For Isiah, NBA exile isn’t easy

By Bill Reiter , Courtesy of Fox Sports
Updated: March 30, 2011

Miami, FLA.—The exiled sits on a busy street at a busy cafe, safely under the shade of an umbrella, wearing nondescript clothes and too-big sunglasses meant to hide his face.

But he blends, easily enough, so much so that when the shades come off, still no one takes notice or offers a double take or so much as shouts out, “Isiah!” To be exiled is to be at once famous and formerly powerful and yet, in a new place, as obscure and ordinary and unnoticed as those around him.

Isiah Thomas, two-time NBA champion, former NBA head coach, former NBA general manager, former NBA part owner, is now the head basketball coach at Florida International University. The mere mention of his name as a possible future NBA executive brings sneers.

Isiah Thomas 1

Is the negative image of Isiah Thomas among many fans a caricature?

Doug Benc

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“I love the game of basketball,” the 49-year-old says, a glass of red sangria sitting in front of him. “I was brought up in the game. That’s what I’ve done my whole life: high school, college, pros. Basketball’s always been in my life.”

Yet, this curbside bistro in Coconut Grove, this is where a fast and furious fall has taken Isiah Thomas. Now in the Sun Belt Conference, he sips his drink and looks around. Across the street sit his wife and daughter. Around the corner awaits his condo, with the maritime-themed lobby and elevator and a quiet ease of luxury.

Despite all this, and Isiah’s smile, and Isiah’s charm, and Isiah’s assurances he’s happy as can be, it strikes me as absolutely certain the man is not satisfied.

He is exiled.

And for the exiled, what is lost — and what is still hoped for — bears down with brute force on the present no matter how idyllic it seems.

Isiah is in Miami after more than four well-documented and disastrous years as the president of basketball operations and then head coach of the New York Knicks. After the losing and the lawsuits and the tabloid headlines. After a painful exit from a league he loves.

This wholesale disconnect from any official part of the NBA looks a lot like the culmination of a career in which Isiah Thomas has always been seen — or, depending on your perspective, has always been treated — as the bad guy.

A quick glance at the drama surrounding him:

Accusations he orchestrated a freeze-out of Michael Jordan during the 1985 All-Star Game. His comment after losing in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals to the Celtics that if Larry Bird was black “he’d be another good guy.”

The 1992 Dream Team snub. Magic Johnson’s very public rebuke. Talk he ruined the minor-league Continental Basketball Association as its owner. The confusion surrounding Isiah’s alleged suicide attempt, his daughter’s trip to the hospital and the controversy surrounding both.

And, of course, those New York years.

“In some ways it was the perfect storm — an owner who’s impatient, a star player who’s not a star player and Isiah scrambling to rebuild the team on the fly,” says Frank Isola, who covers the Knicks for the New York Daily News. “All that did was get the Knicks in trouble when he would have been better served being more patient.”

Several things are true about life in exile, including the fact many will disagree over why the person has been sent away.

“As a person you either love him or hate him,” says Greg Anthony, the former Knicks point guard Isiah mentored, but with whom he had a brief falling out after criticizing Isiah and the Knicks on ESPN. “Part of that is what made him great. He’s a black-and-white kind of guy. There’s no middle area with Isiah.”

This is also true: To ponder whether being exiled is permanent or not makes a talkative, contemplative man short for words.

“I hope that’s not the case,” Isiah says. “But.” And that’s all he says for a very long time.

The exiled speaks of contemporaries who have not been banished with unusual candor. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson — all of these men remain intricately involved in the league, respectively, as owner, general manager, color commentator.

In Miami, Magic sits next to Pat Riley at games in full view. Isiah, when he goes, does so in the anonymity of a luxury box. Unseen.

So, when asked about his place compared to such men, this is the response:

Isiah Thomas 4

When it comes to his contemporaries like Michael Jordan, Thomas doesn’t give an inch.

Andrew D. Bernstein

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“I have no problem saying this at all,” he says. “They’re all 6-(feet)-9 and Jordan was 6-6 and a half. If they were all 6-1, it wouldn’t even be a question. They wouldn’t even f—ing rate. If they were all my size, s—, they wouldn’t even be talked about.

“I beat the s— out of them when they were that big. If we were all the same size, f—.” He stops to laugh good-naturedly. “Make them 6-1 and let’s go on the court.”

Pride, hope, anger, frustration, self-belief and self-doubt, a flurry of facts and an ability to see things a certain way — all of these things mark a life in limbo.

