THORNS IN THE ROSES

Detroit repeated as NBA champ, but the headlines weren't all favorable
June 24, 1990

Isiah Thomas's studied, mature orchestration of the Detroit Pistons' NBA championship last week went a long way toward changing his image among basketball purists. Thomas kept the tempo at a controlled, even pace, which disrupted the fast-breaking Portland Trail Blazers. And when he wasn't doing that, he was creating something from nothing, with long-distance jump shots, body-twisting drives and steals in the open floor. Six other NBA guards, including teammate Joe Dumars, were selected by the media ahead of Thomas on the three All-NBA teams this season. But by the time the Pistons had beaten the Blazers 92-90 in Game 5 to clinch their second straight championship last Thursday night in Portland, there was only one great guard still playing basketball—Isiah Lord Thomas III.

On Friday afternoon, however, less than 24 hours after he was unanimously named the Finals MVP, and even as the city of Detroit was still cleaning up from a night of celebration that had turned deadly (box, page 35), Thomas's triumph had turned to anger and anguish. He returned to his home in suburban Detroit to find his wife, Lynn, in tears in front of the television set. She had just finished watching a report by a Detroit television station, WJBK, that linked her husband with an FBI investigation of a multimillion-dollar sports betting ring.

WJBK's report, and subsequent stories by Detroit newspapers, said that Thomas was not a target of the federal investigation, which was confirmed to SI by Stephen Markman, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. But investigators reportedly were interested in checks from Thomas that were cashed by a man named Emmet Denha, a close friend and former next-door neighbor of Thomas's, as well as the godfather of his two-year-old son, Joshua. According to the local media reports, Denha, a Detroit-area supermarket owner and Piston season-ticket holder, is under investigation, in connection with a nationwide gambling probe, for possible money laundering.

The WJBK report also said that Piston forward Mark Aguirre, one of Thomas's closest friends, approached a former FBI agent named Ned Timmons and told him that Thomas had a gambling problem. As SI went to press, Timmons could not be reached for comment. Aguirre had made no public statement as of Monday afternoon, but Thomas told SI that Aguirre said he does not know Timmons.

The television report also said that Aguirre "apparently" told Timmons that Thomas had participated in "high-stakes" dice games, and a report that followed in the combined Saturday editions of The Detroit News and Free Press said that Thomas had hosted such games in his suburban Detroit home.

In interviews with SI and several Detroit media outlets and also in a long statement released by John Caponigro, his attorney, Thomas said that he sometimes cashed checks at one of Denha's supermarkets so he could avoid the hassle that comes with his appearing in public places. The checks, said Thomas, were for his monthly living allowance, regular disbursements issued by the Detroit office of the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, which handles his personal finances.

The total amount of Thomas's checks cashed by Denha is at issue. Newspaper accounts said these transactions may have totaled as much as $350,000 over an unspecified period, and that in one month, November 1989, Thomas cashed about $100,000 in checks. Those November checks have reportedly been subpoenaed by a grand jury.

Caponigro, on Monday, called the $350,000 figure "highly inflated" and said that the $100,000 figure for one month was "very, very high."

In his statement Thomas also said that during his nine years in Detroit he has been involved in impromptu dice games "on three or four social' occasions." Thomas said that none of his wagers in any of the games could be considered high-stakes. He was quoted in media reports as saying the wagers were for $10 and $30. Several of Thomas's current and former teammates told SI that they have no knowledge of Thomas's having a gambling problem.

The NBA said it is "looking into" the Thomas matter and released this statement Monday by deputy commissioner Russ Granik concerning possible disciplinary action in connection with Thomas's admission that he played dice games: "If all this amounts to is something comparable to an occasional game of poker or gin rummy, we don't see that as any cause for NBA involvement."

Thomas told SI that he would be "totally shocked" if Denha is involved in a gambling investigation. "I'm really mad, because none of this has anything to do with fact," Thomas said. "I'm sure it will blow over—at least my part in it—and will not affect the team."

