Did you hear the one about the team walk-off involving Isiah Thomas? You know, the one in 2012?
During a sports award banquet, the Florida International (FIU) Men’s Basketball team walked off in protest after their coach Isiah Thomas was fired. His players were stunned at his firing.
“He could’ve brought in a lot of people to talk to us about basketball. He was bringing in professors and counselors to talk to us about life and how to be successful off the court,” said DeJuan Wright, a senior guard on that team, in an ESPN.com story. “He did so much for us. We grew as men.”
Oh. And what did you think about Thomas the coach?
“He didn’t promise we’d win anything,” said Dominique Ferguson, “He just promised that I’d graduate.”
Under Thomas, FIU Academic Progress Reports and graduation rates immediately soared to new heights. Thomas says he graduated 19 of his 21 players for a stellar 19-2 record. That doesn’t include Isiah’s own master’s degree from UC-Berkeley, which he completed in 2013.
Prior to Isiah, FIU hadn’t had a winning season in 10 years, but he was still fired amidst a slow turnaround three-year rebuilding process (26-65 record). Isiah defended his record:
“On the floor, Kentucky was better than us,” said Thomas, “But off the floor, who was better? The families trusted me with their kids. The great disappointment is that we weren’t allowed to finish what we started.”
History will record Isiah’s FIU tenure as a “failure,” and that is a tragic commentary on the value of thousands of young black athletes exploited by the NCAA.
Thomas is a fierce education advocate, and if you are an educator, Ric Bucher’s excellent piece on Isiah will hurt your heart. After viewing Isiah in action at FIU, Bucher also wrote:
“I witnessed a different side of Thomas that doesn’t fit the image and, apparently, so did his FIU players. It’s a side I never dreamed of seeing.”
If these are the revelations of a fine seasoned NBA writer, what does that say about the rest of us?
It’s an important question at a time where Michael Jordan’s 10-Part Nike-Approved Commercial “The Last Dance” is villainizing Isiah for a whole new generation of kids.
Still fuming over 30 years later at the Pistons walking off the court, Jordan says. “There’s no way you can convince me [Isiah] wasn’t an asshole.”
After watching MJ’s Hall of Fame speech where he still burns from every slight since kindergarten, I really believe MJ. There’s no way you can convince him.
But with your patience and permission, I’d like to try to convince you.
When Larry Bird and the Celtics walked off the court on the Pistons, Isiah forgave him five minutes later. Just because MJ is the Grudge Holder of All Time (GHOAT) doesn’t mean the rest of us have to Be Like Mike.
We can choose which walk-off is more important. And I choose the FIU players’ walk-off.
That one is symbolic of a hidden career fighting for youth, racial justice, LGBT lives, HIV+ lives and player rights. Let’s look.
BLACK LIVES MATTER: “We didn’t have the slogan, but we were marching”
- In 2012, Isiah didn’t only throw on a hoodie for Trayvon Martin, he was out protesting with Trayvon’s family. Did you know that?
- Isiah organizes perennial summer “Peace Basketball Tournaments” with rival gang members in his hometown of Chicago and got Bulls players to participate. Did you know that?
- Isiah has been attacking community violence since the 1980s where he led “No Crime Day” in Detroit at the age of 25. Did you know that?
“We were marching in 1985 down Woodward in Detroit,” Thomas said. “At that time, we didn’t have the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter.’ But we were marching.”
Don’t call him “Kaepernick” – Isiah has been here for years.
Whether teaching student-athletes or gang-athletes, Isiah’s fight for the underdog is a trait that can’t be separated from his own upbringing in poverty, and his legendary mother and community pillar, Mary Thomas. Says Isiah:
“She was the pioneer in our family in terms of activism. She marched with Martin Luther King, she worked with Fred Hampton closely in our neighborhood in Chicago. Her spirit of activism was put into all of us — to be servants in the community and to work within the community.”
These words came after Isiah received Humanity of Connection Award at the National
Museum of African American History and Culture.
Did you know this?
That’s not all of his off-court record.
