The Diary of Isiah Thomas, Part II

Read “The Diary of Isiah Thomas, Part I” here.

In light of the courageous act of solidarity and social responsibility exhibited by the University of Missouri family in response to a pattern of racist and divisive activity (culminating with a swastika scrawled in excrement) levied towards African-Americans and other minority groups in the area since the killing of Michael Brown,  Part 2 of The Diary of Isiah Thomas is right on time. 

Back in July of 2014, shortly before Donald Sterling was forced out as LA Clippers owner in response to his secretly-recorded bigotry against the black community, prominent NBA icons like LeBron James and Chris Paul threatened to boycott and Coach Doc Rivers proclaimed to Clippers CEO Dick Parsons that he would quit if Sterling remained the owner when the season began in October. 

The public display of outrage and player solidarity was rare for NBA players. The threat to boycott was enough to make NBA Commissioner Adam Silver give Sterling the guillotine and eventually his franchise was sold to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The playoff games, however,  went on and the subject quickly faded away. 

Thomas: I was on CNN during that time talking about it

Yes he should have been removed. From a players society standpoint, while we wanted change and asked for change, we got a change in ownership, but did we miss a moment or miss an opportunity to make more change? I definitely would have supported them not playing. But again… the sport, society, America on the world stage…we made a statement but did we really miss the moment to make significant, everlasting change forever?

At that particular moment, the fans, the commissioner, the world would have accepted the stoppage of the game. And significant changes, lifelong changes, would and could have been made during that moment. There are few times when the sport becomes bigger than basketball, and when it does you need the intellectuals to weigh in to make the changes.

So in other words, the right people werent at the table.

During The Shadow League’s pow wow with Isiah Thomas, the 12-time NBA All-Star and business boss recalls a conversation he and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had with a young Michael Jordan, who was represented by renegade agent David Falk at the time.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s many considered Falk the second most-powerful man in basketball behind NBA Commissioner David Stern. He owned a stable of high-profile superstar clients that included iconic figures such as Jordan, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Dominique Wilkins.

Falks marketing wizardry is largely credited with blowing up the Jordan Brand and changing the game. The “Puppet Master” made a kingdom of money, but three decades later, the social impact of the Jordan Brand is immense but lacking integrity in certain areas.  

Without revealing too much detail, the three balling brothers had a meeting of the minds.  

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In his Tarrytown offices, Isiah drew a line down the middle of the table and said MJ and Falk were on one side and Isiah and Kareem were on the other.

We tried to explain to Mike that if he came over on our side, Isiah said, moving a water bottle from one end of the table to the other, imagine how strong we could be as players, controlling our own destiny and being socially responsible and conscious of the black experience as well.

Mike wasnt havent it.

He was already on his way to becoming the brand name in the NBA and he was playing by a new set of rules. The green of the dollar bill was his conscience and it was working just fine as every kid wanted to be like Mike.

Moments like that made Thomas even more ambitious in his community activism, as he advanced in age and stature.   

Chi-Town’s True King

Though often overlooked in the annals of the greatest and most culturally-influential NBA dynasties, Isiah Thomas feels that his Detroit Pistons squad impacted the league as much as any team to ever grace the hardwood.

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Thomas: Very influential…socially, culturally and on the court. In 1986 I had No Crime Day in Detroit. Mayor Coleman Young and the chief of police and I…If you go back and look, we were marching in 1985 down Woodward in Detroit.  At that time, we didnt have the slogan Black Lives Matter. But we were marching.

The impact that we had on the community in terms of what Detroit was representing — whether it be the Chris Webers growing up, a Steve Smith or Jalen Rose — was that your basketball platform should be used for social change. Thats what Muhammad Ali was all about. Thats what Bill Russell was all about.  Thats what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was all about.

A prime example of how that basketball philosophy has rubbed off on some current pro hoopsters can be found at the Annual PEACE Game/league at St. Sabina Church on the Southside of Chicago. Four years ago, Thomas joined Father Pfleger, a long-time family friend and activist in the Chicago community on one of his weekly community walks on the Southside of Chicago. That is where they collaborated on starting the league to try and bring the rivaling gangs together and slow the violence rampant in the city.

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Thomas interest inspired other young NBA studs like Chicago Bulls stars Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, to join the cause and they coached the teams. NBA officials and Chicago natives Danny Crawford, James Capers Jr. and Marc Davis officiated the games. NBA current and former players Sonny Parker and his son Jabari Parker, Bobby Simmons, Quentin Richardson, Will Bynum and Jannero Pargo attended.

