They were lounging around one day talking about religion, not basketball, and all at once the conversation turned to the afterlife. Isiah Thomas gave the idea a long moment of reflection, and at last he said to his wife, quite earnestly, "Lynn, do you think they have basketball in heaven?" Well, she allowed that, yes, they probably did play hoops in the ever after.
"I sure hope they do," mused Isiah. "They've got to have some form of recreation up there. I mean, sitting around eating grapes would be cool for a while, but you have to have something to do. I sure do hope they play ball. If not, I'll be the Naismith of heaven."
Isiah Thomas is a romantic, off and on the basketball court, and the game is the central passion in his life.
"I'm in love with basketball," Thomas says. "It's my release. It's my outlet. If I get mad, I go shoot. It's my freedom. It's my security. It's my drug; it's my high. It's my nowhere. When I'm playing, I'm nowhere. Nothing else exists. Nothing else matters. You see, nothing else goes on when you're nowhere. I just let it flow."
January 19, 1987
Indeed, there have been those sublime moments on the basketball court when the point guard for the Detroit Pistons has risen to a kind of otherworldly dimension, to that almost ethereal level of the game where only he and the Michael Jordans and Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons come to play.
"Isiah is the most perfect point guard in the game today," says Don Nelson, coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. "When you're talking about the true point guard, the smaller guard, Isiah is the most perfect. I think of two players when I think of point guards: Isiah Thomas and Maurice Cheeks [of the Philadelphia 76ers]. Everybody else is evaluated in comparison with those two. There isn't anything Isiah can't do or doesn't do on the basketball court."
"Six-foot-one, whippet-quick," says Pat Riley, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. "Can drive, penetrate, create. Tough little kid...I love him because he's a spontaneous, creative player who makes things happen."
To be sure, there have been all those evenings when there was something from Dr. Naismith's own heaven in the way Thomas played the game. The Pistons' coach, Chuck Daly, spent four years as an assistant coach with the 76ers back in the days when Julius Erving was still regularly working his casual wonders on the hardwood, and Daly recalls the nights that the leaping, spinning Erving wowed them breathless wherever he played.
"I used to sit out there and look around at the crowd and say, I hope these people know what they're seeing,' " says Daly. " 'I hope they know they will never see this again.' I'm doing that again, watching Isiah: I hope these people understand that they will never see that move again."
There is that sudden, graceful burst of speed that leaves a defender spinning at midcourt, that pass flicked quickly to the open man, that finger-rolling layup after threading through three men. And that commanding aura he radiates on the court, the one that says this game belongs to him. He had it that day against the Knicks in the playoffs in 1984, when he scored 16 straight points in 94 seconds of the fourth quarter and nearly won it for the Pistons all by himself.
"It was the single greatest effort I ever saw on a basketball court," says Will Robinson, the veteran Piston scout and former college coach. "Every time he got the ball, you knew he was gonna score. It was fantastic!"
Thomas is the only player in NBA history to have been selected to start on the All-Star team in each of his first five seasons in the league; twice he was named the game's MVP. Last season he took over and let it flow in the All-Star Game in Dallas, and at game's end had 30 points, 10 assists and 5 steals—and his second MVP trophy. Riley, the losing coach in that game, now views Thomas's performance with a touch of amusement.
"Well, it gives you an idea of what that [All-Star] game's all about," Riley says. "It's a freewheeling, footloose and fancy-free game. And he is the best at it. In a 94-foot game, he's probably the best, because he can sustain a quick game for six or seven minutes. In the All-Star Game, there's no control; there isn't any structure; it's supposed to be that kind of game. And he's been dominating in those games."
Surely, Thomas is at his creative best on such a stage, in such a context, sharing the court with four brilliant players who read him as well as he reads them. "Everybody's two or three plays ahead," Thomas says, snapping his fingers quickly. No structure. No form. Just five of the best players in the world out there, sort of inventing the game as they go along.
