Isiah defied the odds
"He'd cut your heart out to win. And he would put it right there on the floor in front of you, and he'd step on it. That's Isiah," says Pat Riley on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
He defied the odds just by escaping Chicago's West Side, but Isiah Thomas didn't stop there. Through two seasons at Indiana University and 13 with the Detroit Pistons, Thomas became synonymous with winning. He could shoot, pass and defend, but his ability to lead, as much as his talent, earned the 6-foot-1 point guard a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Thomas retired in 1994 with averages of 19.2 points and 9.3 assists. Two years later, as part of the NBA's 50th anniversary celebration, Thomas, who started 10 All-Star Games, was named one of the league's 50 greatest all-time players.
"He was a fierce competitor, leaving everything he had on the court," Magic Johnson said. "He did whatever was necessary to lead his team to victory."
Thomas hasn't slowed down since ending his playing career, bouncing from the Toronto Raptors' front office to the broadcast booth to brief ownership of the Continental Basketball Association. In July 2000, he returned to the state in which he first found fame, taking over as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. He lasted three seasons before he was fired. Then he went east, given the task of rebuilding the New York Knicks.
Isiah Lord Thomas III, the youngest of nine children, seven of them sons, was born April 30, 1961, in Chicago. His father, Isiah II, was an army veteran wounded in the battle of Saipan. He later attended trade school, learned to read blueprints and became the first black supervisor at International Harvester in Chicago. He was an avid reader who preached the importance of education. But when his plant closed, the only work he could find was as a janitor.
When Thomas was a young child, his father left. His mother, Mary, raised all nine children on her own in Chicago's tough West Side. On one occasion, gang members approached the Thomas residence to recruit the boys. Mary responded by pulling a shotgun on the gang members and threatening to kill them.
Despite her efforts, not all of Thomas' brothers could distance themselves from their environment. One became a pimp, another a gang leader. Several fell into the clutches of drugs -- as pushers and users. Young Isiah was the family's last hope; his brothers sheltered him, warning him about the dangers of gangs and the streets.
"They told me about the mistakes they had made so I wouldn't have to make them," Thomas said.
At an early age, Thomas focused on basketball. As a fourth grader, he played on a team of seventh and eighth graders at Our Lady of Sorrows. He hoped for a scholarship to one of the city's top Catholic League powers, Weber High School, but was turned down because, at 5-foot-6, he was considered too small.
Thomas instead attended St. Joseph's in Westchester, Ill., rising at 5:30 a.m. to make the 90-minute trip. After a rocky start academically, Thomas -- advised he would need at least a C average to obtain a college scholarship -- became an honor roll student.
As a junior, he led St. Joseph's to second in the state high school tournament. Recruited heavily by major colleges, Thomas chose Indiana, in part for his affinity to coach Bobby Knight and the opportunity to stay close to home.
Before playing his first collegiate game, Thomas starred in 1979 for the gold-medal winning Pan-American team coached by Knight in Puerto Rico. In the championship game, Thomas scored 21 points with five steals and four assists.
Back at Indiana for his sophomore season, Thomas was an All-American, averaging 16 points and 5.8 assists as he led the Hoosiers to a 26-9 national championship season. In the title game in Philadelphia, he scored a game-high 23 points in Indiana's 63-50 victory over North Carolina.
Speculation had run rampant that this would be Thomas' last year at Indiana. Ignoring the advice of Knight and former Indiana standout Quinn Buckner, Thomas declared himself eligible for the NBA draft three weeks after being voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
After the Dallas Mavericks selected Thomas' boyhood friend, Mark Aguirre, with the first pick of the draft, Detroit chose Thomas and signed him to a four-year, $1.6 million contract. With their rookie point guard averaging 17 points and 7.8 assists, the Pistons improved by 18 games (from 21-61 to 39-43) from the previous season. Thomas made the All-Rookie team after starting for the East in his first of 11 All-Star appearances.
In 1983, Thomas made the All-NBA second-team when he averaged 22.9 points, which would be his career high. The following year, under new coach Chuck Daly, he averaged 21.3 points and 11.1 assists and was voted first-team after leading the Pistons to a 49-33 record, the franchise's first winning season in seven years.
In making all-league first team again in 1985, Thomas recorded 1,123 assists (13.9 average), breaking the NBA record of 1,099 set by Detroit's Kevin Porter in 1979.
Along with his emergence as one of the NBA's brightest stars, Thomas became one of its most outspoken players. He caused a stir during the 1987 playoffs by parroting Dennis Rodman and saying that if Larry Bird were black he'd be just "another good guy" instead of being hyped as the league's best player. Thomas later apologized to Bird and claimed he was joking.
On the court, Thomas didn't do much kidding. After losing to the Boston Celtics in the 1987 East finals, Thomas took the Pistons a step further in 1988, when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games in the NBA Finals. Before each game of the series, Thomas and his friend Johnson exchanged kisses.
The teams played a rematch in 1989, and this time Thomas and the Pistons prevailed in a sweep for the first NBA title in franchise history. They gained their second the next year, beating the Portland Trail Blazers in five games with Thomas averaging 27.6 points, seven assists and 5.2 rebounds.
But for all his talent and two championship rings, Thomas wasn't one of the 10 NBA players selected for the original Dream Team, which represented the U.S. at the 1992 Olympics. "I should have been on it," Thomas said. "The way the team was picked, clearly I had accomplished more in basketball than nine of the guys on that team."
With his prime playing years behind him, Thomas planned for life after basketball. In 1992, he and a business partner bought the bankrupt company American Speedy Printing Centers and soon transformed it into the fourth-largest quick-printing chain in the country.
In May 1994, a month after tearing his Achilles' tendon, the Pistons' all-time leader in points (18,822), assists (9,061) and steals (1,861), announced his retirement as a player. Three days later, he became part-owner and executive vice-president of the Raptors.
After failed attempts to buy controlling interest in the team, Thomas sold his share of the Raptors in late 1997 following a rift with majority owner Allan Slaight. He then joined NBC as an analyst.
In 1999, he bought the floundering CBA for $10 million. A year later, he replaced Bird as Pacers coach, signing a $20-million, four-year contract. Told by the NBA that he had to divest himself of his CBA interests, Thomas put the league in a blind trust. The league went bankrupt in February 2001 and team owners blamed Thomas, saying he defaulted on payments.
In August 2003, Thomas was fired as Pacers coach by Bird, who earlier in the summer was named the team's president of basketball operations. Indiana went 131-115 in the regular season under Thomas, making the playoffs all three years but losing in the first round each season.
In December, Thomas went back to the front office when the Knicks hired him as their president. In June 2006, after failing to turn around the struggling franchise and firing four head coaches in less than three years, Thomas also got the job of coaching the overpriced, underachieving team he created. Although New York finished 33-49 in 2006-07, Thomas received a contract extension late in the season.