At the most basic of all such feelings wait these questions: Was Isiah Thomas the utter failure his enemies and other observers have made him out to be? Is he the wronged man who did not get the second chances afforded a Jordan or a Larry Brown or, hell, half the league’s coaches and executives? Is he something in between? Can we even know yet?

At this restaurant so far from the bright lights of the league, Isiah does not want to address any of this.

But history can offer insight.

History shows that exile does not necessarily mean the end. For Churchill, political exile eventually gave way to one of Western civilization’s finest moments of leadership. For Napoleon, a return from exile led to an even worse fate.

Yes, sometimes the exiled remains locked out of the place he believes he belongs, the place that shaped him, the place he, himself, sculpted.

But sometimes, when you least expect it, the exiled returns with a renewed focus, hell-bent on never being banished again.

So, a man who has been exiled like Isiah Thomas does not spend too much time talking about the righteousness or injustice of why he has been sent away — he focuses only on trying to adjust to his new situation and, often enough, finding his way back home.

* * *

Isiah stands up and nods toward an opened front door.

“Let’s watch the game.”

With the same grace with which he moved as a player, he cups his glass and heads inside the restaurant, to a curved bar with a television behind it.

The Miami Heat are playing a home game and Isiah expounds on the Heat, the state of the NBA, the nature of being rooted for and against and what it means to be a celebrity-athlete in modern society.

He’s talking about the Heat when, without realizing it, he also begins talking about himself.

“In basketball, there’s always a good guy and a bad guy,” he says. “And everybody can’t wear a white hat. And when they embrace the black hat, they’ll be all right. They’re not ever going to get the white hat.”

I tell him that sounds a lot like, well, him.

“I wear the black hat,” he agrees. “I still wear it.”

He wore the black hat early. Of course he did. He was a black kid from western Chicago. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Boys and Girls Club became his sanctuary. Intricately woven into that place was the game that, until only recently, always loved him back.

“The community we grew up in was extremely trying for the times,” said Ray Anderson, a childhood friend. “That place was a safe haven, a beacon for parents who were at work. Isiah moved so many times Isiah had to use the club’s address as his home address on many occasions. That’s how meaningful that place was for many kids.”

Never mind Isiah got up at 4:30 every morning to commute to school. Never mind he played at Indiana University for Bob Knight, a man who hasn’t suffered a fool — or a head case, or a bad kid, or a “black hat” — probably one time in his entire life. Never mind Isiah went back to Bloomington over his summers, despite having left early for the NBA, to receive his degree. And never mind the business success he’s had as a result.

To many, Isiah was just that black kid from western Chicago who eventually played for that tough-ass team in Detroit. Bad boy, indeed.

So, the fact he wears the black hat is part personal history, part branding, part reality, part race and, to Isiah, part media distortion.

“A lot of people can’t believe the success he’s had, and the adversity, and that’s he’s a fighter — and he’s still holding his head high,” says his wife, Lynn. “People want to see people fall down. It’s sad. Just the childhood Isiah grew up in and the success he’s had. He’s done things a lot of people wouldn’t have done and that people don’t know what he’s done.”

As a member of the Pistons, he was the leader of the “Bad Boys.” They were viewed as dirty and vicious and unsportsmanlike, and they won two NBA championships.

People saw him one way. He was most likely another entirely.

“You would think this guy had a bunch of s—,” said former Pistons teammate John Salley. “But all he was concerned about was his career. He ate, drank and slept basketball. I might be out in the streets, but Isiah was the guy who was always concerned with getting his eight, nine hours of sleep. He was different.

“He could write poetry that was unbelievable. He’d do it in the locker room by hand. He’d say, ‘I’m not what people want me to be. I am who I am.’ “

Still, Isiah’s black hat is heavier and darker than most players from those teams.

His image has been burnished by a slew of rumors, innuendo and facts that have tainted him with as thick a brush as those Detroit teams did.

Check out the lovely ladies of the NBA’s all-WAGs team here.

He was blamed for freezing out Michael Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game, a charge he hotly denies. Magic Johnson has accused him of spreading rumors about his sexuality, another charge Isiah says is flat-out wrong. He played a role in the refusal to shake hands with members of the Chicago Bulls after they sent the Pistons packing in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, which is undoubtedly true.

Isiah was left off the Dream Team, a fact as stunning as it was telling about the depth of his perceived villainy.

