Throwback Thursday: Isiah Thomas

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we spotlight stars of yester-year chosen by a rigorous scientific process we know in-house as “Whoever Nick Feels Like Writing About This Week Unless We Haven’t Covered Detroit In A While.” This week’s Throwback Thursday: Isiah Thomas.

“The secret to basketball is that it isn’t about basketball.” –Isiah Thomas

Whether that quote reads as silly or profound depends entirely on who’s saying it, but when it’s Isiah Thomas—the only franchise star to eliminate Magic, Bird, and Jordan* from the playoffs in his career, you should probably listen. Smaller, weaker, and less athletic than the other megastars of the 1980s—including not only Bird/MJ/Magic, but Dr. J, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bernard King and others—Isiah Thomas nonetheless made a living off kicking their butts.

*He posted a winning record against both MJ and Magic in the playoffs, and went even in both games and series with Bird.

A two-time champion and a member to the NBA Top 50, Thomas never quite fit the profile of a traditional superstar. He could score well, and often led the Pistons in points, but he never averaged over 23 ppg. He was a gifted passer, but—barring an anomalous and astonishing 1123 assist season*—he wasn’t generally as prolific a setup man as contemporary rivals Magic and Stockton. He was a feisty defender, but never made an All-Defensive Team.

*The fifth greatest passing season of all time, and the best passing season of all-time by someone not named “John Stockton.” Thomas probably could have racked up a few more seasons in that stratosphere, but generally he preferred to share the playmaking duties, mostly with Joe Dumars, who joined the team the year after Zeke’s historic season.

No, Thomas didn’t earn his rings or his rep with numbers or size. He did it with a fierce competitiveness that made him as many enemies as it did fans (not least among them: Michael Jordan) and a superlative clutch resume. Thomas’ scoring totals may not have set the world on fire, but he was prone to massive scoring outbursts at the best possible time. The first example that springs to mind is his 16 points in 94 seconds to force overtime in the 1984 playoffs against the Knicks. New York would ultimately win OT… but only after Thomas fouled out.

More famously, in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, Thomas’ Pistons were facing a deficit at the hands of Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers. Thomas put up twenty-five points in the third quarter to keep the Pistons in it… despite suffering a serious ankle sprain halfway through the quarter. In a moment that conjured Willis Reed’s 1970 heroic (also against the Lakers), Thomas gutted it out through the pain, putting up another 11 (of Detroit’s 15) points in the quarter to keep his team alive. Thomas finished with an unreal 43 and 8, but the Lakers won the game on a shaky foul call, and closed out the series in Game 7 with Thomas too limited by the by-then extremely swollen ankle.

But beyond those highlights, the throughline of Thomas’ career was always that same intense will to win. He nearly broke the game of basketball with the “Jordan Rules” his Bad Boys teams employed to stop MJ, and at first look, there’s a fair case that they were beneath the dignity of the game. But in the larger context of Thomas’ career, they were no different than anything else he did: they were a way to win. After all, remember: the secret of basketball… is that it isn’t about basketball.

In fiction, we’ve got a million stories of a hero who wanted something so badly he became a villain to get it. From Darth Vader to Michael Corleone, these arch figures are undeniably sympathetic, and yet reviled and feared. In the vast majority of the basketball world, that was the character arc of Isiah Thomas: a young phenom who came into a league full of giants gifted with more size, more skills, and more help than he ever had, and nobly play David to their Goliaths until he ultimately became consumed with the need to win, and sacrificed his reputation, his body, and his ethics to get it done. In every basketball-watching city but one, it was a Greek tragedy.

In Detroit, though?

It was a superhero origin story. Long live the baby-faced assassin.

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