The Thomas affair wasn't the only unsettled matter bedeviling the Pistons. Other unfinished business included the status of coach Chuck Daly. Starting about midseason, when reports began circulating that Daly would take a job as an NBC analyst next season, the Piston players did an excellent job of blocking out thoughts concerning Daly's possible departure. But now the time may be nearing for the team to adjust to a new man. "We definitely got used to Chuck's way of doing things, and he got used to us," said reserve forward John Salley. "It wouldn't be easy for a different coach."

Daly, who returned to Detroit on Saturday evening from Natchitoches, La., where he attended the funeral of Dumars's father, Joe II, said on Sunday that he was considering several possibilities. The first was remaining as the Piston coach. "Financially, believe it or not, that is by far the best thing," he said. The other possibilities included signing on with NBC or TBS, talking to the Philadelphia 76ers about their vacant general manager's job, or exploring with several unnamed groups the possibility of applying for an NBA franchise. "I never thought it would be this hard to make up my mind," said Daly.

Another bit of uncertainty for the Pistons is the unrestricted-free-agent status of Vinnie Johnson, whose return to shooting form in Portland coincided with Detroit's mastery in the series. As Johnson and Thomas cavorted during the team's postgame victory party at the Benson Hotel in Portland, Thomas shouted into a microphone, "Give Vinnie a new contract!" It was said in jest and was taken as such by Piston general manager Jack McCloskey, who was standing nearby, but that doesn't mean Thomas was kidding. Johnson has said that he would like to return, and McCloskey has said that he wants him back. But money talks, and Johnson, who will be 34 in September, will almost certainly get some other offers. "I'll be listening," he said.

If not for all this turmoil, post-title discussions about the Pistons would be centering on their place in NBA history. "We never talked about it all season, but for the past four to five years we felt we were one of the best teams in the history of basketball," said Thomas in the happy Piston locker room last Thursday.

A little strong? Perhaps. But remember that Detroit could easily have been doing a "Three-peat" chant in that locker room had Thomas not sprained his ankle in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, severely limiting his effectiveness in Game 7, which the Los Angeles Lakers won 108-105. As it is, the record shows that the Pistons are now one of only three franchises (Boston and the Lakers, in both Minneapolis and L.A. are the other two) to win back-to-back titles, and they are also one of only three teams to win three games on the road in a seven-game championship series. (The 1953 Minneapolis Lakers and the 1974 Celtics are the other two.) If one accepts the dual premise that the NBA is stronger than ever, and that it is tougher than ever to win on the road, then surely these Pistons deserve particular recognition.

"I can't put the Pistons with the Lakers and the old Celtic teams simply because they haven't done it as often," said Bernie Bickerstaff, ex-coach of the Seattle SuperSonics and now the team's vice-president and director of player personnel. "But what we're all sleeping on now is the magnitude of that sweep in Portland. It was truly unbelievable. It is very hard to win one game in Portland, much less three in a row."

Certainly the three-guard combination of Thomas, Dumars and Johnson is the most compelling aspect of these Pistons. "Conventional wisdom says you can't win from the perimeter," said Trail Blazer broadcaster Geoff Petrie, a former NBA All-Star. "I guess the Piston guards don't know that."

By the time the series ended, the Piston backcourt trio was being hailed as the greatest ever. But let's step back a minute. Magic Johnson, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper weren't exactly a bad trio for the Lakers in the '80s. The 1959 and '60 Celtic champions boasted Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Sam Jones, and K.C. Jones got substantial minutes at guard for the '60 team, too. And the Sonic 1979 championship backcourt featured Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and "Downtown" Freddy Brown, the threesome with which the Pistons' group can most closely be compared. But one thing is for sure—the Detroit trio is by far the best in the NBA right now.

