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Isiah Lord Thomas III (/aɪˈzeɪ.ə/; born April 30, 1961), nicknamed "Zeke", is a retired American basketball player who played professionally for the Detroit Pistons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The 12-time NBA All-Star was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Thomas has also been a professional and collegiate head coach, a basketball executive, and a broadcaster.
Thomas played collegiately for the Indiana University Hoosiers. He went on to play professionally as point guard for the Pistons from 1981 until 1994 and led the "Bad Boys" to NBA championships in the 1988–89 and 1989–90 seasons. After his playing career, he was an executive with the Toronto Raptors, a television commentator, an executive with the Continental Basketball Association, head coach of the Indiana Pacers, and an executive and head coach for the New York Knicks. He was later the men's basketball coach for the Florida International University (FIU) Golden Panthers for three seasons from 2009 to 2012.
Thomas was born on April 30, 1961, in Chicago, Illinois. The youngest of nine brothers and sisters, he commuted from the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago to play high school basketball at St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois for Gene Pingatore. He would wake up at 5 am and commute 90 minutes to attend the private school. During his junior year, he led St. Joseph to the State Finals and was considered one of the top college prospects in the country.
Thomas was recruited to play college basketball for Bob Knight and the Indiana University Hoosiers. Although he received mail saying Knight tied up his players and beat them, he did not believe the rumors. When Knight visited the Thomas home, one of Isiah's brothers, who wanted him to attend DePaul, embarrassed him by insulting the Indiana coach and engaging him in a shouting match. Nevertheless, Thomas chose Knight and Indiana because he felt that getting away to Bloomington would be good for him, as would be Knight's discipline.
Thomas quickly had to adjust to Knight's disciplinarian style. At the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico Knight got so mad at Thomas he threatened to put him on a plane home. Knight recalled yelling at the freshman-to-be, "You ought to go to DePaul, Isiah, because you sure as hell aren't going to be an Indiana player playing like that." Prior to the start of his freshman year, the 1979-80 season, Knight became so upset with Thomas that he kicked him out of a practice. According to Thomas, Knight was making a point that no player, no "matter how talented, is bigger than Knight's philosophy."
However, Thomas quickly proved his skills as a player and became a favorite with both Knight and Indiana fans. Fans would display bed sheets with quotations from the Book of Isaiah ("And a little child shall lead them") and nicknamed him "Mr. Wonderful." Because of his relatively short stature (6'1" tall) Coach Knight would call Thomas "Pee Wee". Thomas was so superior to any of the other Indiana players that Knight had to adjust his coaching style. He and Mike Woodson led the Hoosiers to the Big Ten championship and advanced to the 1980 Sweet Sixteen.
The following year, the 1980-81 season, Knight made Thomas the captain and told him to run the show on the floor. Thomas responded so positively that, as the season unfolded, Knight and Thomas grew as friends. When a Purdue player took a cheap shot at Isiah in a game at Bloomington, Knight called a press conference to defend his star. And 19 days later, when Thomas hit an Iowa player and was ejected from a game, Knight refused to criticize Thomas.
That year Thomas and the Hoosiers once again won a conference title and won the 1981 NCAA tournament, the school's fourth national title. He earned the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award. Following his sophomore season and the Hoosiers' national championship, Thomas made himself eligible for the NBA Draft.
In the 1981 NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons chose Thomas with the No. 2 pick and signed him to a four-year $1.6 million contract. Thomas made the All-Rookie team and started for the Eastern Conference in the 1982 All-Star Game.
In the opening round of the 1984 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and the Pistons faced off against Bernard King and the New York Knicks. In the pivotal fifth game, Thomas was having a subpar performance, while Bernard King was having an excellent game. However, Thomas scored 16 points in the last 94 seconds to force the game into overtime. The Knicks, however, held on to win in overtime.
In the 1985 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and his team went to the conference semi-finals against the 15-time NBA champion Boston Celtics led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson. Detroit couldn't shake the Celtics in their six-game series, eventually losing.
In the 1987 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and the Pistons went to the Eastern Conference Finals and faced the Boston Celtics. It was the furthest the team had advanced since moving from Fort Wayne when they were the Zollner-Pistons. The Pistons were able to tie the Celtics at two games apiece. Detroit's hope of winning Game 5 was dashed at the Boston Garden with seconds remaining in a play by Larry Bird: Thomas attempted to quickly inbound the ball, Bird stole the inbound pass and passed it to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup.
