Isiah Thomas’ biggest enemy will always be himself.
Thomas accomplished a staggering amount over the course of his basketball career and yet rarely gets the same credit his contemporaries do. The reason for this is pretty simple, his greatest strength was also his greatest weakness.
On the court, Thomas was arguably the most unselfish superstar in basketball history, regularly taking a backseat to his teammates. Maybe no player in history has had a better understanding of when it was his moment as opposed to his teammates.
Some may argue Magic Johnson was the greatest at this but, Magic was never really the closer of the Lakers like Thomas was for the Pistons. For three and a half quarters, Thomas would play through his teammates until the absolute moment he was needed.
Then, it was Isiah time.
There’s a reason he took down Bird’s Celtic’s, Magic Laker’s and Jordan’s Bulls, with far less All-Time talent around him. His understanding of what his teammates strengths were is really unlike any player we’ve seen before or since.
Ironically though, this skill which undoubtedly led to his championship level success has become the undoing of his legacy. While other legends have seasons of 25 plus points, Thomas never did.
He may have been capable of it but that wasn’t the best way to win and that’s what he valued above all else. Don’t let his diminutive stature or incredible smile fool you, Thomas is one of the great killer’s basketball has ever seen.
The difference between him and the Jordan’s of the world is Thomas was never concerned with his own points or doing it himself. He always believed it was through the team that you would generate success.
Now, when the Pistons needed a bucket they turned to their star. That he shares with many of the other all-time greats. His defining trait though, was it was never about him and that came from his time in college at Indiana.
Bobby Knight knew Isiah Thomas was a unique talent, he had eyes after all. This talent, as undeniable as it was, could not get in the way of what Knight valued above all else: his motion offence.
The Indiana Hoosiers were about Bobby Knight and his trail-blazing offence, not about some kid from West Chicago. Thomas was great but Knight was greater.
That subtle difference initially caused the two to butt-heads before Thomas came to realize Knight was right. Sure, he had been the superstar in the streets of Chicago, that was fantastic. This was major college hoops though and if Thomas was ever going to succeed as a Hoosier, it started with caving to Knight’s wishes.
Surprise, surprise, by the end of his sophomore year Thomas was a national champion and first team All-American. His willingness to worship at the church of Knight had taught him a valuable lesson about the sport that every great who becomes a winner learns.
Basketball is a team sport.
Though this sounds simple, for all-time talents, growing up it doesn’t have to be. In high school, an NBA player can just win on his own simply because of his talent. Even in college at times, an individual can carry the day.
The NBA is different. No one has ever done it by themselves and the faster a great learns that, the more likely they are to win.
That’s the funny thing about most all-timers, they just want to win so if you show them the way, they’ll follow suit. Thomas’ talent at the college level was clearly destined for future professional success, he was just too gifted not to.
Knight’s teachings though allowed Thomas to play from within a system and team that helped establish all of his future success. He was able to allow a Joe Dumars or Mark Aguirre to flourish because he learned the power of team.
Go look at those Bad Boy Pistons rosters. If you stack up their talent, they don’t come close to the Celtics or Lakers of the time. Their success came from their ability to work together and that starts with your best player.
There’s an old saying in basketball, “you are who your best player is”.
Don’t let Thomas’ soft-spoken nature or public niceties fool you, he was the heart and soul of the Bad Boys. That team played the way they did because of Isiah Thomas.
Growing up on Chicago’s west side, in a neighborhood not exactly built for those with faint hearts, prepared Thomas to lead a basketball team designed to magnify the weakness of their opponents.
No not the weakness of their basketball skill. The 80’s Pistons were built to exploit the weakness of their opponents’ souls. If you didn’t have what it took to literally fight your way to the basket, you were never going to beat them.
They became the most hated team in basketball history because they encapsulated a style of play that was straight out of the hood where you had to fight for your survival. It wasn’t a coincidence their best player was Isiah Thomas.
So, not only were his stats deflated thanks to his style of play, he was the face of everything wrong with the NBA to many mainstream fans.
It didn’t help when Thomas famously agreed with Bad Boy teammate Dennis Rodman that Larry Bird “would be just another good guy” if he was black instead of being portrayed as the league’s best player. Criticizing arguably the most popular player in basketball isn’t exactly a move out of a public relations textbook.
Sure, he and Bird did a press conference together after, saying Thomas was misquoted and misinterpreted but the damage was done. You can’t be the face of the Bad Boys and be liked, it’s just not possible.
This is where the fascination of Thomas’ legacy lies. He was an All-Time talent who at his peak was almost unanimously disliked.
Now, years after he retired and without the incredible stats of his peers, Thomas is forgotten in the discussion of the greatest basketball players ever. Somehow names like John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash come up before him in the best point guards ever despite none of them having won the way Thomas did.
Isn’t winning the goal?
So, if he achieved the main goal then the reason, he is so forgotten is simple: if you’re not liked, you’re not going to be remembered fondly. Instead of being spoken amongst the best to ever play, he’s the leader of the dirty guys MJ had to beat or the bitter guy who couldn’t get over the Celtics and stooped to insulting their best player.
In a sport predicated on star power and popularity, Thomas somehow missed that seminar for the game’s best players.
He never cared about how he was thought of when he played. He cared about winning. Stats are just numbers and likeability is a personal preference, but winning championships is forever.
It’s one of the great ironies of basketball history, that a guy who got it, is barely remembered for his talent on the court. Winning requires sacrifices and Isiah Thomas sacrificed his own legacy for the legacy of a team and a city.
Thomas should be one of the sports’ great success stories. Instead, many have ripped the pages of basketball history Thomas wrote, out of the basketball bible.