Thanks to Thomas dedication and influence, Father Pfleger and St. Sabina Church now offer life skills classes, mentoring, GED classes, employment training, and internship opportunities with corporations in addition to the gang vs. gang basketball contests and have produced many successful people, who were initially lost in the sauce. Most importantly, Thomas acknowledges, the crime rate has gone down in the area.

Noah has been especially diligent in carrying the torch of social responsibility that O.G.’s like Thomas promote. Noah’s foundation, Noah’s Arc, has become a steady pillar in the Chi-Town community. Its a steady grind and he works with kids all throughout the year.

The Kid In The Corner: Fame vs. Social Responsibility

The difference between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas is like night and day. When you get past the flash and the fame of Jordans unprecedented popularity and marketing machine and deal with the real, Jordan will forever be recognized as the superior player, but contrary to popular belief, it can be implied that Thomas was the better man because he gave more to his city than he ever took.   

When I was a young reporter in North Carolina during the late 90s, you would see MJ pop up in Chapel-Hill every now and then with a group of folks, hanging out, blowing down a cigar. It was also common knowledge that he could be found at any high-stakes poker table within a 10 mile radius when he wasnt pushing overpriced kicks to underserved kids and posting $60 million yearly endorsement come ups.

Thomas, on the other hand, chose to frequent low-income communities in his hometown of Chicago and Detroit and really touch people. He cares about the faceless and deteriorating inner-city youth and he spoke to them one-on-one, made and kept promises to instigate change and institute initiatives that they could see, touch and directly benefit from.

His Bad Boy teams, considered by surface basketball fans as one of the most despised back-to-back NBA Champions, dont measure in historical popularity or prominence to Magics Showtime Lakers or Jordans Cover Boy Bulls.

Two legacies. Two different philosophies on how to use power.  

Just days ago, Kareem Abdul Jabbar broke down the difference between Thomas and Jordan in an NPR interview to help promote the new HBO documentary about the NBAs all-time leading scorer and militant mind, titled, Kareem: Minority of One.

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In discussing Abdul-Jabbar’s political activism, MJs famous quote, Republicans buy sneakers, too,” was mentioned. And the Hall of Fame center responded that Jordan chose “commerce over conscience.”

Its really that simple.

Thomas possesses an insatiable appetite for civic duty that shaped him as a child and remained throughout the course of his stellar NBA career.

While his contemporaries were chasing endorsements, lining up new mansions, capitalizing on a changing television and cable TV landscape and keeping everything strictly entertainment and dollar signs, Thomas, a 25-year-old NBA star having just signed a million dollar contract, was dipping through some of Detroit’s most violent neighborhoods, searching out drug pushers, gangbangers, juvenile delinquents and inner-city high school youths on the verge of turning rotten. He begged and implored them to stop the killing in a Saigon city that had the highest murder rate in the country at the time.  

He looked into the eyes of young, misguided and mistreated kids who were reflections of himself as a child — just less lucky – and personally promised to invest in providing assistance for social programs and recreational, educational and housing initiatives.

Most of these kids just need the tough love and direction Isiah got from his mom and realize the gift within them that can lift them out of their dire circumstance. Its a task easier said than done and for every one that makes it out, there are a thousand more who get swallowed by the dragon of destitution.

Friend of Mine To Enemy Lines

Those were the issues that mattered to Isiah during the champagne-and-ladies-80s.  Very mature and progressive actions for a young, black millionaire from the west side of Chicago. His militance didnt exactly fit the NBA marketing agenda. It has cost him in the past. No wonder Magic Johnson admits that he, Jordan and other players conspired to keep Thomas off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. They probably got tired of listening to Isiah talk about community empowerment and improving the educational prospects of underserved kids. Cant have all that money and be so serious.

“Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics,” Johnson writes in the book, “When The Game Was Ours.”

The book was co-written by Johnson, Larry Bird and Jackie MacMullan.

Added Johnson: “Nobody on that team wanted to play with him. … Michael didn’t want to play with him. Scottie (Pippen) wanted no part of him. Bird wasn’t pushing for him. Karl Malone didn’t want him. Who was saying, ‘We need this guy’? Nobody.”

Foul way for Magic to repay a guy who reportedly vouched for and supported an HIV- positive Johnson participating in the 1992 All-Star Game when most players didn’t want to be within 1,000 miles of Magic after he had contracted the disease, which at the time was assumed to carry a sure death sentence.   

Regardless of how Magic and Co. turned on Isiah and created an impression that he is in someway not good peoples, Isiah always has his advocates.

A 2009 article by Jemele Juice Hill supports that.

The fact that John Stockton chose Thomas as his presenter for his enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame shows Thomas isn’t evil incarnate, as some apparently like to think Juice writes.

“He’s done some things behind the scenes that people don’t know about,” Stockton told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’m certainly not going to talk about them now … but he’s shown a lot of class.”