In 1988, the Pistons' first trip to the Finals saw them face the Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Prior to the series, Thomas and Johnson would exchange a courtside kiss on the cheek prior to tip-off as a sign of their deep friendship. After taking a 3–2 series lead back to Los Angeles, Detroit appeared poised to win their first NBA title in Game 6.
One of Thomas' most inspiring and self-defining moments came in Game 6. Although he had severely sprained his ankle late in the game, Thomas continued to play. While hobbling and in obvious pain, Thomas scored 25 points in a single quarter of the game, an NBA Finals record. However, the Lakers won the game 103–102 on a pair of last-minute free throws by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following a controversial foul called on Bill Laimbeer. With Thomas unable to compete at full strength the Lakers were able to take advantage and clinched their second consecutive title in Game 7, 108–105.
In the 1988–89 season, Thomas, along with teammates Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, Vinnie Johnson, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards, John Salley, Bill Laimbeer, and Mark Aguirre, guided his team to a 63–19 win–loss record. Detroit played a brash and dominating brand of basketball through the playoffs that led to their nickname "Bad Boys". First they defeated Boston who had been suffering persistent injuries. The Pistons then defeated Michael Jordan and the up and coming Chicago Bulls in the Conference Finals to set up an NBA Finals rematch with the Lakers. Thomas and the Pistons then won their first of back-to-back championships when they defeated the Lakers in a 4-game sweep. The following year, Thomas was voted NBA Finals Most Valuable Player of the 1990 NBA Finals after averaging 27.6 points per game, 7.0 assists per game, and 5.2 rebounds per game in the series with Clyde Drexler's Portland Trail Blazers. The Pistons continued to play well between 1991 and 1993 but were not able to return to the NBA Finals as they were eclipsed by the growing Chicago Bulls dynasty. An aging and ailing Thomas decided to end his career at the end of the 1994 season, but he tore his Achilles' tendon in April 1994, forcing him to end his career as a player a month earlier.
Thomas was named to the All-NBA First team three times and is the Pistons' all-time leader in points, steals, games played and assists. He ranks fifth in NBA history in assists (9,061, 9.3 apg) and ranks ninth in NBA history in steals (1,861). Thomas was known for his dribbling ability as well as his ability to drive to the basket and score. His No. 11 was retired by the Detroit Pistons.
Thomas was selected to the 1980 Olympic team, but like all American athletes he was not able to play in Moscow due to the Olympics boycott. The boycotting countries instead participated in the gold medal series, a series of games against NBA teams, a French team and the 1976 Olympic gold medal team in various U.S. cities, recording a 5–1 record (losing to the Seattle SuperSonics). Thomas shot 22–55 from the field and 14–17 from the line. He led the U.S. in assists with 37 (the next highest total on the team was 17) and averaged 9.7 points per game.
Despite his talent, Thomas was left off the original Olympic Dream Team, possibly as a result of an alleged feud with Michael Jordan. In the book When the Game Was Ours, Magic Johnson relates that he, Jordan and other players conspired to keep Thomas off the Dream Team.
After Tim Hardaway left the team due to injury he was named to Dream Team II for the 1994 World Championship of Basketball, but did not play due to his Achilles tendon injury that caused his retirement. He was replaced by Kevin Johnson.
After retiring, Thomas became part owner and Executive Vice President for the expansion Toronto Raptors in 1994. In 1998, he left the organization after a dispute with new management over the franchise's direction and his future responsibilities. During his four-year tenure with the team, the Raptors drafted Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, and high schooler Tracy McGrady.
After leaving the Raptors, Thomas became a television commentator (first as the lead game analyst with play-by-play man Bob Costas and then as part of the studio team) for the NBA on NBC. Thomas also worked a three-man booth with Costas and Doug Collins.
Thomas became the owner of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) from 1998 to 2000. Thomas purchased the CBA for $10 million, and in 2001 the league was forced into bankruptcy and folded, shortly after NBA Commissioner David Stern decided to create his own development league, the NBDL, to replace the CBA. Many CBA managers blamed Thomas for the league's failure, citing mismanagement and out-of-control spending on his part. At the time of the league's collapse the managing of the CBA was in a blind trust, due to Thomas' position as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.
From 2000 to 2003, Thomas coached the Indiana Pacers, succeeding Larry Bird, who previously coached the Pacers to the Eastern Conference title. Thomas attempted to bring up young talents such as Jermaine O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley, Al Harrington, and Jeff Foster. However, under Thomas the Pacers were not able to stay at the elite level as they went through the transition from a veteran-dominated, playoff-experienced team to a younger, less experienced team. In Thomas's first two seasons with the Pacers, the team was eliminated in the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets, both of whom eventually made the NBA Finals.
