Isiah Thomas should've been named to the 1992 Olympic basketball
squad, the first Dream Team. That snub, which Thomas never
forgot, seemed to initiate the downward spiral of a career that
by then had included two NBA championships, 11 All-Star
appearances and ample proof that he was the best small guard in
the history of the game.
Thomas's Pistons weren't title contenders in the two seasons he
played after those Barcelona Olympics. He retired at 33, and in
the three years (1994-97) that he ran the basketball operations
of the Raptors, he feuded with ownership and failed in his
efforts to buy the franchise. Instead--after a lackluster stint
as a network analyst--he bought the CBA for $9 million and,
through some comically bad business maneuvers, guided it into
bankruptcy (SI, April 9, 2001). Last week, while at the world
championships in Puerto Rico filing game analysis for coaches of
the Olympic team, he was fired as the Pacers' coach after three
seasons. As of Monday no successor had been named, but Indiana
had contacted recently fired Detroit coach Rick Carlisle, a
Pacers assistant ('97-00) under then coach Bird.
Thomas was axed by one of his nemeses, Larry Bird, who took over
as Indiana's president of basketball operations on July 11. Over
the years Thomas has alienated himself from the game's holy
trinity, which is not a wise thing to do. His fallout with
Michael Jordan stemmed from an All-Star Game freeze-out that
Thomas either led or didn't lead in Jordan's rookie year.
(Reliable sources say it was Jordan's behind-the-scenes
intervention that kept Thomas off the '92 team.) He fell out with
onetime best bud Magic Johnson over comments he either made or
didn't make about Johnson's HIV-positive status. And he fell out
with Bird over a comment he made--he says jokingly--that the
Celtic immortal would be "just another good guy" if he were
black. In the cases of Bird and Jordan ferocious rivalries
exacerbated the animosities. As good as he was, Thomas is not a
member of the in crowd of NBA immortals.
Thomas inherited a Pacers team that had been reconstituted with
young players. He made the playoffs three straight years, went
131-115 and earned the backing of many players, particularly
superstar-to-be Jermaine O'Neal, who strongly criticized the
firing. That history would warrant most coaches another chance.
But there's no guarantee that Thomas, the outsider who should be
an insider, will get one. --Jack McCallum