The Devil Wears Nikes
Liking Isiah Thomas against my better judgment.
Knicks fans don't want Isiah Thomas fired; they want him jailed. Thomas, the 45-year-old ex-NBA great, was brought in midway through the 2003-2004 season to help rescue the New York Knickerbockers, a once-storied franchise slowly being euthanized by bad management and incompetent ownership. Thomas' mandate was to make an old, slow, overpaid roster vital again. And what has he done instead? The team is, mirabile dictu, an even bigger disaster. Here a distinction needs to be made: There are bad players, and there are albatrosses. A bad player you can afford to bench or trade. An albatross is a bad player who is unbenchable, and untradeable, because he is too highly paid. But for a couple of plucky rookies, Isiah Thomas' Knicks are a team made up entirely of albatrosses. Together, they managed to earn the second-worst record in the league while being the highest-paid team in the history of the NBA. With a payroll of $126 million, the Knicks laid out $5,478,260 in player salaries for each of its 23 wins. In terms of sheer labor productivity—as economists would define it, victory output per dollar of wage input—the New York Knicks are the worst team in the history of pro basketball, and maybe all of pro sports. To further its torture of its fan base (and all common sense), last week the team fired Larry Brown, a surefire Hall of Famer, and installed Thomas as its new coach.
Isiah Thomas was supposed to be the greatest ex-jock of all time. He is shrewd, articulate, fiercely competitive and, at least superficially, very likable. Since retiring as a player, he has done everything an ex-jock can do: He's been an announcer, a coach, a general manager, and even, for a stretch, a kind of mini-mogul, owning the Continental Basketball Association, the minor leagues of basketball. He has done each, according to multiple reports, disastrously, though this may be a blushing understatement. Were it only a question of incompetence, of being yet another recyclable in the hermetic ecosystem of bad managerial talent that is pro sports, Isiah would not inspire anything like the enmity he does. For all his professional shortcomings, Thomas' biggest liability may be a perception problem, rooted in his trademark smile. Thomas is a sweet-faced and handsome man with doe eyes; a soft, thoughtful voice; and a fluorescent grin—he has carried his altar boy good looks well into middle age. Why this should serve as a liability was eloquently captured by a Chicago sportswriter who once played against Thomas in high school: "I was running around a screen. He grabbed me and pulled us both down to the floor, and I was called for charging. Dirty play? Sure. But a smart one, I guess, because it worked. As we got up, he whispered, 'Sucka.' "
This is Isiah in a nutshell, or so his enemies will tell you; and no one collects enemies quite like Isiah. He once infamously proclaimed that were Larry Bird black, "he'd be just another good guy." (Bird later fired him as coach of the Indiana Pacers.) He refused to pass Michael Jordan the ball at Jordan's first All-Star game. (Jordan later, it is widely speculated, made sure Isiah was left off the Olympic "Dream Team.") Calling upon decades of warm feelings, Thomas lured Larry Brown, one of his few remaining NBA allies, to New York, where the two quickly descended into backbiting and palace intrigue. Thomas and Brown are now, from all reports, the bitterest of enemies.
How did a man of such promise turn into a reverse King Midas? Thomas grew up the youngest of nine children, in the brutally poor K-Town section of Chicago's West Side. Both of his parents had come north as part of The Great Black Migration, from Mississippi. By all accounts, Thomas' father was a proud and intelligent man who, having taught himself to read blueprints, became the first black supervisor of International Harvester's plant in Chicago. In his autobiography—served up, oh-so-Isiah style, as a management guru book, called The Fundamentals: 8 Plays for Winning the Games of Business and Life —Thomas described how his father despised basketball, regarding it as a legacy of slavery. The thought of blacks performing for the enjoyment of white males repelled Thomas Sr., and, accordingly, he strictly circumscribed the household's television viewing. When he lost his job—as Isiah recounts it, to a less-qualified white worker—he fell into a deep depression and became increasingly abusive to his wife and children. For years he had told his daughter, Ruby, that he would leave the family when she graduated high school, though she had never believed him. When she came home from the ceremony, his bags were packed and waiting in the hallway. At the time, Isiah was 6.