"He's the prototype point guard who can play two ways," Riley says. "He can set people up or come at you. His nature is to attack. He's like a little top. You press him, spin him and let him go."
It has been the romantic impulse of the man to create prodigies on the basketball court—to take over a game and spin it, like a ball on the tip of his finger, for all to see—and it has formed the central conflict in his mind about the game and how he should play it. "A very, very complex person," says Daly. "Complex to coach, too. His threshold of boredom in the game is very low. He'd rather do the spectacular than the simple and easy. I once heard him say, 'I like to trick 'em.' "
That, no doubt, is what Thomas would rather do. "Being the best, how do you get to the next level?" he asks. "It's like I make a move, I have my guy beat, and then I'll have a shot. But then I see another guy"—Thomas is laughing here—"and I want to go and take him on, fake him out! It's too easy to beat the first guy. Some people say I'm the best guard in the game. But how do you get to the next level? What is the next level? There must be something higher you can go to. Why are you still playing? See, it's boring to be simple all the time. I've been doing that all my life. I want more. I want more out of the game."
Shortly after Daly came to the Pistons in 1983, he sat down with Thomas and urged him to tone down his flamboyant style of play. Daly knew that his career with the Pistons was riding on Thomas and depended on how well he performed. "You've got to learn to make it simple," the coach told him. "Make the easy pass. One day you won't have the flexibility you have now, and you'll have to rely on your head. It's a simple game. It's a children's game." Thomas thought about that for a day or so, and then one morning on the road he approached Daly at breakfast and reminded him of what he had said about keeping the game simple. Thomas told him, "I don't know if I would rather just play than win."
Just as it is no coincidence that Thomas plays his best in the essentially formless All-Star pickup game—"He plays much better with better players," Daly says—so it is not really surprising that the best game he ever played for Daly was when he was dragging around a hyperextended knee. ' "He's at his best when he is sightly injured," the coach says. "We were in Atlanta one night, and he couldn't do all the things he's usually capable of doing. So he geared down. And it was easily the best game we ever played—and easily the finest game Isiah ever played."
At times, of course, his problem has been that he plays a game with which most of his Piston teammates are unfamiliar. But why, he thinks, should he deliberately gear down the level of his game to accommodate his teammates?
Of course, in his own quest to raise the level of his game, simple often equals merely boring, and surely there is more to the search for excellence, more to the game, than that.
"I want more out of the game," Thomas says again. "And that's why I ask myself: Which do I like better—winning or just playing?"
I have been to the arena and I
have played the game I've felt
the tension and tasted the sweat
I know the pain and I have made
the sacrifice yes I paid the price
to make playing in this arena
Thomas writes verse often when he is on the road—in hours of tedium between meals and flights—and while he is a better player than he is a poet, he does both for the same reason. "I like poetry because it's free," Thomas says. "There are no rules to it. You are not restricted or confined in any way. No commas, no periods, if you don't want them. That's how I like to play basketball. Free."
That is how he learned to play the game, loose and free, on the court at Gladys Park, just two blocks from his home on Congress Street in the heart of the ghetto on Chicago's harsh West Side. It's just a pocket park, with two baskets and a sandbox on the side, but it was more than that for the kids in the surrounding homes and projects.
"Go anywhere on the West Side and say, 'Meet me at the court," and they'd know what you were talking about," Isiah recalled on a recent visit to what the Thomas family now calls the old 'hood. "That's where I really learned to play. There were some basketball players there. I mean, some basketball players. You could always get a game there. Any time of day, any time of night. Me and my brothers used to go over there with snow shovels in the winter so we could play."
There were nine Thomas children, two girls and seven boys, of whom Isiah is the youngest. "He was well behaved, but spoiled," says Mary Thomas, the mother of the clan. "He's still like that, spoiled rotten—by me and his brothers. They try to put the blame on me, and I can't say I didn't treat him special. He was the baby. He got special attention."
