I had a great time enlightening folks about Isiah Thomas and dropping some nuggets and anecdotes about the Hall of Fame point guard that people may not have known. Things like how Thomas helped lead American Speedy Printing Centers Inc. out of bankruptcy to become profitable and one of the largest printing franchises in the world. Or how Thomas was elected to be the first African American to sit on the Board of Governors of the Chicago Stock Exchange in April 1999 and served until 2002.
The final installment of my exclusive with Thomas is a straight Q & A with the New York Liberty President about the NBA back when he played in the crazy 80s, the beginning of the gangsta rap 90s and his thoughts on the current state of player affairs.
Generation Changes: Old School vs. New Breed
Thomas: I think what made the players of the 80s great and different is that we strived to be different. We wanted to be different. Originals, and I don't see any originals today.
For example, Kobe is like Michael Jordan in a lot of ways and eerily similar, but does that separate him from Mike? You have to compare the two because their games are so similar.
My style was completely different than Magic’s and who played like Larry Bird? Who played like Kareem ?
The 80s was the age of trendsetters in the NBA.
Thomas: What I see happening now in our sport ...everyone shares information and everyone has the same information. Everyone works with the same trainer...they all play the same so the game has normalized and the fear that I have for our sport moving forward is that analytics has become the normalization of the sports. It’s normalizing the sport just as it does in society.
When we all pull up to a red light, we stop. When you share all of the information, that eliminates the outliers. In the game of basketball right now, everybody runs the same offense. They are all the same size and they are all the same guy. You can cookie cut any of them and say this guy is like this one...and I don’t think that’s exciting, so Kobe was like Jordan.
What if Kobe played in the 80s?
Thomas: I honestly think if he played in our era, he would have probably been better than he is now. Because he wouldn’t have had to be like Mike. He would have been Kobe and what would Kobe have become, instead of being pigeonholed in this tunnel where he tried to pattern his game after the “best ever.”
They say the highest form of flattery is imitation, but at the same time (our mentality) growing up on the West Side of Chicago was "I don’t want to be like you." In the hip-hop world back then, they called it biting. Being an original meant everything. I want my own style. Now, I may steal one of your moves, but I want my own game. My own style. I don't want to walk like you. I don't want to talk like you. I don't want to look like you. As a matter of fact, I just want to be me.
That probably comes from my mom saying, “You’re priceless.”
Top 3 guys playing today?
Thomas: 1. LeBron 2. Durant (when healthy) -- they are clearly better than everyone else. After those two there is a big drop off. I look at Durant and LeBron and maybe my standards are a bit different than everyone else. I’m looking for the guy that’s going to paint the Picasso every night. I'm looking for that guy.
Durant is the only guy in the NBA right now that I would say is an original. We've never seen a 6-11 dude play like him. They say George Gervin but no...he’s just tall and skinny, same body build but TOTALLY different kind of game.
Anthony Davis has a long way to go but he has the potential to be one of those originals. He’s a monster. Has he become that yet ? No, but he’s from Chicago so he’s on his way.
Thomas: I thought LeBron was on his way to being an original. He’s an original in terms of being able to take a little Oscar (Robertson), a little Magic (Johnson) and when he needs to take some Mike and put it all together. He’s that good, but when LBJ came in, he wasn’t like NOBODY.
As he’s gotten older, he changed some things and...I was thirsty for a championship too, but the difference is; guys in my day were unrelenting in terms of our individuality. Michael Jordan was thirsty for a championship, but he was unrelenting in his individuality. He didn’t conform.
When Michael Jordan was coming up, he was fighting totally against the grain because he was a volume shooter. Most of us at that time, we were only averaging 15-16 shots a night. This dude comes along and he’s shooting it 25 times and everybody was like, “Well shoot, you can’t win like that.” (laughter).
But, he was unrelenting in terms of saying “I can.” He showed everyone that he could lead the league in scoring. He could shoot it 25 times and he said, “Guess what ? I’m going to win playing this way.” Which made him different from anybody else playing the game at that time. So he broke out of the box and set a new standard. Magic Johnson, again, a new standard. The way I played; dipping and ducking among the giants... We all played differently. We all had different schemes. We ran different offenses.
Now you watch a game today. Everybody runs the same play. Everybody runs the high screen and roll. Can you give me something different? What makes San Antonio so good, so beautiful to watch is that they give you a little bit of everything.
Will history be kind to LeBron?
Thomas: In the era that LeBron James has played in, clearly he has been the most dominant force. He has carried the league, just like MJ carried the league to the international stage. LeBron James has taken it through the stratosphere. This league today, without LeBron James, I’m scared to imagine what it would be. So when he retires...there’s only two people that I can sit here and say had this impact on the game of basketball. That’s Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Now everybody else was good, but what Jordan did for the game and LeBron did next..shoot..there’s no comparison.
You can talk about points, rebounds and all of that other stuff but when you get down to impact on the game and how they are the center of the entire NBA dynamic, there’s only two people in that room. Everybody else is on the outside knocking.
Did your personal issues with Larry Bird end your tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers (2000-2003)? That team was on the precipice of doing some great things. They could have used your mental toughness in battling the Pistons in ‘04. Were you hosed like Mark Jackson was in Golden State?
Thomas: Do I think it was personal with Larry Bird? I really don’t. When he called me in and fired me it was really smooth. He calls me in and says, “Isiah you’ve done a great job, but I played with Rick Carlisle and it’s not that I don’t like you. I just like him better.”
What can you say to that?
I said, “ I think you and I together with this team, can do some great things.”
Bird felt like his mind is made up. “I’m going to go with Rick.”
I’ve had some conversations with some of the players after I was fired and Carlisle took over and a couple of them told me that they know that the atmosphere when they played the Detroit Pistons in Detroit, would have been different with me on the bench. The crowd may not have been as venomous, certain future incidents may have been avoided and overall we could have stayed contenders longer.
The third part of that is that unfortunately business and basketball wise you get labeled. In business, my label is startups and turnarounds. So I start up businesses or either I buy them and try to turn them around. In basketball it’s the same thing. The Toronto Raptors was a start up.
The Pacers was a turnaround, we were going through a transition from a veteran-laden team that advanced to the Eastern Conference title under Bird, to myself who was now trying to incorporate younger players and win games. In those situations, that turnaround period is 3-3.5 years and then you’re out. So would I have liked to have the opportunity to finish or complete the job in Indiana? Absolutely, but I’m on to another venture with the Liberty right now. It’s another turnaround. Even when I got the Knicks job. It was a turnaround. We had to come in and put people back in the seats.
Remember, people weren’t showing up at the Garden for a while. We had to ignite the fan base and energize the fanbase and make the business work and improve the talent.
He’s definitely doing that with the Liberty. Thomas has survived the highs and lows of big business, faced his deepest human imperfections and continues to embrace the less fortunate and give back to the game of basketball and dedicate himself to helping others with the same vigor he attacks marketing plans, revenue schemes and executive leadership responsibilities. Like his old friend Magic Johnson, who he once co-owned a radio station with as a young NBA player, Thomas isn’t limited by anyone’s opinion or perception of him. He’s self-made and driven. With all that he has overcome, watching his journey moving forward will be interesting to say the least.