Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Isiah Thomas takes GM post with the New York Knicks


It is a moment indelible in Isiah Thomas' memory, and it says a great deal about who Isiah Thomas is, where he came from and the obstacles he had to hurdle to succeed. Thomas, now 42, is back in basketball as of Monday, having accepted the position of general manager of the Knicks, replacing Scott Layden.

The story, as Thomas recounts it, took place on a night in the summer of 1966, when the Vice Lords, a notorious street gang in Chicago, stopped in front of the home of Mary Thomas, a single parent. She had nine children, seven of them boys, ranging in age from Lord Henry, 15, to the baby, Isiah, 5. The Thomases lived on the first floor of a two-story, red-brick building on Congress Street, facing the Eisenhower Expressway.

One of the Lords rang the doorbell. Mary Thomas, wearing glasses, answered the door. She saw behind the gang leader the rest of his entourage, wearing tams and carrying guns.

"We want your boys," he told her. "They can't walk around here and not be in no gang."

She looked him in the eye. "There's only one gang around here, and that's the Thomas gang," she said. "And I lead that."

The gang leader said, "If you don't bring those boys out, we'll get 'em in the streets."

Mary Thomas has also talked about the incident. She said she shut the door, and the gang members waited. Isiah remembers cowering in a corner. She went to the bedroom and returned with a sawed-off shotgun. She opened the door.

She pointed the gun at the figure before her. "Get off my porch," she said, "or I'll blow you across the expressway." The gang leader and his associates disappeared into the night.

Some of Isiah's brothers indeed succumbed to the ravages of inner-city life, but, protected by other brothers and influenced greatly by his mother, whom he calls his role model, he never got involved with gangs or drugs. On the strength of his basketball talent, he received a scholarship to a suburban high school and traveled daily by train and bus for over an hour in the early morning to get there. He received a scholarship to Indiana and won an NCAA championship in his sophomore year under Bob Knight.

Knight was infuriated that Thomas, the best player on his team, would consider turning pro; Knight has attempted to rewrite history and says he encouraged it. But Thomas was the No. 2 choice in the 1981 draft, and the Pistons signed the young man from Congress Street to a US$1 million contract.

At 6 feet 1 inch, Isiah Lord Thomas III, in his 13 pro seasons, became one of the greatest players in NBA history. He spearheaded the Pistons to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. Behind that boyish smile was a killer instinct.

He could shoot, drive, pass, leap, lead, play injured.

But as willing and wise and wily as he is, he has gotten himself into hot water.

When, for example, Dennis Rodman, then a rookie with the Pistons, said that the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird would be just another player if he were black, Thomas agreed.

In 2000, Thomas was named coach of the Pacers, replacing Bird, who no longer wanted the job. Before this season, Bird became the team's general manager, and one of his first acts was to fire Thomas, whose team had lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of his three seasons.

With his deep pockets, Thomas bought the Continental Basketball Association, which, after 55 years of existence, went out of business following two years of his leadership.

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