Mary Thomas, whom everyone in and around the family calls "Dear," was born in Mississippi but migrated north to Chicago, where she met and married a fellow Mississippian, Isiah Thomas II, and settled down on the West Side. Isiah II, an Army veteran who was wounded in the battle of Saipan, went to trade school, learned how to read blueprints and became the first black supervisor at International Harvester's Chicago operation. An avid reader, he collected volumes for the children to read, prohibited them from watching anything but educational television, checked their homework at night and lectured them on the need for the boys to stick together and protect one another.
"He would gather seven sticks and put them in a bunch and tell us, 'It's a lot harder to break seven sticks together than one at a time,' " recalls Preston Thomas, one of the brothers.
Father Thomas eventually lost his job when the International Harvester plant closed, and the only work he could find was as a janitor. "It was devastating, but you have to make ends meet," he says. Mary and her husband separated when Isiah was still a boy. While Isiah II instilled the virtues of reading and learning in the family—only the oldest boy. Lord Henry, failed to graduate from high school and attend college—Mary Thomas rode herd on the clan and meted out discipline. They can still hear her now: "Be home by the time the street lights come on."
All violators were subject to a thrashing. "She used to whup us with the ironing cord," says Preston.
The children admired, respected and feared her. When Isiah and a brother were caught stealing a plum from a neighborhood supermarket, the security guar took them to a back room and threatened to call the police. But first, he said he was calling their mother. Isiah recalls wailing, "No! Call the police, but please don't call my mother."
Fearless, protective of her family, bold to the point of rashness, there was little this remarkable woman would not do to shield her children from the gangs that prowled the West Side streets and from life in the dreaded projects not far away. There was the day, for instance, when the caseworker threatened to withhold Mary's welfare check if she refused to move out of her house and into a project.
"I didn't want my family raised in a project," says Mary Thomas. "Rapes and all kinds of stuff was going on in there. And gangs! I was angry because I didn't think anybody had a right to tell me where to go and live, just because they were giving me a check. So I went down to the mayor's office on the bus."
That was the office of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Boss himself. She marched right up to the mayor's secretary, told her about the problem with the caseworker and asked to see the mayor. The secretary was in the process of brushing her off when the mayor's office door opened, and there he was, listening.
"Let her in," Daley said.
So Mary Thomas sat down and palavered with the mayor for a while, telling him what the caseworker was trying to do to her and her family, and Daley listened and finally said to her, making no promises, "Now go on back home." So she took the next bus back to Congress Street. About two hours after she arrived home, the caseworker called and summoned Mary Thomas to her office. She threw the check at her and said, "I don't know what good you thought it was going to do by going to the mayor."
"It must have done some good," Mary said quietly. "I got my check."
That was the last problem she ever had collecting her check. "I had willpower," she says. "If I wanted something, I figured I could get it if I went about it in the right way. I was a kind of strong-willed person."
And well armed, if need be, to protect her children from the gangs that walked those West Side streets. She answered a knock on her Congress Street door one day and was confronted by about eight members of a menacing street gang known as the Vice Lords. They all stood facing her, some of them armed, with their backs to the Eisenhower Expressway. In rivalry with another gang, the Mad Black Souls, the Vice Lords were out looking for recruits, and there were six healthy boys in the Thomas house. Isiah, only six at the time, cowered behind her.
"I want to speak to your sons," one of the chieftains said.
"For what?" Mary Thomas asked.
"We want your boys," he said. "They're old enough to join us."
Mary glared back at them. "There ain't but one gang in this family," she told them. "The Thomas gang." The leader threatened to take them off the streets if he had to. With that, Mary marched into the bedroom, picked up a sawed-off shotgun and returned to the front door. Leveling both barrels at them, she said, "If you don't get off my porch, I'll blow you across the expressway."
Slowly, they backed away. "They didn't come back anymore," she says. For the next few years, in fact, the Thomas kids had a sort of privileged run of the neighborhood, free from molestation by the gangs.
