Isiah Lord Thomas III was born on April 30, 1961, under some of the toughest conditions imaginable. He was the youngest of nine children raised only by his mother, Mary, who died in 2010 at the age of 87. She was often referred to as “Dear”, short for “Mother Dear”, by her children. She fought hard to guard them from the drug- and crime-infested streets that surrounded them. But on one occasion, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, when neighborhood gang members chased Isiah home, she came on the porch -- sawed-off shotgun in hand -- and warned them, “There is only one gang here and I lead it. Get off my porch or I will blow you off it.”
With that said, it’s no surprise Isiah wouldn’t be taking anything from anybody.
“You talk about poverty, human failing, suffering -- they had all that in Isiah’s neighborhood. You’d go in there and here was this young guy who’s got the big smile. He was unbelievably optimistic for someone who had gone through all the misfortune that has occurred in his family. He was very focused,” the late Rick Majerus once said. During his days as an assistant coach with Marquette, Majerus recruited Thomas.
Thomas enrolled at St. Joseph High School in Westchester, a seemingly smart decision except for the demanding 90-minute commute each school day for four years. By his junior year, he evolved into a standout athlete leading his team to the state title game. The following year, he was a member of the Gold Medal U.S. team at the Pan-American games.
Wanting to leave the rough streets of Chicago behind, Thomas attended Indiana University where he embraced the disciplinary style of coach Bob Knight and quickly became one of the favorites. He also gained the adoration of the fans, who dubbed him “Mr. Wonderful.” In the 1981 NCAA Tournament, as a sophomore, Thomas led the Hoosiers to a national championship and a few months later, submitted his name for the NBA draft where he was the No. 2 overall selection by the Detroit Pistons. He then promised his mother he would return to school to complete his criminal justice degree, which he did six years later.
During his first three seasons for the Pistons, Thomas made his presence felt (despite Detroit’s struggles during that time) assuming the role of floor general and leading the team in assists, steals and minutes played. He was developing into one of the elite point guards in the league and stood with the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Sidney Moncrief.
Thomas, who was a mere 6-foot-1, was a dangerous shooter and sliced through the frontcourt of defenses like a hot knife through butter. He handled the ball as if it were attached to his hand and kept his post players well fed with dishes only he could pass through defenses. Being a smooth player and a smart passer, combined with his basketball intelligence and court savvy, made Thomas a unique, well-rounded player.
One of the defining moments early in his career came in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. In Game 5, Bird stole an inbound pass by Thomas with five seconds remaining then dished to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup. The series ended in Game 7, with the Celtics prevailing, 117-114.
The Pistons finally saw success during the 1988-89 season when they blew past the injury-ridden Celtics, conquered Michael Jordan and the up-and-coming Chicago Bulls and came out victorious in the Finals against the Lakers. In 1989-90, Thomas and Detroit defeated the Portland Trail Blazers to become the first team to win back-to-back NBA titles since the 1968-69 Celtics. Thomas was named Finals MVP.
Even though Thomas was a native of Chicago, he was often viewed as an enemy when he returned home to battle the Bulls.
“It wasn’t personal, it was competition and when you’re good, you get the tag of enemy … and if you’re not good, you’re not a good enemy,” Thomas said.
Detroit’s “dynasty” was short-lived. The Jordan-led Bulls swept them from the playoffs in 1991. Thomas suffered a pulled leg muscle, a battered wrist and a sprained foot.
“[The Bulls] got better. They got smarter and Phil Jackson came along,” Thomas said. "When Phil Jackson came along and put them in the triangle [offense], he started working more with their minds as opposed to their bodies.”
By the 1993-94 season, Thomas was 32 and began to feel signs of his age, suffering a hyperextended knee, a broken rib, a strained arch, a calf injury and a cut left hand. However, the torn Achilles’ tendon he suffered in the last game of that season ended his career.
Thomas left the NBA scoring 18,822 points, booking 9,061 assists and 1,861 steals in just under 979 games. In 1996-97, he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and in 2000 he earned the highest honor of being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.