — he probably had the votes. He was, without question, the most popular athlete in Detroit since Gordie Howe. Billy Sims and Mark Fidrych were big stars, but they never delivered championships. Thomas (Hit Man) Hearns made a name for himself, but not a personality.
Isiah? He owned this town. Had it in his pocket. The Bad Boy Pistons climbed from the basement to the top of the heap and, in so doing, gave Detroit its first sustained civic pride in decades. Isiah was the catalyst. So popular was he at his zenith, that even when he got tangled in controversy, reporters were hesitant to take him on. He was well-loved, he knew it, and he swung his weight. In many ways, he was the Boss Tweed of Detroit sports.
Which is what makes the following so incredible: Last month, Thomas, rather quietly, announced he was leaving town. Going to Canada, as part-owner of the expansion Toronto Raptors. He will not only have nothing to do with the Pistons, the franchise he pretty much built, he also will no longer live here. He will move his family. Put his children in the Canadian school system. He is, in effect, leaving his province, banished from his kingdom, the man who would be king. He announced this.
And nobody blinked.
This is either testament to how far Isiah’s star has fallen or how low you sink when your team goes from championship to lottery pick. But it doesn’t explain the fall from grace of a player who was so tight with his owner that he vacationed with his family and dined at his house — where a huge portrait of Isiah hung on the wall. It doesn’t explain why Thomas and Bill Davidson have barely spoken since Thomas’ retirement announcement. It doesn’t explain why Thomas has had little contact with his former teammates — including friend and backcourt mate Joe Dumars — or why he took his new job as part owner/vice president of basketball operations for the Raptors, despite having no knowledge of the organization less than three weeks before accepting.
In other words, he left town a mystery. The only bigger mystery was why more people didn’t seem to care. Image, rumors and myth
Thomas agreed to sit down with me after he retired, to talk about the image, the rumors and the myth of who he is. We were both hesitant. We hadn’t done this in years. The last time we tried, five or six seasons ago, Isiah went out of his way to embarrass me. It was the strangest non-interview I ever conducted.
We were in an office at the Palace, behind a closed door, and from the moment we began he simply refused to talk. He held his hands to his mouth and stared straight ahead as I ran through question after question, including “Why are you doing this?” He just grinned, in that weird way, and didn’t answer. I couldn’t understand if this was a power play or the height of rudeness. After all, he had agreed to the interview!
Finally, after 20 minutes of silent futility, I said forget it. He hadn’t spoken five words. As near as I can figure, he was upset that I didn’t rush to his defense that summer in the Larry Bird-racist comment controversy. Never mind that I had written three columns, mostly leaning toward his perspective. He wanted absolution, wanted me to tell the world that he was innocent and terribly misunderstood.
He had the wrong guy.
We got up and walked out.
I never told that story before, because there was no point. This is a job with lots of weird incidents; you deal with them, you go on. I tell it now only to show that you never knew what you were getting with Isiah. He had a lot of faces. Toward the end of his career, having flashed so many of them, he drove many media people away; they kept their distance, didn’t trust him. Maybe that’s why his departure never got the headlines it warranted.
Just the same, news is news. And when Isiah splits Detroit, it’s news. So when he and I finally sat down again, I asked him about this, and the rumors about it, and many other rumors that have stalked his career. I am happy to say he spoke this time, for nearly two hours, with candor, frankness, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with venom.
He talked about the cold shoulder he thought the Pistons gave him, and his version of what happened with Bill Laimbeer and Adrian Dantley (both of whom, in different ways, he is accused of driving off). He talked about his rivalries with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and why he thinks he was snubbed by the Dream Team. He even suggested that the Bulls would never have beaten the Pistons had Jordan and Dumars not become friends.
I can’t vouch for the authenticity of his comments, because one thing you learn about Isiah, he can be charming, glib, persuasive — and not necessarily telling the whole truth. You know that going in.
On the other hand, you can’t do more than ask a man a question and hope for an answer. The departure
* Why aren’t you still in Detroit, working for the Pistons?
“I don’t know. I can honestly tell you I don’t know. I can’t say this happened and that happened. . . . I don’t know. There were no jobs available. There wasn’t a position.”
* But just a few months ago, at a press conference, you said you were a Piston for life.
“I was told that I would be a Piston for life. I guess I was, for my basketball career. Post-retirement, there were no positions available. Now, would I have liked to have been part of the organization? Without question.
* Couldn’t they make room for someone like you — after all you did for the franchise?
“That wasn’t my call. . . . You’d have to ask the Pistons. It’s not Bill Davidson’s call. It’s the Pistons’. ”
* The rumor was that you and Davidson had some falling-out between January and April.
“I can honestly tell you that nothing happened between he and I. And why I wasn’t offered the position . . . again, you’re asking the wrong person.”
* Well, what would you have liked to do for the Pistons — if there had been a job available?
“My talents and expertise is basketball. Not marketing. It’s basketball. I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t have liked to do that for the Pistons.”
* Would you have accepted that type of role without part- ownership of the team?
