Commentary

One tough (but sweet) mother

Mary Thomas strongly influenced her son, NBA Hall of Famer Isiah

Updated: January 17, 2010, 6:07 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

They called her "Dear," which was short for "Mother Dear," not to be confused with "Mommie Dearest," but not to be taken too lightly, either.

When Mary Thomas died Wednesday morning at age 87, leaving seven children and 50-plus grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- "We really have to count again," said her daughter Ruby Carlsen -- her youngest son Isiah was overwhelmed by the void she leaves. Her sweetness and toughness and love had no limits.

One thing is for sure: What Mary Thomas wanted out of life never had a price tag dangling from it. Still, that never stopped Isiah from trying. He bought her a new house in a nice suburb, and she resisted going. He bought her furs, and she would carry them over her arm.

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Sam Forencich/Getty ImagesIsiah Thomas once treated his mom to a shopping trip along Michigan Avenue, a la the scene from "Pretty Woman."

And then there was that memorable trip to the Prada store in downtown Chicago one summer when he came home from Detroit.

It was right after the movie "Pretty Woman" came out, and he re-enacted the scene in which Richard Gere escorts Julia Roberts into a ritzy story on Rodeo Drive and, with a flick of his credit card, instructs the staff to give her whatever she wants and with as much sucking up as possible.

"That was a great day," Isiah recalled. "I got her a big limousine and brought her downtown, and we walked in and I told the people working, 'This is my pretty woman, and she needs a lot of sucking up.'

"I remember I took pictures, and one of my screensavers was of my mom standing outside next to the limousine, a cigarette in her mouth and Prada bags all around her."

And then Mary came home with the purses and scarves and shoes and put them away with the other beautiful clothes she got from her famous son, which is where Ruby found them, many unworn, as she looked in their mother's room Thursday morning.

"My mother never changed," concluded Ruby, older sibling by 12 years to NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.

On Wednesday night, Isiah and Ruby and their brothers sat with their mother in the hospital room waiting for the mortuary to come pick her up.

"She had the most beautiful smile on her face," Ruby said, "and we sat there for the longest time with her. Then we came home and just started talking about all the things she did with us."

Ruby told her 19-year-old daughter that it isn't every kid who can say her grandmother was the subject of a movie. But Mary was. "A Mother's Courage" starred Alfre Woodard, who won an Emmy for her portrayal of a tireless and spirited single mother raising her nine children on Chicago's West Side and fighting City Hall to keep her family from being moved against their will to an even more dangerous housing project.

The family pulled it out and watched it again Wednesday night.

In the most famous scene in the movie, gang members come to her front door to recruit the Thomas boys, and Mary greets them with a shotgun and a stern warning: "There's only one gang here, and that's the Thomas gang."

"And that was really the truth," Ruby said. "That's how it was."

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Glenn James/Getty ImagesWhen it came time to choose, Isiah Thomas' mother made the announcement as to where her son would play his college ball.

It took Isiah 90 minutes, two bus transfers and the train to get to Westchester and St. Joseph's High School. Coach Gene Pingatore never knew exactly whom to thank, but it helped when the principal at St. Mel's, where some of Isiah's brothers had gone, took the job as principal at St. Joe's.

Mary dropped off her baby and had one message for the coach.

"She told me, 'If you ever have trouble with him, you let me know and I'll straighten it out,'" Pingatore recalled. "With parents today, their kid is never wrong. Mary was loving but fair."

When the college recruiters came in, Ruby said, "it didn't matter that we didn't have anything. All she wanted was for her son to be able to go to college and get his degree. I don't think Bobby Knight ever met anyone who could stand up to him like my mother did."

It was Mary who announced where her son would go to school.

"Kids nowadays, they get to decide," Isiah said. "When I was coming up, my mom had a press conference and said, 'We decided my son is going to Indiana.'"

She was all of 5-foot-4 and 112 pounds on her best day, but Mary Thomas didn't back down to anybody. Still, it was her softness for which she will also be remembered.

