After Detroit: The Strange Saga of Isiah Thomas

His tumultuous tenure with the Knicks has left Isiah as one of the most reviled figures in New York sports.

There was a time when Isiah Thomas had the city of Detroit in the palm of his little hand. A hand so small he couldn’t palm the basketball. But that never stopped the gritty kid from the streets of Chicago from being a superstar on the court: first in the Windy City as a prep standout, then as Bobby Knight’s floor leader for the Indiana Hoosiers, where as a sophomore he led the team to the NCAA title.

Knight loved Thomas’s fiery play, nicknaming his pint-sized guard “Pee Wee”. A first round pick of the Detroit Pistons, Thomas slowly guided the team to respectability and then greatness, winning back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. He was the undisputed leader of the Bad Boys – the first NBA team to eagerly embrace the dirty work of playing tough defense on every possession.

But since he left Detroit in 1994, Isiah has had a checkered career in basketball. Here’s a timeline with all of the bumps, bruises, embarrassments, and even a drug overdose in his post-Motown years:

April 19, 1994: This was supposed to be his farewell tour: Isiah had announced he was retiring after the season, his 13th for the Pistons. In a game at The Palace against the Orlando Magic, Isiah is getting beaten all over the court by a rookie guard named Anfernee Hardaway. Late in the third quarter, Isiah feels a pop in his ankle. It’s his Achilles tendon tearing. It’s the last in a series of injuries that plague Thomas in his final season. A hyper-extended knee, broken rib, broken hand, strained arch, calf injury, and cut hand had come first. “I felt like I got shot with a cannon,” Isiah said. He scores 12 points in the game on 4-of-18 from the field with six assists. The Pistons are routed 132-104. It’s the final time he played in the NBA.

True to his Chicago street background, Isiah is tough to the end. He walks off the court after the terrible injury.

“I don’t believe a basketball player should lay on the floor and cry when he’s hurt. I know guys growing up in my neighborhood today. If you’re a basketballer or a hooper, you take the pain.”

The injury serves to deprive Isiah of a dream: to play on the U.S. Basketball team in the World Championships.

Summer 1994: Even though his playing career has ended, at the age of 33, Isiah still has plenty of basketball left in his blood. Having been a Piston for his entire NBA career, and having enjoyed a good relationship with owner Bill Davidson, it’s assumed he would stay a part of the franchise. But Thomas is never offered a front office position with the Pistons. What made Isiah a great leader on the court – his ability to direct and take control of a game – also served to irritate people off the court.

October 1994: Feeling stung by the Pistons, Isiah bolts Detroit as abruptly as he and his teammates had shuffled off the court the afternoon back in 1991 when the Chicago Bulls had swept the Bad Boys in the Eastern Conference Finals. There are no handshakes and well wishes when Isiah leaves Motown. He’s hired as GM of the Toronto Raptors, an expansion team slated to join the NBA for the 1995-96 season.

Thomas has less than a year to assemble a team. He first hires Brendan Malone to be his coach, stealing him away from the Pistons where he’d been a highly regarded assistant. His next steps are taken in a special expansion draft held after the 1994-95 season. The Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies take turns scavenging players from the other NBA rosters. Isiah selects guard B.J. Armstrong from the Bulls with Toronto’s first selection. Pickings were pretty slim, and both expansion teams went for younger players with most of their first 5-6 picks. Things started to fall apart almost immediately for Isiah, however, when Armstrong announced that he would not play in Toronto. Thomas tried to convince Armstrong to change his mind, but eventually had to trade the guard. It was the first of many personnel issues he would encounter in Toronto.

Isiah did have one of his former teammates on his bench in Toronto that first season: shot blocker and NBA locker room comedian John Salley. But Salley was witness to a bizarre first season with the expansion team.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Salley said. “Every day in the newspaper was a full page explaining a referee’s call. They had to explain basketball to these people.”

The Raptors got off to a dubious beginning: on the eve of the first regular season game in franchise history, Isiah was awoke to a phone call telling him that guard Alvin Robertson had been arrested for kicking a naked prostitute out of his hotel room because he didn’t want to pay her. The Raptors bailed Robertson out of jail just hours before tip-off against the New Jersey Nets. Amazingly, Robertson goes 11-for-14 from the field and leads Toronto with 30 points as Isiah’s team wins the game, 94-79.

Isiah held the 7th pick in the ’95 NBA Draft. He chose Damon Stoudamire, a diminutive point guard out of the University of Arizona who was quickly nicknamed “Mighty Mouse.” In some ways, Stoudamire did “save the day” – winning NBA Rookie of the Year as he averaged 19 points and nine assists per. He was just the type of player Isiah loved – small, gutsy, with a chip on his shoulder. A mini-Isiah.