Mary Thomas had been raised a Baptist, but she had turned the whole family toward Catholicism before Isiah was born and thus came under the wing of the local church, Our Lady of Sorrows, and its schools.
Part of the blessing of Our Lady of Sorrows was that it gave her work. She cooked in the church's monastery and in its school cafeteria, and then ran the Sorrows youth center, where kids came in to swim, shoot pool and play basketball. When the Vice Lords and the Mad Black Souls fought to oust each other's members from the center, Mary had a meeting with them and laid down the law. "You run the street outside," Mary told them. "I run this place inside." They ended up sharing the center.
"I wasn't scared of them," she says. "I stood up to them. They respected me."
Over the years, as the old 'hood deteriorated, drugs proliferated and the ghetto and the gangs grew more violent, Mary Thomas started moving her family farther west, out toward the white suburbs. "I was always running with my kids," she says. "I was like a gypsy. When things started getting bad, I started moving."
By the time Isiah was 12, she had moved them into a house on Menard Avenue, five miles west of Gladys Park, and had gotten a job with the city's Department of Human Services, ringing doorbells and checking on the needy. Preston had taken over the care of Isiah a few years before, but now Preston was 16 and off running on his own. For the first time in his life, Isiah was left to run alone.
He had arrived at a period of crisis in his life. He could always play basketball in the boys' club—"It was my savior, my holding place," he says—but now he missed the protective shield of his brothers. "I was left alone a lot of times," Thomas says. "For the first time in my life, I was without the security of my brothers." And, to make things worse, he was without the familiar haven of Our Lady of Sorrows. He had been kicked out of school there for slapping a girl after she struck him in the face, and he was unhappy with his new school. "He was mad at the world," says Larry, the third-oldest brother.
"I remember living on Menard," Isiah says. "Those were probably the worst times as a kid. We very rarely had heat. We had an oil furnace but no money to buy oil. In the winter, it was always cold, and you had to sleep all the time with your clothes on. Everything broke down in the house once we bought it. The staircase was falling down. The plumbing didn't work. I mean everything was a disaster."
It was a full-time chore, come evening, to find a comfortable place to sleep. "If I didn't sleep with my mother, I'd sleep on the floor in the closet between my brothers' and sisters' bedrooms," he says. "And we had a lot of strays coming through our house at that time. It was like my mother was running a halfway house, so anybody could stay, and my spaces would be taken. A lot of times I slept on the ironing board in the hall."
Thomas remembered many days when he went hungry back in the old 'hood, but now he was 12 and growing, and he never remembered it being this bad. "Food was rarely in our house," he says. "We got food from the church one time that was all Hamburger Helper. Boxes and boxes of Hamburger Helper. No hamburger, just the helper. We ate that, like, forever. When Quaker Oats came out with their granola, they gave a lot of it away. My mother used to get all that granola and bring it home. We never had any milk or anything. We'd just eat granola till we got full. Get hungry again? Eat some more granola." Most of what he ate, in those days, he either stole at school, by lifting someone else's lunch in the coatroom, or bummed at the homes of friends.
"This was a time in my life when I wasn't sure where I was going or what I wanted to do," he says. His two oldest brothers. Lord Henry and Gregory, were off on their own, and brother Larry, then 21 and back from college, had taken over as the father-figure to Isiah. "Larry was my idol at the time, my everything," Isiah says. "I'd go in and try on his clothes. I'd walk like him, talk like him."
It wasn't long before Larry Thomas was driving a 1971 powder-blue Cadillac, fitting himself out with wide-brimmed hats and tailor-made clothes, and supporting his lifestyle by pimping for three women and dealing heroin. "The street was the game," Isiah says. "The con, shootin' dice, makin' a livin', hustlin'. I knew how to hustle at an early age. Every con artist, every hustler, was trying to beat the game. In order to get money, you had to hustle."