Larry Bird fired him in Indianapolis. Isiah is widely viewed as having run the Continental Basketball Association into the ground. And New York — the losing, the crippling contracts to players like Jerome James, the salacious Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment suit and the drama surrounding Stephon Marbury.

Those who say Isiah was a colossal failure after his playing days — and they are many — point to New York as proof’s exclamation point.

But there are others, many who do not want to speak on the record, who believe Isiah failed because it happens in the NBA, not because he’s a failure.

Even those who have been highly critical of him say he has some upside.

“I was very critical of him,” Isola says. “But he does have a lot of redeeming qualities, and I think he could have a role with a team. I think there are some strengths.”

Added agent Aaron Goodwin, who counts Kevin Durant among his clients: “Part of that is dealing with the New York media. They’re extra hard on you, and if they decide they don’t like you, they don’t like you.”

Acknowledging Isiah’s teams lost, Goodwin adds, “The off-the-court stuff hurt. It gave them an opportunity to go after him.”

That is a friend of Isiah Thomas speaking, and it’s true one could make two lists — one of Isiah friends and one of folks who are certainly not his friends — and each would be long and distinguished.

One guy who’s not a friend?

Magic Johnson.

* * *

Isiah Thomas can mount a rousing self-defense — he likes to say with a laugh that he’ll “f— you up with facts” — with an ease, intelligence and charm that in no way resembles someone wearing the black hat.

“When you look at my basketball career, s— from 12 years old to 45, I was pretty damn good,” he says. “Now, New York, hey, I wasn’t good. In a lot of ways. But I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s been made out to be. It’s not great, but it’s definitely not as bad as it’s been made out to be. And a lot of it’s been grossly overstated and grossly misrepresented.”

So, the question is, then, why so much smoke if there’s no fire? Why so much animus toward one man? Why would a proven winner, a Hall of Fame player who still counts some of the game’s best players as personal friends, be driven from the league for no good reason?

Doesn’t it sound a bit conspiracy theory-ish, Isiah?

I ask Isiah this expecting to hear something like: Because life is unfair. Because good people get bad deals. Because the media are as good at chewing up people as they are at building them up. Because sometimes that’s the way the game goes.

Isiah Thomas 3

Magic and Isiah used to be friends. Not anymore.

Andrew D. Bernstein

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Instead, wholly unsolicited, Isiah brings up Magic Johnson.

“I don’t know what that was about,” Isiah starts off. “From my family and my friends and all of us who really knew the relationship that Earvin and I had, I can’t tell you the number of people that called me and asked me what that was really about.

“He chose to believe something that his agent, Lon Rosen, told him — which is totally just a bulls— lie,” Isiah goes on, angry. “Just a flat-out lie.”

The allegation, of course, is that Isiah told people Magic is gay. As Isiah goes on — hot, hurt, talking faster — it dawns on me that when Isiah thinks about his break with the league, he thinks about Magic Johnson. To Isiah, at least, the two appear intricately linked.

Perhaps they are, but the men who could clear it up, Magic and Rosen, couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Honestly, I’ll tell you, just for me I always had a great deal of respect for Isiah and I still have a great deal of respect for him,” says Jackie MacMullan, who wrote the Bird-Magic book (“When The Game Was Ours”) that contained the allegations. “I was sad to learn that this rift existed. I really wish Isiah had called me back, because I thought if he did we could have fixed some of this. If you put the two of them in a room for 25 minutes, they could work it out. I really believe that. I wish they’d do that.”

But they haven’t done that, and so Isiah is still talking.

“He chose to believe that,” he says of Magic. “And that’s his belief. But his belief is not accurate. Anyone who knows me and my family, I’ve always talked against any type of discrimination. I mean that’s been my life. That’s been my history.”

The two were tight, even during the New York years — or so Isiah thought. And so Magic’s public denunciation of him seems to sting as deeply as any of the other allegations Isiah is quick to deny or explain, whether it’s the Jordan freeze-out or his team walking off the court against Jordan’s 1991 Bulls team.

“He would come to the games, we would go out after dinner, myself, my wife, his kids, my kids,” Isiah says. “Hell, he invited me to his 50th birthday party.

“It did catch me by surprise until Jackie MacMullan did call me and ask me for the book if I had a response to it,” he goes on. “I didn’t want to be in that book. It was a book about Bird and Magic, supposedly when the game was ‘theirs.’ “

He pauses and puts his fingers up as quotation marks and raises his eyebrows playfully, before laughing and going on. “I don’t quite remember it that way. I do recall there was some other people around during that time.”