Some guys change with the wind, Thomas, has always been steadfast in his beliefs, no matter how unpopular or misunderstood. 

Thomas: So now as our Pistons team started to grow and get better, we were speaking and talking about race, class and gender. Thats what made the Pistons so interesting as a team. Everyone that covered us… They saw Dennis Rodman. They saw John Salley. They saw Bill Laimbeer.

Peep this right: We won back-to-back championships with a starting white center and he didnt get one national endorsement. Now, what we stood for in Detroit…we were talking about equality. We were talking about the working class. We were talking about a class system that was discriminating. We werent talking about somebody shooting a jump shot.

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What did we do to revolutionize the league on the court?

Well, while the rest of the NBA was playing post-up basketball, you know you had to toss it into the post…Magic had Kareem, who had the sky hook. Boston had Bird, Parish and McHale who all worked the post. We came along and our big man Laimbeer was shooting threes and everyone was criticizing Laimbeer and saying he didnt have a low post game. (Laughter)

We decided to play pick-n-roll all day. So we played side pick-n-roll and we played high pick-n-roll. We shot threes. We drove to the basket. We had three guards. We played what they call small ball now, but with more of that old school grit. 

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Defensively, The Bad Boy Pistons were probably one of the best teams to ever play this game. So, the narrative out there that was going on outside of Detroit didnt matter, because we knew what was happening inside Detroit. The narrative outside the city was: Everybody wants to see Bird, Magic and Jordan play.

But the real story in Detroit was…we were putting 40,000 in the Silverdome, 50,000, 60,000 in the Silverdome. The highest rated games…the most watched NBA games on TV in the 80s have one thing in common.

I finished his answer and said, The Pistons played and we both broke out into one of his patented guffaws.

In reflecting on his classic battles with Magic Johnson, I asked Isiah if, you guys were as close as the media presented at one point?  Did those classic battles strain your relationship at all?

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Thomas: We were that close. And as far as strain…when we got to The NBA Finals, yes. But early on — he, Mark Aguirre and I — we were were like brothers. The big controversy then was that we would hug and kiss. Nowadays you see everybody hugging and kissing. Back then it was controversial. From a family standpoint, you didnt really see people hugging and kissing others outside of their family. When you greeted each other it was with a stale handshake, but I never greeted my brothers with a stale handshake. So with Mark and Magic…. We hugged, embraced, gave each other a kiss on the cheek. We wanted to feel the brotherly love. So when we would do that publicly, back in the 80s, people would be like, what was that about?

Now, its very common and understandable. When you feel that way about someone that you feel close too, you want to let them know.

Reflecting on those golden NBA moments with Isiah inspired him to recall a conversation he was having with someone about the theory that black fathers are less prone to showing affection to their sons and how Magic and Isiahs open affection at center court in front of a national audience, helped change perceptions about what is acceptable expressions of male love.

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Thomas: We forget that if our fathers were born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, the psychological impact that this American society had on those men and what they were going through and how they were being treated…maaan…WHATEVER my father did, I forgive him.

Because back then they were only 10 years or so removed from Jim Crow, so you cant compare black men in terms of success, in terms of those men coming up in the 50s and 60s and even the 70s, and compare them with white men and their experiences.

So the fact that a father may have difficulty showing his son love or whatever difficulties they were having… God bless em’ and they deserve it . And I forgive him because my father was severely depressed. We didnt even know what depression was, but looking back now with knowledge, I understand that he was demoralized by lifes circumstances.

My father sat in the window for six months with his pajamas on,  just staring out the window, when he lost his job at International Harvest. He trained a white male employee and then they promoted that guy over him and fired my father. He never took a shower. Didnt communicate much. He was mad and he was angry and my mom, everybody, we were like, Whats wrong with him?

Back then you didnt understand depression. And when they say my father left me… Theres a whole story behind it that they never tell. My father left because my father was embarrassed and ashamed that he had all these kids and a wife and he didnt have a job. He couldnt take care of them. Now, should he have stayed in that situation, the way he was mentally? It probably wouldnt of been good for us up in that house. 

And the one thing my mother did that was so great for all of us is when my father left, she sat us all down and said: Your Daddy aint right. Something is wrong with him. Hes got to get out of this house. He gotta go.

Now, living in poor communities , its not like your Dad moves to the suburbs. Where does he go? Right up the block (laughter) !  We are still seeing him everyday. It aint like he was rich and can move to another state. Its like, hes right over there. So all our stories as young black men in terms of poverty and family is different. All extended families, the way we are raised and everything else, is an experience unique to African-Americans growing up in the inner cities and underserved communities.  

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