Isiah, the boy they called Junior, was drawn to his brother's way of life. One afternoon Larry was cruising through the neighborhood when he saw someone wearing one of his hats and suits. "Who's that wearing my hat?" he thought. It was Isiah. That was all Larry Thomas had to see. That night he took Isiah into his room and lectured the boy on the ways of the street and told him that he was the last family hope to make it big in professional sports. The first three with real athletic talent had already failed.
Lord Henry, 36, is still regarded by Isiah and his brothers as the most gifted of the boys to play basketball. When Isiah was seven, he and Preston used to sneak into Lord Henry's high school games and watch him strut his stuff.
"Every move that Lord Henry made on the court, we'd try to duplicate it," Isiah recalls. "The excitement he created in the gym is something I will never forget. Oh, he was sweet! He was everything. They used to call him 'Rat' because he was so cunning, and during games you'd hear that chant, from 500 people who used to come watch him play: 'Rat! Rat! Rat!' I couldn't go to the away games, but everyone would come back afterward and sit around telling stories of what Lord Henry had done that night, and I could see it in my mind, how it was happening."
Lord Henry never got through St. Phillips High School. One morning he was kicked out, supposedly because his grades were weak. "But no one ever said anything to me about his grades," Mary says. "I picketed the school. They never did show me his grades." She believes the problem was that Lord Henry was a black superstar in a white school. "I couldn't get him to go to another school," she says. "I tried and tried. He gave up." Lord Henry turned instead to heroin and became an addict. He has since undergone rehabilitation, and today is looking for a job.
Nor did the second-oldest son, Gregory, ever fulfill his promise as a basketball player. His struggle was with alcohol, and he, too, has been through rehab. And Larry, a high school star and Wright Junior College player, suffered an ankle injury before a scheduled tryout with the Chicago Bulls. So he turned to hustling. The other three boys—Preston. Ronnie and Mark—were going nowhere in basketball. That left Isiah.
Isiah had the goods and everyone knew it. He had been performing with a basketball since he was three, when he was the star of the halftime shows at games at Our Lady of Sorrows. Brother Alexis, the coach, would put a basketball jersey on Isiah that hung on the lad like a dress. "It hung to his ankles," says Brother Alexis. "At age three, he could shoot the eyes out of the basket."
"It was so much fun to watch him play," says his sister Ruby. "That was our entertainment on the weekends. Wherever he was playing, that's where we went. After those games, my brothers would bring him home, and they would gather around and critique him, tell him all the mistakes that he had made that night. This would sometimes go on till one, two o'clock in the morning. This was after every game."
So, that night in his room, Larry preached against drugs—"This stuff will kill you," he said, showing him a bag of heroin—and about the perils of the street: "The best way to win that game is don't play. Don't play and you can't lose." And he implored young Isiah not to follow him.
"I hate the way that I chose," Larry told him. "I chose the easy way. I hate myself. Don't look up to me. Don't do what I'm doing. You're throwing it all away." And, finally: "Somebody has got to get the NBA paycheck. Lord Henry failed. Gregory failed. I was Mar close to it, and I failed. We owe it to ourselves. Somebody has got to get that money!"
Isiah remembers the sermon well and all the days thereafter that Larry took him to the basketball court, made him run, taught him how to sharpen his shot. "Out of all my brothers, he was the one who really saved me," Isiah says. "At that time in my life, I was lost. He started to spend a lot of time with me." Thus it was that Isiah Lord Thomas III, the last of the Thomas brothers, became by default the Chosen One, the one to make up for what Lord Henry had lost, to lead the family out of the wilderness of poverty and into the ways of wealth. "I wanted to try to fulfill Lord Henry's dream," Thomas says.
He had a mission now. So did the brothers. It was Larry who led a contingent of Thomas brothers to St. Joseph High School, a Christian Brothers school 10 miles west in the predominately white suburb of Westchester, to appeal to the school's basketball coach, Gene Pingatore, to give Isiah financial aid so he could enroll. The coach hardly needed prodding, having seen Thomas play the season past. "He had an aura about him," Pingatore recalls.