Life began to change when Isiah reached high school, and the apparatus for evaluating, selecting, and exploiting young basketball talent finally kicked in. Thomas was recruited by Gene Pingatore, the basketball coach at St. Joseph's High School, located in the largely white, middle-class suburb of Westchester, Ill. (Years later, Pingatore would find more renown as the coach in the documentary film Hoop Dreams.) To get from the slum out to Westchester, Thomas needed to take two buses, the Chicago El (to the end of the line), a third bus to the end of its line, then walk a mile, often in the bitter Chicago cold. For the privilege of waking at 5 a.m. and completing a 90-minute commute, Isiah would sometimes find himself chased by older white kids, driving in their parents' cars. It was at this point that Thomas began assimilating, into a world that had been actively persecuting him, and on terms his father almost surely would have loathed. He started to lose his street accent and bad grammar, and in the derisive words of one of his brothers, to "talk white." As Thomas' star began to rise, a persistent theme of his later life began to emerge—the often anxiously hazy distinction between image and reality. Not long ago, for a profile of Thomas, I interviewed dozens of people, some of whom love Thomas, many of whom loathe him; but the most melancholy note was sounded by Pingatore, who to this day adores Thomas. "I'll never forget one time," he recalled, "when he started to get some notoriety, he was being interviewed by one of the local papers. And after the interview he asked me, 'Am I different? Am I becoming different? You have to let me know. I don't want to be different. I want to be the same person.' "
The discrepancy between the Lite-Brite smile and the anger it hides, has always infuriated many white sports fans, who would prefer a clear-cut log line when it comes to sports and race. Another key to Isiah's dual personality is surely generational in nature. At the time I was working on my profile, the Knicks coach was Lenny Wilkens, and the team's star was the electric Stephon Marbury. To travel from Lenny Wilkens to Isiah Thomas to Stephon Marbury is to travel an enormous distance in American history, black history, and the history of the sport. Lenny Wilkens holds two honorary doctorates, a B.A. in economics, and, with his tightly coifed silver hair, could pass for dean of students at Amherst or Wellesley. To the press, he is largely soft-spoken and collegial, if not deferential. He is the winningest coach in NBA history, was himself a perennial All-Star as a player, and grew up in a single-parent household in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The image he projects is straight out of the Arthur Ashe school of enormous, if informal dignity. It can be summed up with a couple of quotes from his autobiography: "I hope any boastfulness that has inevitably crept into this account will be forgiven," reads its first line; and later, recalling the pickup games of his youth, he writes "the stakes … usually were a soda or a beer but I was a milk drinker exclusively."
The first time I saw Stephon Marbury close up, he walked straight into a female reporter on his way to his locker, much to her surprise and without breaking stride. While snapping his arm into his shirt sleeve, its cuff hit another reporter in the face. (The reporter smiles—just Stephon being Stephon.) Wilkens grew up before the civil rights movement and integration, in the '40s and '50s; Marbury, meanwhile, grew up during the commercialization of black poverty and anger under the banner of hip-hop. The best word to describe Wilkens' demeanor is dignified. The right word for Marbury's would probably be authentic. What word, then, attaches best to Isiah Thomas, who represents a generational midpoint between Wilkens and Marbury? His proponents—mostly black Americans who identify viscerally with his anger—see him as dignified but authentic. His detractors—mostly white Americans who see in him only a grating duplicity—as uniquely undignified and inauthentic. For Thomas, a boy growing up in the '70s, whose entire family was, at one point, "strung out," as he told me in our one meeting, the ghetto was neither an occasion for inner-directed triumph nor a launching pad to bad-boy celebrity. Thomas is an angry and complicated man, no one's native son, and a poster boy for nothing redemptive. This is why, I suppose, I continue to root for him, even against my better judgment and even as he brings about my beloved team's ruination.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of Isiah Thomas by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images.