Isiah Thomas: Is He the Pistons’ Savior? 1982

[From Way Downtown has published more than 400 posts in its now roughly three-year run. Not one post has featured Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. Let’s change that now with this excellent article from the February 1982 issue of Basketball Digest. At the typewriter is Jay Mariotti, then with the Detroit News. Mariotti offers an in-depth preview of Detroit’s presumed rookie savior and the good things to come in the Pontiac Silverdome. The even-keel prognostications of Mariotti and his NBA sources make for fun reading today knowing just how driven Thomas was to win championships with his fellow Motown “Bad Boys.” It’s rich slice of NBA history, and a period that From Way Downtown will continue to revisit in the weeks ahead.]


Funny, but the man who is supposed to rescue professional basketball in Detroit isn’t even a man yet. He is 20, looks 17, likes chocolate chip ice cream, loves The Colonel’s original recipe, enjoys being lazy. Each weekday afternoon, after the Pistons finished there morning workout at Crisler Arena during training camp, he snuggled deep under the covers in Room 1004 of the Campus Inn and spent two days watching soap operas.

Ryan’s HopeAll My ChildrenOne Life to Live—I like all of them,” Isiah Thomas says. “Oh, and don’t forget G.H.” General Hospital, of course.

His face is cherubic, his hair cropped close to the scalp, his teeth whiter than those of the Pearl Drops girl. Look at Isiah Thomas, and you see a Boy Scout knocking on your front door, asking for donations so his troop may visit the Smokey Mountains on a field trip. Listen to him, and you hear a senior class president standing behind a podium, urging all students to have their yearbook money no later than next Wednesday. Watch him bounce around the hotel, and you figure he’s a bellboy or the manager’s son or something along those lines.

But a pro basketball player? One million, six hundred thousand dollars over four years? C’mon, the kid’s a senior at Huron High School. College coaches are fighting over him. Looks like he’ll give one of them some depth at guard.

“I look at him, and all I see is a nice, little kid,” drawls Scotty Robertson, who coaches the Pistons. “Isiah is just a great, pleasant little kid. Sometimes I look at him and just shake my head at how boyish he looks.”

Indeed, he looks young—too young, it seems, to trigger a dramatic improvement in the record of one of the worst in National Basketball Association history.

Sure, Isiah Thomas is a wondrously talented player, a 6-feet-1 guard who can do so many things with that orange ball that Dr. James Naismith may climb from his grave and show up at a Silverdome ticket booth this winter. He is the perfect lead guard for Robertson’s new fastbreak offense, a marvelous passer with the quickness to penetrate inside and the shooting touch to score from the perimeter.

As a sophomore at Indiana University last year, he led a makeshift team with above-average talent to the national championship of college basketball. Shortly afterward, he declared he would forego his final two years of school and enter the NBA draft. The Pistons and the expansion Dallas Mavericks, the two worst teams in the NBA last year, flipped a coin to determine which would receive the first pick of the draft. The Mavericks won and decided to choose DePaul forward Mark Aguirre. The Pistons, who weren’t exactly thrilled about choosing Aguirre, grabbed Thomas and turned cartwheels.

Immediately, some local optimists began to assume the new kid would lead the Pistons out of dumps and into the playoffs in his very first season. They figured he would perform the same miracles in Pistonville that he did in Bloomington. He would be Walt Frazier, John Long would become Dick Barnett, Greg Kelser would become Bill Bradley, Phil Hubbard would become Dave DeBusschere, and Kent Benson would become Willis Reed.

This, it can be assured, will not happen in the immediate future.

Maybe three years, maybe four, maybe five. Maybe someday the Pistons will become a contender.

But for all of the magic the kid has in his wand, he will need a dozen wands to make this team a mere playoff contender during the 1981-82 season. “Isiah Thomas is an important ingredient on the road back,” said Stu Inman, a vice-president responsible for personnel with the Portland Trail Blazers. “But there are things to be done in Detroit before that team is a contender.”

“He’s a strong addition they needed to be respectable,” says Jack McKinney, coach of the Indiana Pacers. “Down the road, you’re looking at a good team.”

“The playoffs might be kind of far off,” admits Hubbard, the soft-spoken 6-feet-8 forward who was Thomas’ roommate at training camp. “But Isiah will let us think about doing better this season.”

For certain, Isiah Lord Thomas III will provide solid and immediate benefits to a franchise that lost a little more than $1 million last year. On the court, he should mean about 10 additional victories for the Pistons, who lost 61 of 82 games last season. Off to court, his bubbly personality can only aid the morale of the league’s youngest and most inexperienced team. The attendance at the Silverdome will improve, and he will spur an interest in the Pistons that hasn’t been evident since Bob Lanier and Dave Bing rocked Cobo Arena years ago.

