A New Ball Game

Isiah Thomas has gone directly from the hardwood to the hard job of running the expansion Toronto Raptors
November 07, 1994

TO: Ruth McFarlane, executive assistant
FROM: Isiah Thomas, Toronto Raptors' VP, basketball operations
RE: Joe Dumars

If Joe Dumars calls again, don't ask what company he's with or what it's in reference to. Joe Dumars was my friend and teammate on the Detroit Pistons for nine years, a possible Hall of Famer. Just put him through. Thanks.

You are Isiah Thomas. You retire as a player, and two weeks later you land an executive position and just under 10% ownership of an NBA expansion team. Your office isn't 94 feet long anymore, but your vision—your greatest asset on the court—is limitless. Your team might still be nonexistent, except for its logo, but one day you think Raptor basketball will mean what Boston Celtic basketball, Los Angeles Laker basketball and Detroit Piston basketball once did. You will sell this global game to Canadians, welcome them as citizens of Planet Hoops. You plan to lay the foundation for a basketball Utopia one brick at a time. You just didn't realize the first brick would be I.D.'ing Joe Dumars. No, you didn't really write a memo, but nobody would have blamed you if you had.

"I'm here to create a framework where a basketball team can perform," Thomas says. "But first it starts with educating your staff. I feel like a professor sometimes. NBA 101."

Why not? Canadians still think of the NBA—despite expansion teams in Toronto and Vancouver beginning with the 1995-96 season—as a flickering TV league rife with sneaker salesmen who score too many points. Of course, interest in the sport will grow. One day you will be able to shout "Shaq!" on Yonge Street in Toronto, and no one will assume you mean Eddie Shack, hockey's clown prince. When Cadillac Anderson, another of Thomas's former Piston teammates, calls again, McFarlane's message will not say it was Cadillac Fairview, the Canadian real-estate-development company, that phoned.

Hockey, McFarlane knows. "Wayne Gretzky called and left a number," Thomas says. "Ruth's asking, 'Is this really Gretzky's number?' I have a place in Hilton Head near [New York Ranger captain] Mark Messier. She's impressed I talk to Mess and Gretz."

South of the Great Undefended Border, most people would be more impressed that Gretz and Mess talk to Isiah. But no matter. In the next 12 months Thomas—as far as anyone can remember, the first player to walk straight off the court and become an NBA general manager—will be too immersed in NBA 101 to talk much.

See Isiah scout. Scout, Isiah, scout.

There's a knock on the door of suite 361 at the Akron Hilton. "Cheeseburger," Joseph the waiter sings, "I got.... Oh, man. Oh, man! I love you, man. I love you! Take it to the hole. Take it to the hole!" Joseph does a 360 with the room-service tray. Isiah Thomas smiles his famous smile, more flattered than embarrassed by the attention. He signs an autograph for Joseph, whose face will look this beatific again the day his first child is born.

"For you this might be special. For me this is normal-a-cy," says Thomas, adding a syllable.

Thomas is in Akron to see the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Washington Bullets in an exhibition game, and this is normal-a-cy: A cop at the airport asks if Thomas will coach ("If I do, take out your gun and use it on me"); a hotel guest reminisces about Larry Bird's beating Detroit on a last-second shot in 1985; and a man at a pay phone waves and yells, "Hey, Isiah, I'm having dinner at your mother's."

Family friend? "Never saw him before," says Thomas, whose mother, Mary, lives in Chicago. "But I'm sure he's having dinner at my mother's. She'll meet somebody on a bus and invite him to dinner. I'd come home from school, there'd be 15 people in my living room I didn't know."

When he and his wife, Lynn, went out in Detroit, Isiah would often plant a fake mustache on his baby face and tug a hat low over his forehead. And even with no disguise, people sometimes missed him because they assumed he was taller. (As an NBA executive, he has shrunk a half inch from his program height of 6'1".) Thomas will spend much of the next six months on the road, evaluating talent, assessing recommendations of head scout Bob Zuffelato and his staff. In every arena Thomas enters, there will be a buzz.

Thomas will be more famous than the men he'll scout, which is not surprising when you consider that each existing NBA team will protect eight players for the expansion draft, and the Canadian clubs will choose sixth and seventh in the college draft. The Raptors and the Vancouver team, the Grizzlies, will pick from a pool of players at the bottom of the rosters of the current 27 teams, men not in "the rotation."

To Thomas's left, Chicago Bull assistant coaches Jimmy Rodgers and Jim Cleamons furiously scribble Cavalier and Bullet plays, but Thomas focuses on action away from the ball. He scouted the summer leagues, where lesser NBA players hone their games, but the preseason is where he must keep panning for what he calls, in capital letters, A RAPTORS PLAYER.

Which is? "Look at our logo," Thomas instructs. "Our players will clearly connect with the logo, creating the image. You'll look at our players and say, 'He's a Raptor.' "

Is he saying he'll draft prehistoric guys with two toes? Thomas grimaces. Sorry. No hints. No names. Scouting is intelligence gathering, and he is way too intelligent to share it with you.

("A Raptors player," Toronto president John I. Bitove says a few days later, "is one who plays with an aura of confidence, a hungry player, a team player, one with Raptor purple in his blood.")