What sets them apart is their ability to do it all at the offensive end. Thomas is more point guard than shooter, of course, just as Johnson is more shooter than point man. But each can play the other position when called upon, and Dumars handles either with the same smoothness with which he handles everything.

As personalities, though, the members of the threesome couldn't be more different. Johnson draws no curtain between his emotions and his actions. When he's playing badly, his sad eyes look sadder and his barrel chest seems to retract. But when he's playing well, every fiber of his being seems alive. He demands the ball, and the Pistons are happy to comply. He scored 13 points in a significant seven-minute flurry in Game 3, and came back with 15—including the clinching jump shot with .7 of a second left—in the final 8:29 of Game 5. That's Vinnie on the court.

And this is Vinnie off it—a candid person who can, without embarrassment, characterize his abilities thusly, as he did not long ago: "I have a great all-around game. I can score. I can rebound. I'm great running the break, two-on-one, three-on-two. I'm great at it. Nobody realizes that, but I am. And I'm a very good defensive player. Not to take anything away from Dennis [Rodman], but Vinnie Johnson's the one who guards Michael Jordan early in the game when Joe [Dumars] needs a break. I know I could start on just about any other team."

It's unlikely that Dumars would talk like that even under hypnosis. As teammate Scott Hastings said of him during the series, "Joe's the one everybody wants his son to be like," an honest, forthright gentleman with a quiet sense of humor and a keen intelligence. The joint strain of dealing with series pressure and his father's death finally got to him in Game 5, when he made only two of 13 shots; to be frank, he was bailed out by the shooting of Thomas and Johnson. After the game Dumars celebrated quietly, but in his eyes could be seen the mixed emotions he felt.

Clearly, Thomas was the honored guard of this series. Not only did he engineer the Piston offense, but he emerged as a most formidable defender, too. Only in Game 5, when Terry Porter made four of nine three-pointers, did Thomas permit his Portland quarterback counterpart to get in the flow. Porter, who made only 24 of his 61 field goal attempts against Detroit, did not choke. Isiah choked him.

Choking is exactly what some of his critics have felt like doing to Isiah over the years. After the uproar that followed his infamous statement in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, when he agreed with Rodman's contention that Boston's Larry Bird was overrated, Thomas has been astonishingly bland in his public pronouncements. While Johnson can ramble on about his own talents and the media consider him almost a folk hero because his beliefs are so honestly held and stated, Isiah comes across as a man of masks. But with his MVP performance (27.6 points, seven assists, 5.2 rebounds per game) in this year's Finals, there is no longer a doubt that he is one great player, the heart and soul of a club with a lot of heart and soul.

More than any other Piston, perhaps even more than Thomas himself, veteran center Bill Laimbeer seemed to realize the extent to which his close buddy's image stood to be refurbished by his masterful performance in the Finals. As the Pistons left the locker room last Thursday night, Laimbeer cornered a reporter. "Isiah's one of those special guys, right?" said Laimbeer. "You know it now, right? You don't play like that unless you're something special, one of the true greats, right?"

That is exactly the status to which the Pistons as a team have a right to aspire. A third straight title is certainly not out of the question. The veteran core of the club is by no means ancient, and McCloskey's track record is to make a stabilizing move or two that keeps Detroit ahead of the pack. But at week's end the Pistons had their minds on a few more immediate questions. Will they have to make what could be a difficult adjustment to a new coach? Will Vinnie be around? And, most important, has the Thomas story run its course? In the answers to all those questions lies the fate of a great team that could be even greater.

PHOTOANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOSJohnson came off the bench and buried the Blazers with a succession of clutch jumpers. PHOTOANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOSThomas was golden in the playoffs, only to have his name tarnished by a gambling probe. TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGHTrail Blazers Buck Williams (left) and Porter could attest to the Pistons' eye-catching style, which at times added injury to insult. PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOSThe Piston revelers, including Lynn Thomas, left, were whooping it up... PHOTOANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS...but Dumars's reaction to victory was tempered by his father's death.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)