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

You can’t run your own farewell party. Sometimes, you can’t even attend it. Today, in his house in Bloomfield Hills, crutches by his side, heel in a splint, Isiah Thomas no doubt realizes this.

And it must bother him. He had hoped for a better ending, a cleansing rinse on his long career, dotted toward the end with unanswered questions, bad press, injuries, and snickers from longtime critics.

A good retirement would take care of that. People lighten up at retirements, they say nice things, concentrate on victories, championships, they hang phrases around your neck, like “greatest guard in Piston history” or “a guy who reinvented his position.”

And then, for Isiah Thomas, there was something else: the World Championships this summer. Dream Team II. One more chance to play for a winner. This would help compensate for the worst snub of his career, being left off the original Dream Team of 1992, a team he felt he should have been on, a team that not only made history in winning an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, but turned each of its players into international superheroes.

It was like missing the gravy train. There were Dream Team trading cards, Dream Team posters, Dream Team photos on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They were huge. The greatest players of his era — and Thomas was not amongst them.

It hurt. This summer might have made up for it. Had everything gone according to plan. No Dream Team for Thomas

It didn’t, of course. Tuesday night, in the third quarter of his last game at the Palace, Thomas, 32, made a basketball move like a million basketball moves he’d made before. This time, he felt a pop between his calf and his heel, as if someone had shot him. He pulled up and grimaced in pain.

The Good-bye Look.

“At least I left it out on the court,” Thomas said later, bravely, acknowledging that his Achilles tendon injury would need six months to heal. Still, what kind of court was this to leave it on? A Tuesday night on a losing team with a losing record about to lose again? Was that where he wanted his final footprints?

Well. As John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re busy making plans. Thomas no doubt hoped this summer would send him off in a better light. He’d be the elder statesman on a world championship team, surrounded by famous names like Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson. He’d be profiled by the international media, hailed as a future Hall of Fame player, and share the glow of the good light of the team.

And, assuming the U.S. won, he would leave the stage with one more ring.

Who knows? Maybe this would lead to endorsement deals, broadcasting jobs — at the very least, a less-mixed reputation than he has right now.

Instead, Wednesday night, a doctor cut open Thomas’ heel, saw a tendon that looked like a frayed shoelace, did what he could, then stitched him up, and sent him home. Isiah sits there today, as the Pistons play their last game of the season.

Is that any way to treat a legend? Until now, he called the shots

There’s an old story about Calvin Coolidge, who announced that he would not seek re-election as president. A reporter asked him why. “Because,” Coolidge quipped, “there’s no chance for advancement.”

Such is the peril of being on top. No place to go but down. Thomas faced this in his career, saw the championship Pistons fall from grace, lose players one by one, to trade, to waiver wire, to retirement. The coaches changed. The attitude slipped. Thomas seemed to make headlines only through controversy, an alleged gambling probe, the punch to Bill Laimbeer’s head, etc.

After Tuesday’s injury, Thomas tried to be philosophical by saying,
“I’ve never been one to write the script” — but that is not true. Thomas has always wanted to write the script. And in many cases he succeeded, like the time he left college early for a pro career; or the times he went on scoring blitzes and transformed defeats into victories; or the time he decided it would be better not to shake Michael Jordan’s hand at the NBA Finals, and deliberately walked past him.

That was not fate shaping Isiah.

That was Isiah shaping fate.

Which makes his finish seem so strange. The whole retirement thing was handled badly, management seemed confused, Thomas was out with the flu, no one seemed to know what he would do next, or what arrangements he’d made with the team’s owner, Bill Davidson. The result was a hastily whipped- up farewell that ended, abruptly, with Thomas limping into the losing night. You keep blinking to see if that’s really it.

Funny. After Coolidge left the White House, he had to fill out a form that asked “Occupation?” He wrote, “Retired.” Next came “Remarks?” He wrote “Glad of it.”

Isiah Thomas deserves to say the same. Somehow, I don’t think he feels it.


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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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