When a basketball player arrives for a press conference on crutches, you pretty much have your lead for the early editions when the story is the next day’s game.
_______ WON’T PLAY, the ensuing headline should scream.
But the name in the blank was Isiah Thomas’s, which means that all bets were off.
When a team is down by ten points with about a minute left in a playoff game, you’d think that you could start pounding out the beginnings of your opening graph for the editor.
“The Pistons fell last night, to the New York Knicks …” it would say.
But the leader of the team was Isiah Thomas, which means such an opening sentence wasn’t necessarily fait accompli.
When a basketball player limps up and down the court, grimacing in pain, you’d figure that he’s soon to be removed from the game.
But the limping player was Isiah Thomas, and the contest was Game 6 of the NBA Finals, so leaving simply wasn’t an option.
Truth? I’d rather remember Thomas in this manner – as the shrimp-sized leader with the lion-sized heart who practically willed his team to victory. I’d rather recall him as the little dude who proved all the experts wrong – those who said you can’t build a championship basketball team around a point guard.
I’d just as soon remember all that, rather than what he is today, which is a cartoonish symbol of all that is wrong with basketball in New York.
I’ve been watching professional basketball for 38 years, and no one – NO ONE – was a tougher son of a bitch on the floor than the Pistons’ cherubic Isiah Thomas. He was a smiling assassin – a mighty mite of a player who liked losing as much as getting a root canal without anesthesia. There were nights when the Pistons won solely because of Thomas’s will; there were nights when they lost despite his best efforts, because his teammates failed him. But never did they lose because of him.
That’s what it was, when Isiah Thomas was a player. When his work attire was Nike, not Armani.
Today, Thomas is out of work for all intents and purposes, given the ziggy by the Knicks as their coach. Weeks ago, Thomas lost the first part of his hyphenated job – when the Knickerbockers hired longtime NBA man Donnie Walsh and thus displaced Thomas as team president. But Isiah remained as coach, until the season was over, and Walsh looked at the mess the 23-59 Knicks had become, and confirmed his status as a basketball genius by canning Thomas. The second half of the hyphenated job was now also pulled from Isiah’s grasp.
It’s what happens, though, when you have a year that included being confirmed as a sexual harasser by a former employee and then got worse, if you can imagine. There were feuds with players and nightly chants of “Fire Isiah” coming from the loge seats at Madison Square Garden. And there was losing, always the losing. Unlike when he played the game, Isiah was now the cause of the losing. Walsh didn’t earn his reputation as a brilliant basketball man by not being able to discern such things.
The list of gaffes Isiah has made in Armani is nothing if not impressive in its variety: the failed attempt to guide the Continental Basketball Association, the failed attempt to guide the Toronto Raptors, the failed attempt to guide the Indiana Pacers. And now, the biggest and blackest eye: the soiling of basketball in New York.
It’s a New York game, basketball is. It starts on the playgrounds with the chain link nets and continues into the grammar schools and proceeds clear through until high school, where legends of the court have grown like corn does in Iowa. Upon graduation, the hoop stars are recruited into any one of the multitude of colleges within a puddle-jumping plane ride away from each other: Syracuse, Seton Hall, Rutgers, St. John’s. The elite, superstar high schoolers have the entire continental United States at their feet, begging them to enroll.
But the Knicks are still the straw that stirs the New York basketball drink. And Isiah has, in about four years since being handed the keys to the executive washroom, made that drink go flat. The Knicks are now a national joke, and that’s so unlike it used to be, when New York’s NBA team performed for the Garden patrons through the haze of cigar smoke and, along with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia Warriors, carried the league on their shoulders.
It used to be every New York kid’s dream to play for the Knicks – even though the league championship hasn’t called The Big Apple home since 1973. There was still an aura about the New York Knicks, even through some lean years. But it’s not an aura any longer; it’s a stench.
We might chuckle at Isiah’s Knicks from our comfy seat in Detroit, where the Pistons contend annually for NBA supremacy. But lest we not forget that had it not been for some loose Isiah lips, the Pistons very well could have been Thomas’s first post-playing career victim.
When Isiah retired in 1994, he helped leak a story: that he would become an integral part of the Pistons front office upon hanging up his sneakers. He encouraged the talk, and it was duly reported – even as, heaven forbid, actual fact.
This did not sit well at all with Pistons owner Bill Davidson, a fierce guardian of loyalty and trust. Davidson saw Isiah’s bragging as a breach of unwritten contract. For Thomas was not to have said anything until Davidson deemed it OK. So the man who traded the legendary Dave Bing over a contract dispute – Davidson never understood those, either – disowned Isiah Thomas. Never would Isiah, as long as Davidson was alive, be allowed to sit his fanny in any sort of leather chair in the Pistons front office. End of story.
So Isiah went elsewhere to scratch his basketball itch. He left a path of destruction in his wake. The New York Knicks are just the latest ruined entity. The Pistons could have been among them, had Thomas not opened his mouth too soon.
Happy Thanksgiving, seven months early!