Heal the sick, raise the dead,
Make the little girls go out of their head
— From the song “Seventh Son”
Well, Isiah Thomas can’t do all that. Can he? Raise the dead? No. Not that I know of, anyhow. True, he is a seventh son. And true, he can do almost everything else. Especially if it involves a basketball.
Lately, he has been doing more of it than even the most desperate coach has a right to expect. On Saturday night, against the 76ers, he played “in a zone most players are never going to see,” said coach Chuck Daly. He scored 34 points. Monday night, he scored 31 against the Utah Jazz in a 117-96 Pistons win. That capped several weeks of NBA magnificence, including an MVP award from the All-Star game, which makes him, what? The best of the best?
More importantly, the Pistons have won 14 of their last 18 games. It was only a month ago that the team was at low ebb. Not coincidentally, it was about that time that Thomas dropped his gearshift into overdrive.
“I was speaking to my brother over the phone,” Thomas said, “and he said,
‘Junior, you’re holding back. I can see it when you’re playing.’
“When I hung up, I realized he was right. There was a certain energy level missing. A certain creativeness. I thought I was doing it to help the team. Trying to make sure everyone else was involved first. But maybe I kinda hurt us.”
He revved up his engine. That burst — and a revived Kelly Tripucka — have helped the Pistons reach smoother waters. “Best stretch he’s played all year,” Daly said of Thomas’ last 15 games. Thomas’ rule of thumb is golden That shouldn’t be a surprise. The great ones always treat team slumps like an alarm clock. It rings. They rise. And they shine.
It’s one form of leadership. And, while Thomas may be the shortest player on the roster, his leadership on the Pistons is, as Daly puts it,
But Isiah Thomas, team captain, doesn’t wear his stripes the way a lot of other athletes do. Sitting in the locker room after Monday’s practice, looking very much like a schoolkid in his jacket and gloves, he talked about his leading role. He sounded nothing like Knute Rockne.
“Well,” he said, “I think it’s extremely important that we all get along. It’s important that Chuck Nevitt (the 12th man on the team) can go out to dinner with Earl Cureton and have a good time. And if Earl’s not around, he can go with Bill Laimbeer and have an equally good time. I feel we have to be friends, that we should love each other.”
Now, I’ve heard a lot of theories on leadership. Quarterbacks who believe in kicking their linemen in the butt. Coaches who believe the same color socks will improve the players’ character. As far as I can recall, Isiah Thomas is the first guy I’ve ever come across who is concerned that the team’s weakest player not feel out of sorts at dinner with one of the stars. I think it’s remarkable.
Friends? Love each other? What is this stuff? Where’s the “I’m in charge here” so often found in other all-star players?
“If we have a team meeting (something Thomas will call if he feels it necessary) I want to say, ‘Kent Benson, what do you think the problem is?’ Then, ‘Joe Dumars, what do you think?’ Then Rick Mahorn. Then Kelly. And so on down the line. Everybody counts the same.”
He fiddles with his gloves, his eyes lowered. “To a lot of people, being a leader means being a dictator,” he said softly. “I just think you should make people feel good about themselves.”
From goodness comes strength The seventh son, according to legend, is supposed to be magical, lucky and blessed with special healing powers. Isiah’s brother Mark — one of six older brothers — claims this is why Isiah made it so far out of the Chicago ghetto in which they were raised.
Isiah laughs uncomfortably at the theory. “It’s spooky,” he said. “It makes me feel like, I don’t know . . . like I’m not normal.”
Oh, but he’s normal, all right. In fact, that may be his greatest asset. At 24, he is unquestionably a superstar, even among superstars. Yet despite his soaring talent, Thomas’ feet remain firmly in touch with the ground. He does not smoke. He drinks orange juice at cocktail parties. On the practice court, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear he was the 12th man, whose survival depended on how much he kept the others entertained. He teases. He throws play punches. He never acts as if he’s above doing drills.
It’s a curious type of leadership. But I like it. I believe Thomas is keeping a flame alive. Something about comradeship, something about leading with goodness, not merely strength. Maybe, as his brother suggests, it’s in his stars. Maybe not. I don’t know. But I get the sense that if basketball had a son, it might seriously consider naming him Isiah. It could do a whole lot worse.
CUTLINE Isiah Thomas