So Thomas enrolled at St. Joseph. The commute was brutal. Up at 5:30 a.m., Thomas was out the door on Menard a half hour later. Mary Thomas can still see him leaving the house and heading alone for the bus stop. "I used to feel so sorry for him," she says. "I watched him leave and I cried." He spent an hour and a half on buses every morning, making three transfers to reach the final stop, about 1½ miles from school. He'd walk from there. "Cold as a bitch in the winter," Thomas says. "You know how it is in Chicago, with the wind blowing. I'd get on the bus and it would be dark and get off the bus and it would be daylight."
The two long trips aside, Thomas thrived in Pingatore's basketball program, and after a shaky academic start in his freshman year—he had a D average—he began in earnest to be a student. Pingatore, with an assist from Larry, lit the fire. "There's no question you'll get a Division I scholarship," the coach told him, "but if you don't get the grades, it's going to go down the drain."
Most curious, at least to his brothers, was how life in the suburbs began affecting his manner of speech. He began pronouncing words as dictated by the dictionary. Larry noticed the change one day.
"Why you talkin' like a white boy?" he asked Isiah.
"Whah chu talkin' 'bout?" asked Isiah, lapsing back into West Side dialect.
"You can't talk like that round here," said Larry. "When you're home, you talk like niggers talk. When you're out there, you learn to speak white talk."
At which point Ruby, a schoolteacher today, chimed in, "Larry, leave him alone. Just because he's speaking correct English doesn't mean he's talking like a white."
Even today, Lynn Thomas sometimes hears her husband's accent swing from West Side ghetto to Westchester white. The daughter of a Secret Service agent and a nurse, Lynn grew up in the largely white middle-class suburbs northwest of Chicago. There are times, when Isiah is telling a tale from his youth or talking to someone from the old 'hood, when she doesn't know what he is saying. She has to laugh. She tells him all the time, "You have two different voices. Quit talking in that second voice. I can't understand you."
At St. Joseph, on the court, Pingatore worked hard to harness Thomas's game and slow the youngster down, just as Daly would when Isiah began playing for him on the Pistons. "As talented as he was, he didn't know how to play," Pingatore says. "He was out of control as a sophomore, his first year on the varsity. He'd take the ball out of bounds, and I knew he was going all the way. Then he'd run over somebody, and I'd pull him out of the game."
In his junior year, playing with more restraint, he led St. Joseph to a second-place finish in the state high school championship tournament. And in his final year he was one of the most coveted prospects in the nation. Thomas chose to go with Bobby Knight and Indiana, but only after a stormy meeting in the Thomas house, during which brother Gregory almost came to blows with the Indiana coach. Thomas made All-Big Ten his freshman year, and was everyone's All-America as a sophomore, the year he took Indiana to the NCAA title, but his relationship with Knight was filled with conflict and turmoil. Thomas refuses to talk about Knight—"A subject I would rather not discuss," he says—but it is known that Isiah had difficulty abiding the coach's abusive and insulting treatment of him. In any event, he was on his way to the Pistons that summer.
So, after those earlier unfulfilled hopes, a Thomas finally got an NBA check. The first came on a four-year, $1.6 million contract that seemed a sweet deal for the club after Thomas won a starting place on the All-Star team and immediately began making his presence felt on a franchise that had been floundering for several seasons. The year before he joined the Pistons, they were 21-61, and in his rookie year they won almost twice as many games, finishing 39-43. They won 37 the next year, then 49 in his third year, the first time in seven seasons they had finished over .500. With a year to go on the contract, the Pistons tore it up and signed him anew, this time to a 10-year, $12 million deal that was intended to make him a Piston for the rest of his career.
