Big Ten Icons: Isiah Thomas

Isiah Thomas was one of the most heavily recruited basketball players the Chicago area has ever produced. Bob Knight landed him by winning over the person who exerted the strongest influence in Thomas’ life: his mother. Mary Thomas was an incredibly strong-willed woman who raised her own nine children and helped with scores of neighborhood kids in the notoriously tough “K-Town” area of the city’s West Side. Once she decided Indiana was the best place for her youngest, the battle was over.

“I don’t think Coach Knight was used to people standing up to him the way my mother did,” Thomas’ sister Ruby once recalled.

Thomas’ dedication and sense of purpose were evident at an early age. He became a playground prodigy accompanying his older brothers to pick-up games all over the West Side, and he rode two buses and a Chicago L-train to St. Joseph’s High School every day because he believed the Catholic school in suburban Westchester offered a better chance at an education.

Despite his modest 6-1 size, Thomas was a brilliant player at St. Joe’s, chosen for the 1979 U.S. Pan-American Games team that won a gold medal in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a month after his high school graduation. He was hardly overmatched by Big Ten competition as an Indiana freshman, averaging 14.6 points and 5.5 rebounds as the Hoosiers went 21-8 and won the Big Ten title with a 13-5 mark. Their NCAA tournament run ended in the Mideast Regional semifinals when they lost to Final Four-bound Purdue.

That summer, Thomas was chosen for the U.S. Olympic team but did not get to compete because President Jimmy Carter chose to boycott the Moscow Games.

Thomas’ sophomore year was a roller-coaster ride. Much to Knight’s consternation, Indiana had trouble establishing any consistency early and had a 7-5 nonconference record, one of the losses coming against Texas-Pan American. The Hoosiers were 16-9 in mid-February. But once they got rolling, there was no stopping them. They closed out Big Ten play with five straight wins, by an average of 13 points, finishing with a 14-4 record and a second straight conference title.

With those nine regular-season losses, Indiana was not considered a particularly strong tournament team, which makes its March Madness run that much more impressive. The Hoosiers opened with a 35-point drubbing of Maryland in which Thomas collected a career-high 14 assists. They beat Alabama-Birmingham by 15 and St. Joseph’s by 32 in the Mideast Regional and moved on to the Final Four in Philadelphia, their first Final Four trip since the 1976 team wrapped up an unbeaten season with the national championship.

With Landon Turner scoring 20 points and Thomas adding 14, Indiana buried LSU by 18 in one national semifinal, but the story of the game was a stifling defensive effort that limited the high-flying Tigers to 49 points.

It was more of the same against North Carolina in the title game, one the NCAA considered postponing after President Reagan was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in Washington earlier in the day. The game was played with the White House’s blessing, and a back-and-forth first half came to an end with Thomas finding Randy Wittman in the corner for a jumper that gave the Hoosiers at 27-26 lead at the break. The second half was all Indiana. With Thomas scoring 15 of his 23 points, Indiana pulled away and won 63-50, presenting Knight with his second national title.

“You never quit,” Thomas said. “You always feel you’re going to win no matter what the score is. It’s all a matter of will. How bad do you want it?”

No one ever questioned Isiah Thomas’ will. His cherubic smile concealed a killer instinct.

With no worlds left to conquer in college, Thomas departed for the NBA, where he cemented his reputation as one of the great small men ever to play the game after the Detroit Pistons took him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1981 college draft. He averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 assists for his career, transforming the Pistons from perennial doormats to consistent contenders and leading them to back-to-back NBA titles in 1989-90. He appeared in 12 consecutive All-Star Games and was chosen as one of the all-time 50 top players in conjunction with the league’s 50-year anniversary celebration in 1996.

And that will? Thomas scored 43 points total and 25 in the fourth quarter of a Game 6 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1987 NBA Finals — on a badly sprained ankle. His proudest moment? In an earlier playoff series that year, Thomas hit a game-winning shot against the Atlanta Hawks in Detroit while his mother was in Bloomington picking up his diploma at IU graduation ceremonies. He promised Mary Thomas he’d get his degree when he turned pro after his sophomore season, and he followed through.

“That was one of the best days of my life,” Thomas said.

Thomas has not shirked his responsibilities as a citizen, having won the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Award for community involvement in 1987. Through the Isiah Thomas Foundation, he supports anti-poverty programs and educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth in the Detroit area. He’s involved with Cease Fire and other programs working to combat street violence in his native Chicago.

“As a person, as a human being, if the only thing I’m remembered for is playing basketball, then I haven’t done a very good job in my life,” Thomas said. “Basketball isn’t everything to me.”

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