“Knowing what I know now about owning a team . . . (laughs) . . . yes, at
the time, I’d have been satisfied with just the job.”
* Were you hurt by this snub?
“I’d have liked to have the opportunity, but I’m well- educated, and I can go on and do other things.”
* When you got the offer from Toronto, did you call Davidson?
“No. If you were let go from the Free Press, Mitch, and the New York Times called you up and said, hey, we got a job for you, would you call back the Free Press and say, ‘Hey, you guys want me back?’ ” The Laimbeer incident
Of all the physical plays Thomas made in his career, none received more attention than the blow he struck to the back of Laimbeer’s head in a practice last season. Thomas broke his right hand. Laimbeer retired two weeks later. Although it was hardly the first time Thomas has gotten up close and personal in the game of basketball, it seemed to spark an enormous backlash. Isiah was a bully. Isiah was a back-stabber. Isiah was losing his grip and now hitting his friends, not just his enemies.
* What about that whole Laimbeer situation?
“I’ve hit teammates since I was in grade school.”
* But in the back of the head — when he wasn’t looking?
“I’ve hit teammates since I was in grade school. And we’ve hit each other every year. We fight in practice. That’s the only way you get competitive. . .
. I bet you the New York Knicks fight twice a week.
“Now, I’ll give you the scene where Laimbeer and I were coming from. Our team had just started to jell, just started to solidify. We come to a practice, and it’s not a competitive practice, so Laimbeer and I get into our act, our little routine — ‘Yeah, we’re gonna beat your team,’ ‘Yeah, your team’s gonna lose’ — just so we can get everybody competing.
“So we get into our little beef and after that, everybody makes of that what they make of it. But nobody mentions that after the fight, we won five
(actually three) straight games.”
* OK, but wait a second. Give reporters some credit. They know there are frequently fights during practice. Still, you run up, deliberately, and hit a guy in the back of the head, a blindside from behind. That’s not normal — even in competitive practices.
“Hey, Earl Cureton and Bill Laimbeer got into a fight once. Laimbeer was running in the lay-up line. Earl threw the ball at him. Hit him in the back of the head.
“Vinnie and Laimbeer were fighting once at Oakland University. Laimbeer sets a pick on him. Laimbeer turns to walk away. Vinnie clubs him — the back of the head.
“If you think about any great basketball team, football team, baseball team, hockey team, in order to compete at the level we compete at, you fight.”
* You don’t think Laimbeer was bothered by his close friend blindsiding him?
“No more than any other fight in any other practice. Do I think this made him retire? God, I hope he’s not that soft!” (Laughs.)
* So you think his retiring and your hitting him were a coincidence?
“Laimbeer had been contemplating retirement, as you know, for the last four years. And every single year he had to be talked out of it. This is a kind of egotistical thing to say, but I think what happened was by me missing five, six games (with the broken hand), I was the only friend he had on that team. And he goes to practice for two weeks straight and I’m not there. Who’s he talking to? He doesn’t know any of these guys.”
* You’re saying he retired because he missed you?
“I don’t think he retired because he missed me. I think if I had been around, we could have had some more conversations, and I think, hopefully — this is ego talking also — I could have talked him into, hey, Lam, just finish the season out. As opposed to retiring.”
* Do you think he did the right thing in the end?
“Personally, he did the right thing leaving when he did. Professionally, I
still thought he could play basketball some more.” The Dantley incident
* As long as we’re dispelling rumors concerning ex-teammates, let’s straighten out one that has followed you for years. Adrian Dantley. It’s no secret people feel you were the one who got him traded. The first game he came back to the Palace, he whispered something to you at the opening tap, and you immediately tossed up an air ball.
“Yeah, everybody says that I tossed up an air ball, but you forget that I did drop 29 points. . . . After that I did drop 29. I just thought I’d let you know that.” (Laughs.)
* Well, what was true in that situation?
“I’ll tell you what was true. What was true was that there was a guy playing behind Adrian Dantley by the name of Dennis Rodman — who needed to play more — and who happened to be a pretty good basketball player. Adrian, at the time, did not want to be a team player. He wasn’t satisfied with playing 30 minutes a night. He wanted to play 38 minutes a night. Consequently, Rodman would play only six minutes a night. Chuck Daly and Adrian butted heads over this several times in practice.
“OK. There was a friend of mine who happened to be in Dallas — a guy by the name of Mark Aguirre — who is a very good basketball player. And he was willing to accept playing 30 minutes a night or 24 minutes a night, and letting Dennis play the rest.
“It was a simple solution. You make the trade so Dennis Rodman can be your star. That was the whole deal. It wasn’t, hey, I didn’t like Adrian. I bet you can go over my whole career and there isn’t one person you can say that I crossed or that I screwed over. Now, there’s been speculation that I have . . .”
* There was speculation you were behind that Dantley trade. Were you?
“No. My opinion was asked. At that time, my opinion was asked about a lot of things. To me, it was a no-brainer. Mark Aguirre was a more talented offensive player than Dantley, a b