This gets to a paradox about Isiah Thomas that makes it, in my mind, very hard to separate fact from fiction. Isiah Thomas is at once an NBA outsider and an absolute insider.

During his playing days, many say, he always held himself somewhat apart.

“I’m in the NBA, but I’m not … how can I say that?” he says, slipping into the present tense. “That’s my job. But my social life, my family life, my friends were always outside the NBA. My friends are still my high school friends.”

Yet, like an insider, he remains connected to many of the game’s great players. Like many exiles, he has many supporters awaiting his return.

“I don’t feel (like an outsider),” he says. He pauses, decides to qualify. “From the players? Management? Coaches? I’m well received and have a lot of friends, talk to a lot of people. I’ve helped a lot of people.”

Which brings us to whether Isiah, on behalf of his good friend, Knicks owner James Dolan, was instrumental in helping New York land ‘Melo and Amare’.

So I ask him: Was that you?

He takes a long time to answer.

“I do have a lot of friends,” he says carefully. “And I am asked to advise in a lot of different scenarios. Players, coaches, and … ” A very long pause. “I won’t comment on the Knicks situation, but I do like helping the Knicks, and I do want them to do well.”

* * *

Before the Knicks are in real free-fall, before ‘Melo in a Knicks uniform induces panic and poor play, we sit in a golf cart on the fairway on the second hole at Biltmore Golf Course in Miami and wait for a threesome ahead of us to finish.

It is beyond tranquil.

“In basketball I’m good,” he suddenly says. “But in PR, clearly I suck. Clearly, I’m not good at this.”

Many agree, saying his PR problems go back to that “Bad Boy” image.

Isiah Thomas 2

Many Knicks fans would say the same thing to Stephon Marbury and Isiah Thomas: Good riddance.

Rocky Widner

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“I would say 100 percent,” Greg Anthony says. “The problem with Isiah is analogous with being a politician. You have to define who you are and not let your opponents define you. His pundits, his critics have defined who he is.

“He hasn’t taken the time to define himself,” Anthony says. “He hasn’t done the radio interviews, the TV interviews, the magazine interviews. He hasn’t opened himself up to give his side of the story. The public doesn’t have any other take on Isiah. His history is being written by someone other than him.”

Isiah knows this. He talks about the New York media the way a basketball player might an opponent whom he never saw coming — until it was all over and past too late.

As if on cue to show he is not, in fact, great at PR, he drops the comment about how Jordan, Bird and Magic wouldn’t “f—ing rate” if they were 6-1.

Toward the end of our play, I scald a 5-iron and send my ball screaming toward some kids playing in their yard. Isiah can’t stop laughing, or giving me hell about it, or loving the moment. When we get up near them, and a concerned mother glares out the window, Isiah smiles and gives a huge wave.

She laughs and waves back.

The truth is, Isiah Thomas really is an incredibly likable guy. He is bright, and he is a straight shooter, and he might not be good at his own PR, but he sure is good to be around.

In that way, at least, he defies the public image that’s been shaped by years of wearing the black cap. I don’t know if Isiah is the worst general manager ever, or could be the best, or if he deserves a second chance, or if he doesn’t. I just know I hope he does OK.

And in that moment, the sun about to set, the course beautiful, he sounds like someone who perhaps can learn to enjoy this life — this life away from all he’s ever known, away from the league.

“You know what,” he says. “This is sweet. Sports doesn’t suck. We make a great living, and have a great life, around this. Crazy as it is.” He laughs loudly, and for one of the first times during our talks he sounds truly, deeply happy. “People should just relax.”

But it doesn’t last.

In the end, a man wants to go home.

* * *

We sit by the Biltmore pool and talk, and after a while I ask him for phone numbers of people who can speak to his situation. I ask him what Charles Barkley would say.

“Here’s his number. Call him and ask him.”

I tell him I will.

“Call him now.”

I squirm. Reporters aren’t crazy about conducting interviews in front of a story subject. For one thing, if Charles Barkley says bad things about Isiah … well, that could be awkward.

I start to dial and Isiah says, “Don’t tell him I’m here! I want to know what he says,” and the full extent of Isiah Thomas’ exile hits me.

Here is this accomplished, wealthy, famous, Hall of Fame athlete — and he needs me to tell him what Charles Barkley thinks about him. Exiled indeed.

