LOS ANGELES — How’s this for an All-American work week? Your basketball team falls behind in the championship series. You hurt your back so bad, your pregnant wife has to help you get out of bed. Your phone rings off the hook. TV cameras are everywhere. You take painkillers. You play another game. Then your wife gives birth. You stay up all night, your back is throbbing, and the next day you have to play another game. Afterward you rush to the hospital, you hold your newborn son, your heart just about bursts — and then you fly to Los Angeles to play another game, while the wife and the baby stay behind.
“When this is all over,” says a tired but happy Isiah Thomas, sitting on yet another bed in yet another LA hotel room, “I’m just gonna collapse.”
This was the week that was in the life of Isiah, husband of Lynn, father of Joshua, star of Detroit. A week he will never forget, a week he would never trade, a week he calls “the hardest in my life” — and a week that, should the Pistons win today’s Game 6 against the Lakers and capture the basketball championship of the world, will all be worth it.
“Every day,” he says, “has been an adventure.” Why not? It’s not every day
— or every year, for that matter — that this much happens this fast. It was as if Christmas, graduation and the day you get your tonsils out all arrived in the same five minutes. Thomas has barely slept, his dribbles and jump shots have all been in pain, and when he looked up in the stands of the Silverdome Thursday night, he saw signs, new signs, ones he’d never seen before: “WIN IT FOR JOSHUA, DADDY!”
“I couldn’t help but see those signs and think about him,” he admits, “even during the game. Even when I was out on the court. It was an overwhelming feeling. It was like, all these people really care about me and my family, my wife and my son, they really care. . . .”
Whew. How funny. How ironic. How long has Thomas waited to be involved in an NBA championship? Since he was a boy in Chicago. Since he was a collegian at Indiana. Since he first signed a contract with Detroit. And it was always basketball, always the game — that was his heart, his mind, his red cells and white cells.
And now, on the ledge of what could be the biggest game of all, there is a voice inside that says: Move over, Rover. Baby’s taking over.
“I don’t think basketball will ever have as much control over my emotions anymore,” says Thomas. “Why? Because it’s not my sole source of happiness. . .
Here is something you didn’t know about Isiah. He isn’t crazy about going up and down with the final score. He doesn’t particularly like feeling upset after a loss, and OK after a win. “Now, even if we lose, I can go home and be happy, because my happiness is with my family now. And I know basketball’s only a game.”
That’s quite a turnaround in one week.
Then again, it was a hell of a week. OK. Baby talk. You want to know how it happened. A few hours before his son was born last Wednesday, Thomas was sleeping, groggy from the pain-killing medication the Pistons had given him for his back. Lynn, his wife, woke him up, and said she was going to the doctor. He said, “OK,” watched her leave, then sat on the couch trying to prepare himself for what he knew was coming next. It may not be the perfect frame of mind for childbirth, but, hey. At least he was home.
“A couple hours later I got the call from the hospital, and I drove down there. . . .”
He smiles, then stops. Daddy is being very guarded about the details of the birth. He feels the memories, like a wish on a birthday candle, may be diluted if shared. He and Lynn had taken Lamaze classes during the pregnancy, “so let’s just say it went pretty much like class and leave it at that.”
He visited the hospital immediately after the Game 5 victory Thursday, he held his son (“Words cannot describe that experience”) and if he knew now what a moving moment it would be, he would definitely miss whatever game of basketball might have interfered.
“If I got the word (today, just before Game 6) I would fly home and miss the game. I would. I know a lot of people would be upset and a lot of people would be disappointed, but a human being is much more important than a game.”
“Do you think when he’s older, you’ll tell your son about the crazy conditions that surrounded his birth?” he is asked.
“Yeah, I’ll probably show him the pictures of the banners and some of the newspaper articles. . . .”
He pauses. “I don’t know. It depends on what kind of kid he is. If he’s a pretty decent kid, I’ll show him. But if he’s a jerk, I won’t.”
He explodes into laughter.
How could he be a jerk? It is funny to see Thomas here laughing and shaking his head in appreciation of his fans’ kindness. One year ago, he was flying to this same city — this same hotel, as a matter of fact — to defend himself on CBS-TV about a comment he had made about Larry Bird. He was scared then, he was distrustful, confused.
“The thing I remember most was that I’d always tried to be a good person, and people were suddenly treating me like an evil person. It was like being framed for murder and knowing you hadn’t killed anybody and still knowing that you were going to jail.”
The incident passed, but it had a profound effect on Thomas. It changed the
way he dealt with media, with strangers, even with some friends. It was the first major detour in a career that had seen only green lights.
And yet, he admits, it was probably good for him. It taught him something
— as has everything that happened last week. He has now been through glory. He has been through a mess. He has been hurt, and injured, and he is now a father. Perhaps fate was just waiting until all that arrived before giving him a crack at an NBA championship.
“It’s better this way,” he says, pulling his legs up on the bed, looking, still, like a baby angel in a man-sized body. “You know, no matter what kind of job you have, you have to work your way up. You start in the mail room, you work, work, work, and you move up the ladder. I don’t think I would have enjoyed this or appreciated it this much if I began my career as president of the company — and ended up down in the mail room.
“I’d rather start in the mail room and go the other way around. . . .” Which brings us to today’s game, definitely a top-floor affair. Call it the biggest in the history of the franchise — and how many times have you heard that in the last three weeks? So far, in this rock-and-roll series against the Lakers, Thomas has been a key but not the star. Adrian Dantley would be a shoo-in for MVP should the Pistons win. Chuck Daly’s strategy and even the play of reserves John Salley, James Edwards and Vinnie Johnson have captured more attention than Isiah’s on- court performances.
All of which, says the captain, is just fine. “When I dreamed of being in an NBA championship, I never dreamed of being the MVP. I just dreamed of the celebration afterwards. . . .
“The way we’re playing this series is a tribute to our smarts. Against Washington, Chicago and Boston — those were series that were good for me. They said, ‘We’re not gonna let A.D. beat us.’ They focused on him. So A.D. said, ‘OK, this isn’t my series, it’s yours, you got to get us over the hump.’
“Now, this series, they’re saying, ‘We won’t let Isiah beat us.’ So I know to say, ‘A.D., James, Vinnie, you guys got to do it.’ That’s what’s so tough about our team. Everybody is ready to step right in and do it. You plug up one hole, and another one springs a leak.”
And the leaks and plugs do battle again today. How long have they waited? Long enough. And remember, Thomas has been in Detroit longer than any other member of the team, coaches included. Years went by where he dreamed of this moment, this series, this spotlight. And what surprises him now is that “it’s a battle of wills, not skills. It’s how strong you are upstairs. It’s who’s gonna be the first to say, ‘I quit.’ “
He shakes his head. “I thought your skills would come more into play, but the skills part has really been taken out.
“Trying to win an NBA championship has been the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.”
And if they do win it? If they capture the flag? What then? Champagne and TV cameras and interviews and book offers and endorsement contracts and Johnny Carson and new friends and agents and 24 hours a day of total lunacy. How bad will it be? How impossible will it get?
Are you kidding? After seven days’ worth of childbirth, a bad back and the hardest basketball of his life?
It’ll be a piece of cake.