During the game, Thomas occasionally whispers into a small tape recorder. He jots notes at halftime on a legal pad inside a leather binder—the word energy is visible for an instant—but snaps it closed when he suspects that someone's peeking. Ted Stepien, a former Cavalier owner, stops by and says, "I tried to move the Cavaliers to Toronto in '83. It'll be a gold mine. You're going to need a shovel to shovel it all out of there."

Cleveland wins 117-103, and the Akron police form a detail to whisk Thomas from the building. As Thomas signs autographs, one of the Bullets, Ernest Hall, who was cut last week and has been bouncing around minor leagues since 1991, yells, "Isiah, Isiah, check me out next year, baby."

When he was introduced on May 24 at Gretzky's Toronto restaurant as the Raptors' vice president of basketball operations, Thomas burst through a hoop, holding a basketball. The next day the Toronto Globe and Mail grumbled, "[This]...is the sort of stunt one might expect from Harold Ballard or George Steinbrenner."

The newspaper meant Thomas's hiring, not the hoop.

Bob Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers and Serge Savard of the Montreal Canadiens became the general managers of their former teams when they retired, but they were taking over established franchises. Toronto has grown accustomed to builders, men like Pat Gillick, who developed the Blue Jays into World Series winners, and Cliff Fletcher, who revived the pathetic Maple Leafs. Thomas didn't seem to fit. He was 33, with no experience.

"People thought it was a Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson thing," says the 34-year-old Bitove, referring to the Dallas Cowboys' erstwhile Arkansas tandem. Bitove was a student at Indiana University when Thomas led the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA championship and later attended University of Windsor Law School, across the river from the scene of Thomas's triumphs in Detroit. "It wasn't. The only thing the IU connection helped was in convincing Isiah he couldn't do the job by commuting this year," says Bitove. "I always thought a Pat Gillick type was the epitome of a G.M., but there's a difference between baseball and basketball. In baseball you draft 18-year-olds and hope they can be taught to hit a forkball. In basketball the skills are apparent, but you have to know the psyche of the individual. Nobody understands players better than Isiah. I always thought Isiah was shrewd."

Thomas was the National Basketball Players Association's president for six seasons, so he knows salary caps aren't the things with dangling tags players wear after winning a title. He is a successful businessman, chairman of American Speedy Printing Centers and a director of OmniBanc Corp., a black-owned holding company in the U.S.

Besides, Thomas really does have experience as a general manager. Didn't he trade Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre in 1989? Like his buddy Messier, who used his influence to torpedo former coach Roger Neilson in New York, Thomas urged Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey to deal the lane-clogging Dantley for Aguirre, a boyhood friend of Thomas's from Chicago. "All you hear is how Mess and me got rid of guys," Thomas says. "Sometimes what I did created tension, but there wasn't a person in the organization who thought my opinions were just personal, that they weren't about winning." The results: The Rangers won a Stanley Cup the next season with new coach Mike Keenan, and Dantley's exit freed minutes for Dennis Rodman, a key player in the Pistons' two championships.

Thomas did have extraordinary clout. He vacationed in Europe with Piston managing partner Bill Davidson. He got the team to hire conditioning coach Arnie Kander. He even recommended Billy McKinney for the Detroit general manager job after McCloskey went to the Minnesota Timberwolves, although McKinney looked morose last Jan. 7 when the Pistons called a press conference to announce that Thomas had been offered a front-office position and would be "a Piston for life." Reports said Davidson would give Thomas equity in the team, that Thomas would be general manager, that the deal was worth a stupefying $55 million. Thomas would say only, "This is one of the happiest days of my life."

As it turned out, his life expectancy was four months. Thomas claims that even he doesn't know why things soured, but after a ruptured Achilles ended his playing career last April, the Pistons had no job for him. "If there was a power struggle," Thomas says, "it wasn't on my part."

"Things got a little strained," Piston president Tom Wilson says. "Mr. Davidson wasn't prepared to make Isiah an offer of ownership, and rumors about the deal seemed to have a life of their own. Would he coach? Be G.M.? Guys were thinking, Don [Chaney, the coach] tells me to do this, but who should I listen to? The stress made it uncomfortable."

So Thomas moved on to a $125 million expansion team, to NBA 101. He talked to Los Angeles Laker executive VP of basketball operations Jerry West, Bull general manager Jerry Krause, even Arizona Cardinal coach Buddy Ryan about how they approach their jobs. He studied winning franchises in all sports, seeking common themes. He helped develop a computer program for Raptor scouting, a system that will include psychological testing. He will hire a coach next spring for THE RAPTORS PLAYERS, who sound better in theory than they will probably play.

"He'll be terrific," says West. "Isiah has some real pluses to start. He knows current players better than anyone. He's played against them, and you can't fool another player. When you draft an expansion team, that's important."

TO: Ruth McFarlane, executive assistant
FROM: Isiah Thomas, Toronto Raptors' VP, basketball operations
RE: Ernest Hall

PHOTOPETER SIBBALDOne of Thomas's tasks is getting his office staff up to snuff on basketball stuff. PHOTOMANNY MILLANThomas, a college and pro champ, hopes to bring his winning ways to Toronto. PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER SIBBALDThomas is the first NBA player to become G.M. at retirement.

If Ernest Hall calls, he's a point guard and not a building at the University of Toronto. Thanks.

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)