In his last year with the Pacers, Thomas guided the Pacers to a 48–34 record in the regular season and coached the Eastern Conference team at the 2003 NBA All-Star Game. As the third seed, the Pacers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the sixth-seeded Boston Celtics. With blossoming talents such as Jermaine O'Neal, Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Al Harrington and Jamaal Tinsley, along with the veteran leadership of Reggie Miller, the perception existed that the Pacers' unfulfilled potential stemmed from Thomas' inexperience as a coach. In the offseason, Larry Bird returned to the Pacers as President of Basketball Operations, and his first act was to replace Thomas with Rick Carlisle.
In 2000, Thomas was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
On December 22, 2003, the New York Knicks hired Thomas as President of Basketball Operations. Thomas was ultimately unsuccessful with the Knicks roster and fanbase. At the end of the 2005–06 season, the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league and the second-worst record. He traded away several future draft picks to Chicago in a deal for Eddy Curry including what turned out to be two lottery picks in talent-rich drafts.
On June 22, 2006, the Knicks fired coach Larry Brown, and owner James Dolan replaced him with Thomas under the condition that he show "evident progress" or be fired.
During the following season the Knicks became embroiled in a brawl with the Denver Nuggets, which Thomas allegedly instigated by ordering his players to commit a hard foul in the paint. However, he was not fined or suspended. NBA Commissioner David Stern said that he only relied on "definitive information" when handing out punishments. Later in the season, nine months after James Dolan demanded "evident progress", the Knicks re-signed Thomas to an undisclosed "multi-year" contract. After Thomas was granted the extension, the Knicks abruptly fell from playoff contention with a dismal finish to the season.
During the 2007 Draft, Thomas made another trade by acquiring Zach Randolph, Fred Jones, and Dan Dickau from the Portland Trail Blazers for Steve Francis and Channing Frye.
Thomas also compounded the Knicks' salary cap problems by signing fringe players such as Jerome James and Jared Jeffries to full mid-level exception contracts. Neither player saw any significant playing time and both were often injured and highly ineffective when able to play.
Despite the constant criticism that he received from Knicks fans, Thomas maintained that he had no intention of leaving until he turned the team around and he predicted that he would lead the Knicks to a championship, stating that his goal was to leave behind a "championship legacy" with the Knicks, just as he had done for the Detroit Pistons. This prediction was met with widespread skepticism.
On April 2, 2008, Donnie Walsh was introduced to replace Thomas as President of Basketball Operations for the Knicks. Walsh would not comment definitively on whether or not Thomas would be retained in any capacity at the time of his hiring.
One night after the Knicks tied a franchise record of 59 losses and ended their season, news broke that in talks with Walsh the week before, Thomas had been told he would not return as Knicks head coach the following season. He was officially "reassigned" on April 18 "after a season of listless and dreadful basketball, a tawdry lawsuit and unending chants from fans demanding his dismissal." Thomas posted an overall winning percentage of .341 as head coach of the Knicks, fifth lowest in team history. As part of the reassignment agreement, Thomas was to serve as a consultant to the team, reporting directly to Walsh. However, he was banned from having contact with any Knicks' players under the rationale that he could willingly or unwillingly undermine the new head coach.
On April 14, 2009, Thomas accepted an offer to become the head basketball coach of FIU, replacing Sergio Rouco after 5 losing seasons. Thomas announced that he would donate his first year's salary back to the school. Thomas was quoted as saying, "I did not come here for the money."
After posting a 7–25 record in his first season at FIU, on August 6, 2010, Thomas announced that he was taking a job as consultant to the New York Knicks, while keeping his position as head coach at FIU. According to the New York Daily News, "nearly every major media outlet panned the announcement of Thomas' hire," and it led to a "public outcry" among fans. In a reversal on August 11, Thomas announced that he would not be working with the Knicks because holding both jobs violated NBA by-laws.
Thomas finished his second season at FIU with an 11–19 record (5–11 in conference games). On April 6 Thomas was fired at FIU, after he went 26–65 in three seasons. Under Thomas, FIU never won more than 11 games in a season.
On December 19, 2012, NBA TV announced that Thomas would begin work on December 21, 2012 as a member of the studio analyst panel. It was also announced that Thomas would become a regular contributor for NBA.com.
Thomas finished his college degree at Indiana University during the Pistons’ off seasons and received his Master’s in Education from the University of California at Berkeley in 2013. At UC Berkeley, Thomas studied the connection between education and sports, specifically how American society makes education accessible (or inaccessible) to black male college athletes.