In 2007 Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders settled an $11.5 million lawsuit alleging employment and sexual harassment against Madison Square Garden (MSG). Isiah, then Knicks President, was not held personally liable, but Sanders still implicated Thomas.
Where Browne Sanders’ allegations fit into Isiah’s overall off-court equation is for each reader to grapple with for themselves — an equation that looks far more like complex algebra than the current lazy math put forth by media.
But unlike sports media, that grappling should be through a consistent lens for all athletes, including far more serious allegations against a popular pitchman like Peyton Manning.
While grappling, they should also factor in Isiah’s unsung LGBTQ leadership.
LGBTQ ADVOCATE: “I’ll make damn sure there’s no problem”.
In 2007, ex-NBA player John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to announce he was gay, and Thomas was asked the question if having a gay teammate in an NBA locker room would be a problem.
“I can’t speak for somebody else’s locker room,” said Isiah. “But if it’s mine, we won’t have a problem. I’ll make damn sure there’s no problem”.
As Knicks President at the time, Isiah didn’t give an opinion, he gave a directive.
At the time, nearly all responses were overshadowed by ex-NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway, who famously stated: “I hate gay people… I don’t like gay people, and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic.”
Cyd Ziegler from OutSports calls the Amaechi-Hardaway moment “the tipping point” of the LGBT sports movement. While Hardaway has gone from “gay rights pariah to advocate,” few recall that Thomas made the NBA’s most forceful NBA statement. In declaring he’ll “make damn sure there is no problem,” Thomas did not merely answer the question — he eliminated it.
That’s what leadership looks like.
Only one year after Isiah’s support of Amaechi, his own son Joshua “Zeke” Thomas announced to his parents that he was gay. “I came out to them, and they were very accepting. I always knew they would be accepting,” Zeke told Out Magazine”... I never was so scared that my parents were going to shun or disown me — the horror stories you hear.”
A 2013 Pew poll shows that 74% of gay men said it was difficult to tell their fathers. Being shunned and disowned is a real thing, but not for Zeke who wrote in a Father’s Day Letter: “Most of all Dad, thank you for loving your Gay son from the beginning with no prejudice.”
“The beginning” came long before Zeke’s announcement — and that’s the whole point. After Zeke’s announcement, Isiah didn’t merely “accept” his son — or worse, ‘tolerate’ him — he fully embraced him.
By 2010, Isiah and Joshua posed together for the NOH8 Campaign, a photographic protest of California’s Proposition 8 voter initiative that looked to ban gay marriage.
Not only was Isiah the greatest athlete to support Marriage Equality, but he was one of the earliest. It came before most other NBA, NFL, and other athletes joined the campaign, before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed; and before Marriage Equality became the federal law of the land.
Is this pioneer your villain?
ISIAH THE HIV/AIDS ADVOCATE: “They Weren’t Going to Let Magic Play in the All-Star Game”
In a revealing interview with The Shadow League, Thomas explains his rationale for those famous on-court kisses he did with Magic during the 1988 NBA Finals:
“Back then it was controversial. You didn’t really see people hugging and kissing others outside of their family. It was with a stale handshake, but I never greeted my ‘brothers’ with a stale handshake… We wanted to feel the brotherly love. So when we would do that publicly, back in the ’80s, people would be like, ‘what was that about?’”
While Isiah and Magic were defying masculine stereotypes, their brotherhood would eventually sour. After Magic announced he was HIV+ in 1992, a rumor spread that Isiah was questioning Magic’s heterosexuality (Isiah vehemently denies it).
While much ink has been devoted to their rift, far less attention has been given to their heartfelt emotional reconciliation, and almost none to Isiah’s critical role in facilitating Magic’s 1992 return to the All-Star Game despite being HIV positive. Thomas recalled the big meeting:
“They weren’t going to let Magic play in the All-Star Game; all the players were coming out [against him]. I had a meeting with all of the players — because I was president of the players’ association — and I told them not only was he going to play, but we were going to shake his hand and give him a hug. And I was the first to shake his hand and hug him and give him a kiss, to let people know that’s not how the virus is spread.”
Thomas’ act in 1992 challenged myths surrounding HIV and AIDS at a time when players were openly critical of playing with Magic (most notably Karl Malone). Isiah’s hand deliberately placed around Magic’s neck was also symbolic love to every HIV+ person watching. Thomas was far more educated than the rest of America, as his own brother was diagnosed with HIV, and died of AIDS.
Thomas explained how his plea for Magic’s inclusion unfolded: “There was silence in the room for maybe a good five-to-10 seconds, and I remember Brad Daugherty was the first to stand up and say, ‘I’m with you.’ When Brad stood up, everyone else joined in.”
Daugherty added : “I was like, ‘Isiah’s going way out on a limb here because no one in this room is going to follow him… down that rabbit hole, but I said to myself, I’ll stand by him on this because I do think it’s the right thing to do.”
Is this your villain, or a leader?
PLAYERS RIGHTS ADVOCATE: “Thomas made enemies by the hundred”
Isiah’s “Magic moment” marks his forgotten impactful tenure as NBPA President.
Mark Heisler writes: “As NBAPA president, Thomas was the last of the stars to run the union for the little guys in the tradition of Oscar Robertson. Thomas made enemies by the hundred, calling out the biggest he could find, slicing the agents’ cut of contracts from 10 percent to 4 percent, infuriating them all. Super agent David Falk [Jordan’s agent] then took over the union with his fancy client list and undid everything Thomas had done”
Just like “The Big O” fighting for NBA free agency in the 1960s, every fellow and current player owes millions to Thomas. And just like Oscar, Isiah has also paid a steep price.
The leader of the ’80s “Bad Boy” Pistons has been more useful as a media villain. The NBA did not denounce the “Bad Boys” image — they openly marketed it.
Isiah’s court-related career “controversies” now read like an NBA “Games of Our Lives” soap opera where petty spats of playoff court walk-offs and alleged All-Star Game “freeze-outs” endure for decades. Isiah’s competitive excesses are the same that fueled two NBA championships, and if you think Isiah’s on-court, cut-throat demeanor was anything special, you have never read Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules.”
Isiah’s coverage has also been impacted by two tactical mistakes. He refused to kiss Michael Jordan’s ring – and the media’s ass. And both are Olympic grudge-holders tag-teaming him from the top rope for the last 30 years.
Isiah as villain continued beyond acceptable bounds during his tenure as Knicks executive. While some criticism was justified, Thomas was unfairly maligned in vitriolic ways foreign to his terrible, and untouchable successor Donnie Walsh (a long article for another day).
And what about Isiah’s media equation?
Why has Isiah’s decades-long fights for Black lives, LGBT lives, or player rights not received a sliver of the off-court attention?
Why a 30-year obsession with a Piston’s walk-off when the majority of media hasn’t spent much more than 30 seconds on the Celtics same behavior the previous year?
“The Last Dance” is not new for Isiah. It’s the same dance.
Why is the incredible story of Isiah making Magic’s All-Star game moment possible still barely known?
At 6-1, Isiah had no business climbing giants named Magic, Larry, and Michael. So how is Isiah being treated like Goliath?
Isiah has been the ultimate NBA underdog fighting for underdogs.
After their pioneering NOH8 campaign together, Isiah’s son Zeke tweeted: “@ESPN can bash my father about NYK. But being the first hall of fame athlete to stand up for @NOH8Campaign gets no ink.”
Nope. No ESPN ink. Your father’s Bad Boy narrative was a higher priority than your equal rights. Media has locked your Dad’s activism in the mainstream closet.
And that’s what the FIU walk-off was really all about. Protesting the perverse priorities of a “student”-athlete machinery that valued their unpaid labor over their futures.
“I’ve never seen the guy they talk about and I’ve read about,” FIU student-athlete Dominique Ferguson said. “He’s been nothing like that here. We’ll be more mad about it than coach will be when something comes up. That he can be above all that has taught us something else: Every opinion doesn’t matter.”