"There wasn't anything my mother wouldn't do for her family," Ruby said, "but it wasn't only her kids. We didn't have anything ourselves growing up, but she would go over to the reform school near us, on her own, and bring those kids back home. We had more kids living at our house. If she had one bean left, she shared it."

They're calling now, many of them, to tell the Thomas kids that Mary took them in once. She worked at the youth center in the neighborhood, and when someone would run in to report trouble between gang members on the street, Mary wouldn't hesitate.

"My mother would come running out of the house and get right in between the gangs," Ruby said with a stifled laugh. "And they had so much respect for her, they'd listen."

Isiah laughs softly as well.

"You know, it's funny," he said. "We look back on those times, and we just thought our mom was so courageous. But looking back now, you see how insane it was, standing in front of bullets and gangs and everything else. There was just a certain amount of comfort we all got and the neighborhood got from having her in it. Not only was she the mother to us, but the mother to all the gangs, the mother to women on the street. She saw human decency and goodness in everyone she met.

"At her funeral Monday, there definitely will be people from all walks of life. There will be a lot of people in that church she bonded out of jail and made them put their guns away."

Her demands of her children were simple and not up for debate. Whatever you do, she told them, be the best at it. Stand up and fight for what you believe in.

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Getty ImagesWhen it was time for Isiah Thomas to graduate from the University of Indiana, he had his mother stand in his place while he was in Atlanta.

When Isiah left Indiana for the NBA after just two seasons, she drew up a "contract," on a scrap of paper, making him promise he would get his college degree. Years later, when the Pistons were in the NBA playoffs, Mary was invited to Bloomington, ostensibly to accept an award on her son's behalf. The family had no idea he had gone back to school.

When she arrived, she was given his cap and gown, which she wore to accept his diploma.

"That was one of the best days of my life," he said. "It was Mother's Day, and we were playing the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs, and I had the winning shot at home, and she graduated for me on that day. But it was more exciting and more fulfilling to me to have my mom put on my cap and gown, knowing how much she believed in education, and to stand there with the other with college graduates, and to feel that moment and be a part of that moment. That was a hundred times better than making that last shot."

Mary didn't let up on any of her children. Once, when a Sports Illustrated photographer came to Chicago to do a family photo session, "one of my brothers made a mistake and said a word not to my mother's liking," Ruby said, "and she turned around and almost knocked him out. And he was old."

One of the first things Mary did when Isiah turned pro was to go back to Our Lady of Sorrows, the same church that had helped feed her children, and get the names of all the families in need so the Thomas family could help them. She also delivered boxes of gym shoes to kids on the West Side.

"My mom was very simple and very humble, and she loved helping people," Isiah said. "On her dresser in her bedroom, she has a saying: 'What's done in life soon will pass. What's done with love will always last.'

And it was with only an unconditional love that Mary Thomas viewed her son even in the darkest times, such as in late 2007 when a jury awarded a multimillion dollar judgment to a former New York Knicks executive who sued the then-team president for sexual harassment.

"She just had a way of looking at you," Isiah said of his mother, "that when you looked in her eyes, it was all right. The way she observed me and perceived me and the way she looked at me, I felt like most loved person in the world, and I'm going to miss that."

In February 2008, before she underwent surgery that would claim her leg and nearly her life, mother and son had what he thought might be their last dinner together. He brought in all of her favorite foods and the best desserts from her favorite restaurants and served it by candlelight in her hospital room.

"It was pretty decadent, if I do say so myself," he said. "Of course, she couldn't eat it all. But I loved spoiling her."

The next day, he met his Knicks team in Milwaukee.

"She told me to leave, and I left," he said. "I didn't know if, when I got back, she'd still be alive. I'll never forget when she woke up. She had had her leg amputated, and when she opened her eyes, everyone was pretty excited that she had come out of it. And the first thing she said was, 'Who the hell cut my leg off?' She was [angry].

"With that, everyone was laughing and holding and hugging and saying, 'Yeah, she's back.'"

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.