The Raptors posted a 21-61 record in their first season, then Isiah drafted center Marcus Camby in the ’96 Draft, hoping to pair the big man with his flashy young point guard. Camby had a great rookie season, as the team improved by nine games. Isiah brought in a new coach – Darrell Walker – another former Piston buddy. But despite the improvements in the standings and the young nucleus Isiah was building, the next season was a disaster both on the court and off.

The Raptors won just 16 games in the 1997-98 season. Walker was fired and replaced with Butch Carter, who had the Indiana roots that Isiah admired. But Isiah didn’t even see him finish the season. In December, after a 17-game losing streak put the team record at 1-19, majority owner John Bitove sold his interest the team, and Thomas tried to put together a deal to secure control of the franchise. When he failed, he resigned. Not long after he left, Stoudamire demanded a trade and was jettisoned to Portland.

Isiah’s legacy in Toronto was wiped away following the ’97-98 season when Camby was dealt to the Knicks and Tracy McGrady, another Isiah first round draft pick, was sent to Orlando a few years later. Thomas had actually drafted good players, defying the experts in picking Stoudamire, and had the core of a talented team, but ownership issues, front office dissension, and the difficulties of motivating players to want to play in Canada, where fan support was abysmal and the income taxes were suffocating, did him in.

August 3, 1999: Following his failed attempt to win ownership control of the Raptors, Isiah forked over $10 million to purchase the Continental Basketball Association, which essentially served as a development league for the NBA. The CBA had teams in mid-sized markets, mostly in the Midwest and the South. Thomas wishes to bring more young players into the CBA, so he reduces the weekly salary to make it less attractive to older former NBA players looking to hang on. He also spends money marketing the league and re-introduces a CBA All-Star Game. His changes draw notice, and in March of 2000 the NBA offers Isiah $11 million for the CBA. Thomas balks, expecting to make a larger profit for his investment. Shortly after they are rebuffed, the NBA launches their own plans for a development leagues, effectively killing the CBA. Isiah stays as principal owner of the CBA for about a year longer, but eventually the CBA is sent into bankruptcy. Several team owners are furious with Isiah for what they say is his mismanagement and destruction of the CBA.

September 2000: Isiah is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. In his speech, he still displayed the “little man syndrome” that helped him become a legend on the hardwood. “Not that I wanted to be bigger, but I wanted them to be smaller. Because if we were all the same size, I would have killed them.”

October 2, 2000: Isiah is announced as the new head coach of the Indiana Pacers, returning to the state where he was a college star under Bobby Knight. He replaced Larry Bird, an even more beloved Hoosier. Bird had been wildly successful on the sidelines, guiding the Pacers to two conference finals and the NBA Finals in his last season. But Bird had promised to only coach for three years, and he kept his word. Isiah immediately tried to put his stamp on the team, again wanting to bring in young players. He had success with young guys like  Jermaine O’Neal, Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Al Harrington and Jamaal Tinsley, but he wasn’t able to bring the Pacers back to the Finals. In three seasons his teams played just above .500 and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs each year. Fans blamed Isiah’s lack of coaching experience, and when Bird returned in 2003 as President of Basketball Operations, his first move was to let Isiah go.

December 22, 2003: He didn’t stay unemployed for very long. The New York Knicks hired Isiah to be their President of Basketball Operations, hoping to reverse a downward spiral. The team had not made the playoffs the last two seasons and their roster was aging and mismatched. Like in Toronto, Thomas again had complete control regarding basketball decisions. The hiring however, seemed doomed from the start.

First, Isiah was not a popular figure in the Big Apple. His mediocre record as a Pacers head coach didn’t impress the fans or the media and he was under fire immediately. His early roster decisions also pissed off the players who remained with the Knicks. They saw their friends being pushed out of New York. In contrast to his earlier MO, Isiah turned to veteran players on his arrival in New York. He brought in Anfernee Hardaway, the guard who had schooled him in his final NBA game, he brought in Lenny Wilkens, a legendary coach but by 2003 a fossil who players were unresponsive to.

The Knicks made the playoffs in the first season of the Isiah Era, but never did again. Thomas made a series of disastrous trades, the worst when he dealt multiple draft picks to the Bulls for center Eddie Curry. Two of the picks ended up being lottery picks, while Curry started just 208 games for the Knicks in five injury-riddled seasons. Thanks to his own ego and his solid relationship with team owner James Dolan, Isiah named himself head coach prior to the 2006-07 season, replacing Larry Brown, who lost 59 games in his only season under Thomas. By this time, Knicks fans were ready to hang Isiah from the Madison Square Garden rafters.