That summer, the old-fashioned romantic quietly asked Gordon Kendall, Lynn's father, for his daughter's hand in marriage. With permission granted, Thomas then drove her the 230 miles from Chicago to Bloomington, Ind., under the pretext of wanting to practice against Knight's Olympic basketball team. What he really wanted to do was get her back on the campus where they first met, where he courted her with flowers and wrote her poems and bought her Snickers bars. Of course, he took her to the steps of the campus library, where they had met for their first date. There, ring in hand, he asked her to close her eyes.
"I have a surprise," he said.
"Is it a Snickers?"
It was there he sprang the question, and there she answered. They were married a year later and settled into a spacious five-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the swanky Detroit suburb of Bloom field Hills, just a few miles from the Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Pistons. Mary Thomas already had her home, the ranchhouse he bought her in the predominantly white Chicago suburb of Clarendon Hills. "He wanted me out of the ghetto, and I wanted to stay near the old neighborhood," she says. She was uncomfortable at first, away from the only home she had known for years, but the woman who once stared down the Vice Lords and marched into Mayor Daley's office moved west with her sense of humor intact.
Her boys come often to visit her—Larry coaches a junior high school basketball team in nearby Hinsdale—and Isiah always stops by when he is around, relishing the thought of her finally having what she never had before.
"Seeing her in that house when she moved in—that probably is the most happiness, the most pleasure, I've had in my life," he says. "Watching her going from having nothing to having something. When I go home, I can walk to the refrigerator, and it's got food in it! That's happiness. We've got food in the house, and bills are being paid! Just the simple things."
Thomas always wanted to buy his mother that home in the suburbs, but the vision is not complete with that. When you are the designated Chosen One. there is no choice in some matters. "I gotta finish school," says Thomas, who is but 22 credits shy of a degree in criminal justice at Indiana. "I have to finish, you see, because I'm the start of a new tradition, of a new family era. For my nieces and nephews, I'm like the start of something new. I got to make sure that I follow all the rules and do everything right. So when they come along, they can do the right things. It doesn't matter whether I'm comfortable doing that or not. I got to do it, simply because if I don't do it, then it would make no sense for me to have these opportunities. If I don't take advantage and do the right things, then my life was a waste."
In the days since his arrival in Detroit, he has put little to waste. He has thrown himself into community service work, making antidrug commercials and speeches, and he labored tirelessly last summer organizing "No Crime Day" in Detroit, an idea he conceived and promoted. With the help of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, whom he approached with the idea, last Sept. 27 was set aside as a day when the populace was asked to desist from wrongdoing, a sort of moratorium on crime.
If the idea seems a bit starry-eyed, Young and Thomas insist that it worked as they had envisioned. "We accomplished the things we really wanted to," says Thomas. "There were masses of people who organized themselves in block clubs and neighborhoods and communities to try to prevent crime. That's what we really wanted to do—raise people's consciousness." With Young, Thomas is the co-chairman of a committee working to keep the movement alive. Young says he has never known a celebrity as involved in Detroit or as community-spirited as Thomas.
Now all Isiah has to do is somehow, someday, lead the Pistons to a world title—a goal that does not seem all that farfetched these days. After a period of adjusting to major personnel changes—Detroit acquired the high-scoring Adrian Dantley for Kelly Tripucka in one of the biggest deals of the off-season—the Pistons went on a tear that has made them one of the hottest teams in the NBA. With Dantley and Thomas providing a potent one-two punch, Detroit won 18 out of 22 games and was suddenly being taken seriously as a playoff contender. "That's the only reason that you play and practice," Thomas says. "If I work hard enough, we'll win it. If our team doesn't win a championship while I'm here, I wasn't good enough to win it. It's that simple."
Yes, simple, just as basketball is a simple game, a children's game, What Isiah Thomas has to decide now is whether he wants to gear up or gear down, whether he wants to razzle and dazzle or squeeze and ease—whether he just wants to play, or wants to win. The question is really as simple as the game itself, and as old as Naismith.