The pressure on the kid is enormous. He knows it.

“I understand the position this franchise is in,” he says with careful articulation. “As far as feeling the pressure, I know people are expecting quite a bit from me, but I don’t allow myself to feel any. I have expectations myself—to win, to win as many games as we possibly can.

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose more games this season than I’ve lost in my whole career. But if we can win as many as we possibly can win, I’ll be happy. If we win 25 games, and that’s as many as we possibly can win, I will have reached a goal. I’m here to try to help the team attain its goals.”

The presence of Isiah Thomas should improve the state of the Detroit Pistons Basketball Company in four categories:

I—On the Court

The Pistons have lacked a quality playmaker since Kevin Porter became a free agent and signed with the Washington Bullets three summers ago. The addition of Thomas will allow Robertson to run and be daring this season. Last year, the coach used a deliberate offense for the plain-and-simple purpose of protecting his team from blowouts.

“He will make the right decisions under pressure,” Robertson says. “What we’ve got in Isiah is a projection of myself and Don Chaney [assistant coach] out there on the floor. You know, everyone says you can’t build a franchise around a guard, but I don’t say that. He is just what we need on this club right now.”

Neither Robertson nor general manager Jack McCloskey mentions scoring when discussing Thomas. With scorers like Long and Kelser around, Isiah’s primary role will not be to put the ball in the hole. He will make his teammates’ jobs easier.

“It’s just amazing what he can do with the ball,” says Long, the 6-feet-5 guard who has led the club in scoring the last two seasons. “If you’re open for a split second, that’s all he needs. It’s just so unusual what he can do. He has the ability to carry us all by himself. It’s a thinking man’s game, and he knows how to think.”

“He’s going to get us the ball,” says Kelser, the 6-feet-8 small forward who should average between 16 and 20 points per game this season. “Isiah can penetrate and either pass the ball to one of us or take it himself. I think it’s obvious he’ll help us a lot.”

Not all NBA people gush over Thomas, however. Some say he is too small; others say he is too young to excel in the NBA as a rookie. Even his most-ardent supporters question whether he ever will be more than an average defensive player because of his size.

“I think he’ll have problems defensively,” Inman says. “I compare him a lot with Phil Ford [Kansas City guard] and our Kelvin Ransey. I think it’s very possible he’ll have just an average first season. All kids, particularly small guards, have to learn about the league.

“But as the years go by, he’ll prove to be a money-in-the-bank type of player. He’s a good passer, a good scorer, a no-nonsense kind of kid who wants to go out and get the job done. Maybe he won’t be one of the prettiest players in the NBA, he will be one of the most effective.”

During the first nine days of camp, Thomas was somewhat sluggish offensively and defensively. He will become a superior offensive player in time, once he figures out the intricacies of Robertson’s system.

“I didn’t know there were so many offensive patterns in pro basketball,” Thomas admits. “We have so many patterns and plays, I get confused. Because of it, I don’t think I’ve played as well as I can in camp.

“I realize I still have a lot to learn. On defense, I’m going to be playing against guys who are much quicker, much taller, and much better than I’m used to. I think in my first season, I’m going to be relying on the others quite a bit on defense.”

McCloskey is betting his new prize will improve defensively. More than anything, the general manager is impressed by Thomas’ mental toughness. “During our contract negotiations, I told Isiah he would have to improve defensively,” he admits. “I know he’s a very capable defensive player if he works hard on it. He’s a competitor who has a tremendous amount of pride.

“He’s going to be tested. But Isiah is such a tough player, he amazes me sometimes. He will adapt when he must. Between Isiah and Kelly Tripucka, we have the two toughest players who came out of the draft.”

Defensive deficiencies aside, Isiah may prove to be a better scorer than the Pistons anticipated. In his first regular-season game, Thomas netted 31 points to go with 11 assists in a win over Milwaukee. Two nights later, he returned home to Chicago and triggered a 118-105 win with 28 points.

After winning their first three games, the Pistons came to Boston and Philadelphia, the latter being a 95-93 decision, despite 25 points by Thomas.

II—Team Morale

Mark Aguirre wouldn’t have been good for this team. In fact, the Pistons’ clubhouse might be one big pot of dissension if the egotistical, overweight shot-happy forward were a member of the team.

Not so with Thomas. As important as he will be handling the basketball, he will be just as important to this club as a leader. Sure, he doesn’t turn 21 until April 30. But other than five-year veteran Ron Lee, who was bounced out of a starting position by Thomas, no player on the team is older than 26.

“He has charisma, an ability to inspire confidence in his teammates that only a few players have like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or Julius Erving,” says Rod Thorn, the Chicago Bulls’ general manager. Thorn would give McCloskey the Sears Tower for Thomas, who grew up a few miles from Chicago Stadium on the city’s West Side.