But still, why not call? Isiah Thomas is dumping numbers on me, including for people, like Barkley, who might very well rip him to shreds. That speaks volumes about his comfort level with being analyzed and discussed. And it’s not like whatever Barkley tells me won’t appear in this story anyway.

It’s going to be public and published, and Isiah will surely read Barkley’s comments. Isiah knows this. Barkley, if he takes my call, will know this. I know this.

The phone keeps ringing, but Barkley doesn’t answer, and so I hang up, relieved. I send a text instead. I feel like I’m off the hook, and then the phone rings.

“Hey, it’s Charles.”

So, with Isiah listening intently, I ask if Isiah belongs in the NBA, as a coach or general manager.

“He’s coaching right now,” Barkley says. “He got fired, and when you get fired you don’t just go get another job. He’s a great guy and I like him, but he made some bad decisions with the Knicks, like I think everyone knows. He has a job now, so that should be his No. 1 priority. Gotta do that.”

I hang up. I tell Isiah what Barkley said. His face falls.

The sun has set and it’s dark now, and the huge outdoor pool is a tranquil blue, but Isiah’s voice lacks any of the calmness of the scenery surrounding us.

“I know I’m in a real tough spot media-wise,” he says. “Because of all the stuff that happened in New York. But on the street, with the players, I’m not at all. It’s totally different.”

Then, a little bit later:

“I’m telling you,” he says. “I’m going to f— you up with facts.”

* * *

Fact: In the postseason, when all were in their prime, Thomas beat Jordan, Bird and Magic more than they beat him — and with an inferior supporting cast.

Fact: During his time with the Knicks, he paid $30 million to Jerome James, brought in head case Stephon Marbury, traded for Eddy Curry, passed on Rajon Rondo and … well, let’s say it was not good.

Fact: During five seasons as an NBA head coach, Isiah had two winning seasons, one .500 season and two blatantly awful seasons. The Knicks were 56-108 under his head-coaching watch.

Fact: In 2009, ESPN used the Estimated Wins Added stat, developed by respected basketball mind John Hollinger, to judge 20 years worth of general managers. Isiah was ranked the second-best evaluator of talent, a determination helped by the fact that during Isiah’s tenure with the Toronto Raptors the team drafted Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby and Tracy McGrady.

Fact: In two years as head coach at FIU, he is 18-44.

Fact: Blaming the media is tried and true, but the media can’t do anything to you if you win. Ask Bob Knight. He’s over at ESPN now.

Fact: Allegations and rumors, as well as uncertainty over several incidents, have long marked Isiah’s NBA legacy.

* * *

The exiled pretends.

The exiled can convince himself he can live in Elba after ruling France. Or that Chartwell can fill the void left by losing a seat of power in Parliament. Or that a once-great NBA force can make do as coach of a program in the Sun Belt Conference.

But, in the end, what once was has a stronger hold. Almost always, whether they succeed or fail, the exiled tries again.

So, as Isiah Thomas drives home in his Range Rover with the New York plates and the talk about what he’s lost, candor finally wins out.

The exiled wants to go home.

“I’m down here struggling,” he says. “I’m down here fighting to survive. I’m down here fighting.”

A long silence.

“I don’t want to be a sympathetic figure,” he says. “My mom said that. When we were poor, people gave us food. We struggled, but she said you don’t accept people’s sympathy.

“‘Accept kindness, not sympathy,'” he says, quoting her. “‘Sympathy makes you weak.'”

“I can’t be that sympathetic figure.”

This, he says, is why he has tried not to talk about all this. Why he says — perhaps even tries to believe — he will be just fine if he doesn’t get another chance in the league: Because to ask for sympathy, enough sympathy to get that second chance, would make him weak. Would go against what his family was and is about.

But he’s had enough. The exiled is tired. Why deny the obvious? He admits he hasn’t proven he’s a great coach, but believes he has proven he has the skill set to evaluate talent. The man wants another opportunity. He hasn’t given up. How could he? He’s a fighter.

“I wouldn’t be down here working if I didn’t have fight in me,” he says. “I got knocked down. I’m down here, working. I’m fighting.”

We drive in silence for a long time.

“Do you know the question you should be asking me?” he asks with such intensity he catches me off guard. “‘Why come down here to do this, why do you want to go back, why keep fighting?'”

He’s really going now, talking about how he has enough money to retire, how that’s the smart move. As the Range Rover cuts through the night toward the condo and his loving wife, his voice grows intense.

“Because I love it,” he says, answering his own question. “I truly love the game. It’s sick, but I love it.”

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter.