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

All week long, I’ve heard people dismiss this new book which claims Isiah Thomas had a gambling problem. Not because they know Isiah. Not because they were at the house where these high-stakes dice games supposedly took place.

No. They dismiss it by saying, “I don’t believe anything that uses unnamed sources.”

I heard the same thing a few weeks ago, when all those charges were coming

out about the Michigan basketball program, charges that a booster had been funneling money to players for years. The critics’ response?

“I don’t believe anything that uses unnamed sources.”

To which I pose the following questions: Do you believe Watergate took place? Do you believe the Pentagon Papers took place? Do you believe the Kentucky basketball program once sent money to recruits in envelopes?

Because every one of those stories — and hundreds of other big-time scandals — began with unnamed sources.

And might never have come to light without them.

Hey, I haven’t got a clue if Isiah ever shaved points, rolled dice or took $56,000 home in a bedsheet after a night of gambling, as this new book claims. And unless some Michigan players admit taking money, or boosters admit giving it, we may never know if the charges facing the Wolverines’ program are true.

But just as I don’t believe something simply because it is in print — militia manifestos, for example — neither do I dismiss something simply because its sources are not identified.

Maybe because I know a little bit about how unnamed sources come about.

Some sources demand protection

They are not — as many people seem to think — the result of journalists desperate for any slice of dirty information.

More often than not, it is the source who insists “the only way I’ll talk about this is if you don’t use my name.” Any decent reporter still pushes. Any decent reporter still says, “Look, if you’re telling the truth, the right thing to do is to identify yourself.”

Most of the time, the sources still refuse. They want to protect themselves.

In the book that deals with Isiah, “Money Players,” co- author Armen Keteyian claims he has four or five different sources who spoke in front of lawyers when detailing the Pistons captain’s gambling nights. No, they did not want their names used — they were worried for their safety. And yes, Keteyian admits, this weakens his case.

But it doesn’t necessarily make it false.

Give yourself this little morals test. Say the president commits a crime but covers it up. If someone knows but is afraid of repercussions, is it better to stay silent? Or should he speak under the condition of anonymity?

Say a crime family is operating under the guise of a business. If someone knows but is afraid because he might end up dead, is it better to stay silent? Or should he speak under the condition of anonymity?

If a famous ballplayer is gambling huge sums with mobsters, and someone knows but is afraid he’ll be ostracized, fired, degraded by his friends, is it better to stay silent? Or should he speak, under the condition of anonymity?

Tough questions, huh?

Now you know what reporters go through.

Judge book on its merits

So you have a book that claims Isiah was a big gambler and suggests — never proves — that he might have shaved points to pay debts (the point-shaving charge, I admit, seems the most far-fetched. This, however, is merely a small part of one chapter.)

But still, Isiah now has this shadow that will follow him for years. And if he never did any of these things, then it is wrong, terribly unfair. A real injustice. Someone should pay.

On the other hand, Isiah, for a long time, made money and fame off an image that was often an act. He was not the angel that you saw in commercials. But he got rich just the same. Some would say that is terribly unfair, too.

It’s all part of living in the spotlight — an exaggerated, high-intensity place that is often no fun at all. The stakes are high. People are powerful. And witnesses are often intimidated.

The only smart approach is to take each case on its merits. If a story runs in the Weekly World News — where aliens meet Elvis Presley — you should have one standard. If a book is written by three reporters from ABC News, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times, you should have another.

You should also wonder why three such men would bother to write a book if they don’t strongly believe it’s true. And don’t say for the money, because most of these books don’t pay all that much. When you consider it took two years of writing, and you split it three ways, that’s really not a lot of cash.

Remember this: There were many people who wanted Watergate to go away. There were many people who refused to believe that Kentucky basketball was cheating; one critic even drove by the newspaper and fired a bullet through the window.

But both things proved correct — even though they began with unnamed sources.

So I never dismiss anything, and neither should you. Again, please, I am not accusing Isiah of anything. I did not write the book. But everyone should look at the facts. Read the book, then decide. It’s a dangerous society when you believe everything you’re told. But it’s just as dangerous when you put your hands over your eyes and ears.


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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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