Leader of the ‘Bad Boys’ Detroit Pistons, Isiah Thomas won 2 Championships in 1989 and 1990. He was also the Finals MVP in 1990 and named as one of the 50 Greatest Players of the NBA.
Born and raised in Chicago, Thomas would ironically become the city’s number one nemesis and prove to be the final hurdle for Michael Jordan. Winning the NCAA championship and making multiple All-NBA appearances, Thomas is one of the premier Point Guards to have ever played in the league.
Before joining college, Thomas had to make the difficult decision to join the Indiana Hoosiers under legendary coach Bob Knight, who was known for his strict discipline. Despite some reluctance and resistance from his family, Isiah went on to join Indiana and coach Knight, which would reshape his entire career and change the face of the NBA.
An elite defender and ball handler, Thomas was also one of the better scorers in the game. He led the league in assists regularly and could drive to the basket at will. He is still remembered as one of the best ball handlers of all time, with his speed, size and skill, he could be devastating to any team at any instance. Adept at shooting threes and mid range jumpers, Thomas was a terror to mark. But above all was his work ethic and leadership abilities that separated him from the rest of the pack. His rise coincided with that of the Pistons and the two formed a long and fruitful partnership.
After a couple of disappointing results in the NBA playoffs against the Knicks and the Celtics, the Pistons and Thomas finally made it into the NBA Finals in 1988, but they lost out to the ‘Showtime’ Lakers in 7 games. Some of Thomas’s most remarkable performances came when his team had their backs to the wall and the game was on the line.
In the 1984 playoffs first round, Thomas and Bernard King of the New York Knicks had a duel for the ages in the final game 5 of the series, with Thomas scoring 16 points in the last 94 seconds to send the game into overtime, but the Knicks eventually would prevail. In another startling performance, in game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Thomas once again displayed his true potential. After injuring his ankle, Thomas and the Pistons looked to be down and out, but Isiah came back, playing with a heavily sprained ankle and immense pain, managed to score a NBA record 25 points in one quarter. The Lakers however closed out the game thanks to a couple of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar free throws, thereby delaying the celebrations in Motor City for another year.
The years 1989 and 1990 belonged to the Bad Boys of Detroit. Gone was the skillful and entertaining style of basketball as the Pistons focused more on intensity, toughness and playoff-style basketball under coach Chuck Daly and his team comprising of Bill Lambeer, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Rick Mahorn, Denis Rodman and others. Chuck Daly galvanized the team and led them to an impressive record in the regular season before turning their sights on yet another showdown against the Lakers. After disposing off of the Celtics and the Bulls, the Pistons with their new style swept the Lakers in 4 games to lift their first Larry O’Brien trophy. The next season, the Pistons would repeat the same, winning the title against the Portland Trailblazers with Isiah Thomas winning his first and only Finals MVP award.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Thomas and his teammates famously staged a walk off in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter in the 1991 NBA Playoffs after their first loss to the Chicago Bulls was looming. Considered unsporting, Thomas would later apologise for the same. Having handed the Bulls losses in each of the previous three seasons, the loss was a bitter pill to swallow for the Pistons, who had used their special ‘Jordan Rules’ to counteract the Bulls’ offensive lynchpin. The Pistons would never reach the same heights again.
Thomas was also surprisingly left out of the 1992 Dream Team, with his strained relationship with MJ cited as the prime reason. The feud started way back in the 1984 All-Star game, when it was alleged that Isiah Thomas had led a “freeze-out” of then starter Michael Jordan. All such allegations have never been proven and have been swept away in time.
Isiah Thomas will forever be known as one of the icons of the game, one of the best point guards to ever hold a basketball and a true legend and franchise leader.