During his playing career, Thomas paid college tuition for more than 75 youngsters. When he was a Piston, in 1987 Thomas organized the “No Crime Day” in Detroit. He even had the help of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young to call for a moratorium on crime in the summer of 1986.
Thomas founded Mary’s Court, a foundation that supports economically disadvantaged parents and children in the communities of Garfield Park and Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago. The charity is named for Thomas’s mother, who he credits with instilling in him the importance of hard work and giving back to the community. Mary’s Court has teamed up with another Chicago-based charity, Kids off the Block, to serve meals to Chicago children and families during Thanksgiving. While at FIU, Thomas and Mary’s Court donated $50,000 to FIU’s First Generation Scholarship and organized a sell-out charity game during the NBA lockout featuring NBA stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, with proceeds benefiting Mary’s Court. A street on Chicago’s West Side was named in honor of his mother.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys & Girls Club of Chicago recognized Thomas’ philanthropic work in March 2012 and honored him with the organization’s King Legacy Award at their 24th Annual King Legacy Awards Gala. The award is given annually to individuals who have fostered the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through their community contributions.
In July 2012, Thomas joined the The Black Men's Roundtable in Florida along with other national and local black leaders to discuss issues that directly impact black males.
In September 2012, Thomas co-hosted the Ballin for Peace Tournament at St. Sabina Church in Chicago, IL. Thomas came together with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Quentin Richardson, Zach Randolph, the Chicago Bears’ J'Marcus Webb, pastor Michael Pfleger, and others to throw this event in order to reduce gang violence through communication and basketball. Thomas also stressed the value of education for those in poverty.
In the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, Thomas was joined on the Eastern Conference squad by star rookie Michael Jordan. Jordan wound up attempting nine shots, a relatively low number for a starting player. Afterward, Thomas and his fellow veteran East players were accused of having planned to "freeze out" Jordan from their offense by not passing him the ball, supposedly out of spite over the attention Jordan was receiving. No player involved has ever confirmed that the "freeze-out" occurred, but the story has been long reported, and has never been refuted by Jordan. Thomas has ridiculed the idea of him being the mastermind behind a supposed "freeze-out" as being "ludicrous" citing that he was a relatively young player on a team including Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Moses Malone. During Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame Induction, a ceremony in which Thomas introduced John Stockton, who was also being inducted, Jordan dismissed the concerns about a freeze-out having taken place, saying "I was just happy to be there, being the young guy surrounded by all these greats, I just wanted to prove myself and I hope that I did prove myself to you guys."
In the Eastern Conference Finals of the 1991 NBA Playoffs, the two-time defending champion Detroit Pistons faced the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls for the fourth consecutive season in the playoffs. The Pistons had defeated the Bulls in each of the first three meetings, but this time they suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls (who would win the first of three consecutive, and six overall, NBA championships between 1991 and 1998). The series was marked by a number of verbal, physical, and match-up problems. With 7.9 seconds remaining in the fourth game, Thomas and all of his teammates—except Dumars and Salley—walked off the court, refusing to shake hands with the members of the Bulls. In 1992, Thomas was passed over for the Dream Team apparently due to his relationship with Jordan.
In January 2006, Thomas and Madison Square Garden were part of a sexual harassment lawsuit by former executive Anucha Browne Sanders. After Sanders won the lawsuit the case was then settled out of court for $11.5 million.
On October 24, 2008, Thomas was taken to White Plains Hospital Center near his New York City area home after taking an overdose of Lunesta, a form of sleep medication. According to Harrison, New York police, they were called to Thomas's house, where, finding him unconscious but breathing, they had him transported to the hospital. Police Chief David Hall stated that they "are calling this an accidental overdose of a prescription sleeping pill.” He was released from the hospital later that day.
In the opinion of Harrison Police Chief David Hall, Thomas tried to "cover up" the incident by claiming his 17-year old daughter required medical treatment when in actuality he was the patient. Referring to Thomas' 17-year-old daughter, Hall said, "And why they're throwing her under the bus is beyond my ability to understand."
According to Thomas, in an interview with ESPN, his daughter had been taken to the hospital earlier in the day, and he was also admitted to the hospital after he accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills. Thomas also denied that it was a suicide attempt, and explained that he was so quiet about his hospitalization because he was focused on his daughter and family at the time.
Due to Thomas' many failures that occurred during his tenure with the New York Knicks, fans at Madison Square Garden boo the unrelated Isaiah Thomas, who is currently a point guard for the Sacramento Kings. The similarities in names may have played a factor in this controversy.
National champion Conference regular season champion Conference tournament champion Conference regular season and conference tournament champion Conference division champion52
Isiah Thomas is ranked on: