Thomas taking his lumps for now but he will bounce back

April 22, 2008 7:00 PM
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Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein | It isn’t exactly Greek tragedy, and no benefits will be necessary, thank you, but the All-American athletic saga of Isiah Thomas ended – at least in New York – on a sad note last week.

Thomas emerged smiling, something he has done from the days of abject poverty as a child in Chicago, where – like so many top black athletes – he was raised in desperate financial straits by a determined and dedicated mother after Isiah’s father deserted her when Isiah was 3.

Thomas has played every role in basketball, and always at the top level of the game. He led his St. Joseph’s high school team to the Illinois state championship, starred for two years under Bobby Knight at Indiana, where he was an All-American and led the team to the NCAA title in 1981 before turning pro. He had made the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, but never got to play in Moscow because of the American boycott of the games. Then, for 12 straight years, he was named to the NBA’s All-Star game, a brilliant point guard for the Detroit Pistons. Along with Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, Thomas dominated that position in the pros. The Pistons evolved into the NBA’s notorious Bad Boys, and won back-to-back titles against the Lakers and Portland Trailblazers in 1989 and 1990. Thomas was named most valuable player in the 1990 championship series.

During those years one opposing coach called him "the baby-faced assassin," saying "he smiles at you, then cuts you down." But injury and age cut him down. He quit the game in 1994, and was named to its Hall of Fame six years later.

It became apparent early that Thomas had smarts, and not just street smarts. He became an owner and co-chairman of a national quick-printing company; played a role with an affiliate of Netjets, operated by Berkshire Hathaway; a partner in franchised popcorn stores; and, most significantly, the first African-American named to the board of governors of the Chicago Stock Exchange in its 100-year history.

He founded his own foundation for inner city kids in Detroit, was president of the NBA Players Association for five years, won dozens of honors, and became part owner and executive vice president of the Toronto Raptors, then an analyst for NBC, then owner of the Continental Basketball Association.

From there he returned to Indiana in 2000 to coach the NBA Pacers, getting them to the playoffs in all three years as head coach.

Off that shining performance, New York beckoned, and in 2003 he became president of basketball operations of the New York Knicks. Three years later, he was named head coach.

It turned out to be Thomas’ biggest mistake.

He once called coaching "probably the most significant impact you can have on a person’s life…by coaching him through adversity."

That may be true – it was for Thomas in his days as a player – but the magic mix didn’t work in the cauldron that is New York. Thomas is not the first coach to find that out. Before him, Dick McGuire, Red Holtzman, Willis Reed, Hubie Brown, Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Jeff Van Gundy and Larry Brown came and went.

Marring Thomas’s tenure at Madison Square Garden was the sordid story told by a female employee, Anucha Browne Sanders. She sued Thomas and the Garden, claiming sexual harassment, and won, big. The court awarded her $11.5 million in damages, a lot of money for whatever took place.

Sanders testimony about things Thomas is alleged to have called her triggered the devastating weapon of this century, a merciless barrage on the Internet. Some very vile and disgusting messages were posted by some very retarded fans, and the front page coverage wrote the first story in Isiah’s downfall. The Knicks’ hapless play on the court this year – 23 wins and 59 losses – in a city that cannot tolerate losers, wrote the second.

Three weeks ago Donnie Walsh, a longtime personal friend and early mentor to Thomas, and the man who hired him to coach the Indiana Pacers eight years ago, was named president of the Knicks, replacing his one-time pupil.

Then, last week, Walsh fired Thomas as coach, saying a new voice was needed to change the direction of the team.

This may be the low point in a storied career. But Isiah Thomas’ mother was not a loser or a quitter, and she did not raise one. He had promised her, when he left Indiana as a sophomore for the pros, that he would get a college degree, and he did, returning to his alma mater and earning one six years later.

You haven’t heard the last of Isiah Lord Thomas III. He is only 47, well off financially, and still smiling. This guy bounces.