Long before he became an NBA icon, two-time champion, and eventual business mogul, Isiah Lord Thomas wrote the opening chapters of his legendary story in the NCAA Tournament.
In March of 1981, Thomas announced himself as a force to be reckoned with to the casual hoops fan. But to the hardcore among us, we had long heard the whispers about the kid from The Windy City who was known as “The Baby-Faced Assassin.”
By the end of his senior year in high school, before he even enrolled at Indiana University, “Zeke” was running the point for the Gold Medal-winning American team at the Pan-Am games. In college, he started for head coach Bobby Knight from Day 1 and was the first freshman to ever be voted First Team, All-Big Ten.
It was a feat that even the remarkable Magic Johnson didn’t accomplish. Isiah went on to be selected for the 1980 Olympic team after his wondrous freshman campaign, but the world was robbed of his incandescence when the USA boycotted the Moscow games.
With a style, magnetic smile, swag, and a Chicago playground boogie that was more delicious than Giordano’s deep-dish pizza, Thomas was the one indispensable member of the Indiana Hoosier squad that captured the Big Ten Championship en route to winning the NCAA Tournament.
Not only did they win the title, but they ran through the tournament like a bad case of diarrhea, destroying their opponents by an average of almost 23 points per game. The team leader in scoring, steals and assists, Isiah was the best pure floor general in the country…the best the college game had seen since North Carolina’s amazing Phil Ford.
The irascible and stubborn coach Bobby Knight took unprecedented steps in revamping the Hoosiers’ offensive sets in order to take full advantage of Isiah’s floor game, speed, spontaneous creativity and explosive, one-on-one proficiency. Indiana didn’t look like world-beaters when March Madness got underway, walking into the NCAA’s with a merely respectable 21-9 record.
But in the tournament, Knight dropped the micro-management and decided to unleash Thomas. Knight didn’t however, shelter Isiah from his sailor’s tongue and tough love tactics.
A deadly shooter with radar from anywhere on the court, Isiah had more game than Parker Brothers. Points, assists, steals, leadership and intangibles – that’s what he brought to the floor every night.
During his remarkable two years at Indiana, the school’s fans would display bed sheets with the quote from the Bible’s book of Isaiah that read – “And a little child shall lead them.”
Before the championship game against North Carolina at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, Dean Smith said he was among the best point guards in college basketball history. In only 26 minutes of action in the Final Four against LSU, Isiah scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and handed out four assists.
On the day that President Ronald Reagan got shot, the little fella proceeded to sparkle in the second half of a 63-50 championship victory over Carolina. After going 1 for 7 in the first half, he took over with a dizzying array of buckets, steals, crisp passes and superb floor generalship. He finished with 23 points and five assists en route to the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
He later became a household name with the Bad Boy Pistons during his Hall of Fame NBA career.
But to us true hoop fiends, we knew the deal long before that.