“He’s just so good for attitude reasons,” he says. “Who wouldn’t love to have him?”

Thomas is a leader. During scrimmages, he whoops and hollers like Meadowlark Lemon. He encourages his teammates and slaps them on the backside when he feels the need. “Just in what I’ve seen, the people on the club respect his ability,” McCloskey says. “He has the humility not to overpower anyone with leadership. I think that’s most important. He is a good person, one who will help give this club a good chemistry.”

Although he is seven inches smaller, Isiah is most often likened it to Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers’ dynamo who—like Thomas—is represented by Chicago attorney George Andrews and advised by Dr. Charles Tucker of Lansing. But for as much as Magic did to inspire the Lakers to the NBA title in 1980, his presence and all of the publicity that goes with it did just as much to create dissension last year.

McCloskey promises that won’t happen in Detroit. “We will not have that kind of problem on this club,” he says. “We have good people on this club.”

But Andrews, who saw what happened in Los Angeles last season, has reservations. When The Detroit Newsasked his permission to publish a weekly diary of this client’s thoughts, Andrews cited the Lakers’ situation and refused to grant approval.

If the players’ sentiments mean anything, Andrews has no reason to worry. “Everyone likes Isiah,” Long says. “His attitude is spreading to everyone on the team. If we’re all as excited as he is, we’re gonna have a season to look forward to.”

III—Attendance and Interest

Since Dick Vitale was fired as Pistons’ coach 12 games into the 1979-80 season, most of the fans at the Silverdome have been disguised as empty seats. Who, after all, wants to trudge across the tundra of the northern suburbs to watch a last-place team get whomped every game?

But Thomas’ influence already is affecting attendance and interest in the Pistons throughout metropolitan Detroit. Not only did 85 percent of last year’s season-ticket subscribers renew seats for this year, the club has sold twice as many season tickets to new subscribers than last season.

Television revenue has increased because of Thomas. The Pistons recently settled a lucrative five-year deal with ON-TV, the local subscription TV firm. And they have been able to demand higher advertising rates for their 14 telecasts on WKBD-TV in Detroit.

Also bound to help the franchise is added coverage by the city’s two major daily newspapers, both of which intend to send reporters to Pistons’ road games for the first time since the playoff years of the mid-1970s. “Things are looking up for us,” says Tom Wilson, the Pistons’ executive director. “Most of the interest has been created by Isiah. This season we expect attendance to increase. How much is impossible to say, but we will improve.

“Our philosophy is that we bottomed out at the end of our 16-win season [1979-80 season]. Once you’ve been where we were, there’s no way to go but up.”

Much of the increase in attendance is expected to come from the Black population. Since the Pistons moved to Pontiac before the 1978-79 season, Blacks from Detroit have stayed away from the Silverdome in droves.

Suddenly, there is an attraction. “Hey,” Isiah says, “I’ll beg the people to come see us.”


The potential in this category is unlimited. Before the end of his first season, Isiah could rival Billy Sims as Detroit’s most-marketable athlete. “Locally, it’s just a matter of him building his own identity, and us supporting it,” Wilson says. “He has so much charisma, I don’t see how he can miss. He’s like a little Dr. J. At the Pontiac Mall back in July, he attracted more people than we would have had if three-fourths of our other players were there.

“Everyone is interested in him. We’ve had so many inquiries. If we had a carte blanche setup, we could sell Isiah to everyone. But his people want everything done through them.”

Andrews, again, is being careful with this client. At the moment, the only deals have been signed with Converse Shoes and Wilson Sporting Goods, which is coming out with an Isiah Thomas-model basketball. “He’s not a box of cereal,” Andrews says. “We’ll eventually sit down and talk with some people in different markets. But we’re going to take our time on this.

“I think he has the potential to be a natural sponsor for some products. But we’re going to be very selective. We’ve always had the policy to establish ourselves in the way of an identity before we do things.”

For Thomas to become a national celebrity, he will have to overcome the obstacle of playing for a losing team. “If Isiah is to be a marketing success, it will require a winning program,” Wilson admits. “The same goes for Billy Sims. If he gained 1,300 yards for the next five years, he still would have problems if the Lions continued to be a .500 team. When Isiah starts appearing on national TV and we start winning, that’s when things will begin to happen.”

“Some people are reluctant to do things because of the ballclub,” Andrews says. “It’s going to take winning for Isiah to approach an Earvin Johnson in the way of endorsements. But I think, right now, that we shouldn’t be talking about these things. His mind has got to be on nothing else but the game.”

To that, Isiah Thomas says amen.

“That’s absolutely right. There are too many other things to accomplish here to be thinking about anything but the game.”

Yes, oh great savior of the Pistons, there are many.

Good luck, young man.

You will need it.

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