As coach, Thomas was overmatched in New York, wilting under the spotlight. His team won just 56 games in two seasons. Most frustrating to Isiah was his team’s lack of defensive intensity. On December 16, 2006, Isiah blew up at his team, challenging them to give hard fouls against the Denver Nuggets. The fight began with a flagrant foul by Knicks guard Mardy Collins on Nuggets guard J. R. Smith in the closing seconds of the game. Several players joined in the confrontation, and began to make physical contact. The fight briefly spilled into the stands, and also stretched to the other end of the court. All ten players on the floor at the time were ejected after the altercation was finished. When suspensions were announced, seven players were suspended without pay for a combined total of 47 games. Several witnesses, including some Knicks personnel, blamed Isiah for instigating the brawl.

In April of 2008, Donnie Walsh was hired to replace Iaiah as President of Basketball Operations. It was widely speculated that Isiah would be fired at the conclusion of the season, and sure enough, a few weeks later, Isiah was told he would not return as head coach. Thomas posted an overall winning percentage of .341 as head coach of the Knicks, the fifth worst mark in franchise history.

More damaging was the lawsuit that Isiah was embroiled in at that time. An employee of the Knicks (Anucha Browne Sanders) charged Thomas with sexual harassment. Sanders eventually won the suit and the Knicks agreed to pay her $11.5 million in damages. Despite the embarrassment, Thomas remained in employ of the Knicks, serving as a consultant to Walsh.

October 24, 2008: Police are called to Isiah’s New York City home when he is reported as being unconscious and unresponsive. He’s taken to the White Plains Hospital where it’s determined that he had overdosed on Lunesta, a medication prescribed for sleep. There is confusion as Thomas and his family try to cover up the details of the overdose, at one point attempting to make it appear as if his 17-year old daughter was taken to the hospital. Thomas is quickly released, but the NY tabloids have a field day with the event.

April 14, 2009: In a surprising move, Isiah accepts the position as head coach of at Florida International University, located in Miami. Thomas explains that he wants to build the program into one of “the best in the country” and he’s confident he can do so. The statement is met by derision from New York fans, and is puzzling to NBA watchers who aren’t sure why Thomas wants to take a job at a small school with no history of hoops success. Thomas states that he will donate his first season salary to the university. “I didn’t come here for the money,” he says. His tenure starts oddly: in the press conference announcing his hiring, a school official introduces him as “Isiah Thompson.”

June 2011: It’s reported and confirmed by the Pistons, that Isiah is on a short list of candidates for the vacant head coaching job in Detroit. His old back court teammate Joe Dumars, the longtime successful President of Basketball Operations for the Pistons, hires  Lawrence Frank instead. At the same time, Knicks owner Dolan pressures Donnie Walsh to bring Isiah back as GM. Walsh retaliates by threatening to resign, and Dolan backs off. Thomas continues to have dialogue with Dolan about basketball decisions and the Knick roster, undermining Walsh.

August 6, 2011: Thomas announces that he has taken a role as a special consultant with the Knicks, though he plans to continue his job as head coach at FIU. Knicks fans respond with vitriol, and the NBA and NCAA scramble to see if the move violates any of their rules. It does, and five days later Isiah and the Knicks announce that the arrangement has been nullified. Despite this, it is widely believed that Isiah was instrumental in the February trade that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York and that he continues to help the Knicks front office. With his relationship with Knick ownership still solid (somehow), there’s good reason to believe this is true. Asked if he will return to the Big Apple, Isiah replies that he has “no desire to return” to the Knicks as president or as Walsh’s replacement.

April 6, 2012: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Isiah is axed by FIU. After taking the Panthers to an 8-21 record in his third season, he’s relieved of his duties in inglorious fashion: via telephone while he’s in the middle of interviewing an assistant coach in his office.

“I am very disappointed that I won’t get a chance to finish the job I set out to do when I got here,” Thomas told The Miami Herald. “I was told I’d have five years to build FIU, and I felt I was well on my way to doing it…. Nobody told me I’d have two or three years. I was told five years.”

Since his final game in a Pistons uniform, Isiah has been trying to regain the glory he was so instrumental in building in Detroit. The road leading to the Palace of Auburn Hills is named  2 Championship Drive, but Thomas seems to have lost his way since he left Motown.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.