Loved by some, hated by others, and respected by all, Isiah Thomas is considered among the greatest point guards in NBA history.
His game is emulated to this day by the undersized guards of the league. His tenacity, speed, ballhandling skills and passing ability are the stuff of legend. Though he was the smallest member of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, he was perhaps the most fierce. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up among the trees or the larger backcourt players like Magic Johnson, earning him the nickname “The Baby-Faced Assassin.”
“Zeke” is one in a long line of great players borne of the famed Chicago basketball scene. By the time he graduated high school he already earned hardware. He was part of a Pan-American Games gold medal winning team as a senior.
Thomas’ next stop: Indiana University. He joined the Hoosiers and Hall-of-Fame coach Bobby Knight in 1979. He averaged 14.6 points and 5.5 assists his freshman year on the way to a Big Ten Championship. He was the first freshman to be named to the All-Big Ten team by the Associated Press. For an encore, Zeke led the Hoosiers to the National Championship. He dazzled in the title game with 23 points, 5 assists and 4 steals.
In 1981, Thomas was selected second overall by the Detroit Pistons. The team was without an identity or a leader at the time, making him a much needed fit. He averaged 17 points and 7.8 assists during his rookie campaign and was named to the All-Rookie Team and All-Star Team. The Pistons were greatly improved but did not make the playoffs during Thomas’ first two seasons.
The “Bad Boys”
His third season was a turning point, thanks in part to the addition of Chuck Daly as Detroit’s new head coach. Daly and Thomas were a match that exceeded the typical coach/player relationship.
Thomas continued to burden the load of the Pistons’ offense, but his defense was what separated him from his peers. In the case of on-the-ball steals, Thomas’ stature seemed to work to his advantage. He averaged more than 2 steals per game through his first five season.
The 1984-85 season was statistical highlight for Thomas. His 13.9 apg ranks third for highest average in league history. Detroit reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals before falling 2-4 to Boston.
As Detroit continue to taste success the team came closer and closer to reaching the next level. In 1987-88, Thomas averaged a double double and pushed Detroit to Finals showdown against the Los Angeles Lakers. Los Angeles ultimately prevailed in game 7, but Detroit forced a rematch the following year. This series was much different. The combo of Thomas and Joe Dumars in the backcourt were dominant, both averaging more than 20 ppg. Detroit made short work of the Lakers in a sweep.
Detroit repeated in 1989-90 behind a Finals MVP performance from Thomas. He averaged 27.6 points and 7 assists against Portland in the Finals.
Records, awards and Hall of Fame
Isiah Thomas is Detroit’s all-time leader in points (18,822), assists (9,061) and steals (1,861). He appeared in 12 All-Star Games, was named All-NBA First Team three times. In 2000, he was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2000, Thomas also made his debut on the sidelines as head coach of the Indian Pacers. Indiana made the playoffs each season of Thomas’ 3-year tenure. After being relieved from his duties with the Pacers, he became head coach of the New York Knicks in 2006. His run in New York was tumultuous to say the least as the franchise continued to struggle from management down.
As decorated as his career was, Thomas’ resume has one glaring hole. He was never part of the men’s Olympic basketball team. He was selected to the team for the 1980 games in Moscow, Russia; but the United States boycotted the games. He was famously left off of the 1992 Dream Team, which has been, and still is, considered a curious snub.