Isiah Thomas Biography

Isiah Thomas is a retired Hall of Fame point guard who spent his entire NBA playing career with the Detroit Pistons. With the Pistons, Thomas helped lead Detroit to back-to-back NBA Championships in 1988-89 and 1989-90. Thomas was a 12-time NBA All-Star and a member of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time team. Following his retirement from the NBA, Thomas would serve in the front office for the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks, served as head coach of the Indiana Pacers and Knicks and was owner of the Continental Basketball Association. He also served as the head men's basketball coach at Florida International University

Early Years

St. Joseph High School basketball coach Gene Pingatore, located in Westchester, Illinois, recruited Thomas. Thomas would have to endure a 90-minute commute to attend school. As a junior in 1978, Thomas led St. Joseph's to the state-title game. The following year, Thomas was a member of the gold medal-winning United States basketball team at the Pan-American Games. Thomas would play under head coach Bobby Knight, who he would eventually play under at Indiana University. In the championship game, Thomas scored 21 points and added five steals and four assists.

College Career

Knight and Indiana University recruited and eventually landed Thomas out of high school, allowing him to stay close to home. As a freshman, Thomas averaged 14.6 points, 5.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game, leading the Hoosiers to a 21-9 record and a Sweet Sixteen appearance.

Thomas was selected to participate on the 1980 United States Olympic Team but was unable to compete due to a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

As a sophomore, the All-American Thomas led the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA Championship, defeating North Carolina 63-50 in the finals. Scoring 19 points in the final 20 minutes of the contest, Thomas was selected as the NCAA Basketball Tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

Despite Knight's best efforts to talk him out of leaving school early, Thomas passed up his last two seasons at Indiana University and declared for the 1981 NBA Draft. The Hoosiers went 47-17 under Thomas. He would eventually graduate from Indiana six years later, earning a degree in criminal justice after promising his mother he would finish college.

Professional Career

The Detroit Pistons selected Isiah Thomas with the second overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft and signed him to a four-year, $1.6 million contract. As a rookie, Thomas averaged 17.0 points, 7.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game, landing him on the NBA All-Rookie Team. The following season, Thomas started his run of 12 consecutive All-Star appearances, averaging a career-high 22.9 points in just his second season. For five straight seasons, Thomas would average at least 20 points a season.

Under new head coach Chuck Daly, Thomas and the Pistons showed signs of improvements in the standings. During the 1983-84 season, the first under Daly, the Pistons went 49-33 before bowing out to the New York Knicks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It was the Pistons first winning season in seven years.

Thomas and the Pistons would make it out of the first round of the playoffs in 1985 and square off against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the semifinals. The Celtics would eventually knock the Pistons out in six games. Thomas broke the NBA record for most assists in a season with 1,123, breaking the previous record (1,099) set by Detroit's Kevin Porter.

It wasn't the first time Thomas and Bird would square off in the playoffs, meeting again in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. Thomas stirred up controversy by claiming that if Bird were Black, he'd be just "another good guy" instead of being hyped as the NBA's best player. He would eventually apologize to Bird and insist that it was just a joke. Bird and the Celtics would get the last laugh, defeating the Pistons in seven games. Thanks to a physical series with Boston, it would help shape Detroit into the "Bad Boys" teams of the late 1980's.

In 1987-88, the Pistons made the NBA Finals for the first time since Detroit moved from Fort Wayne in 1958, taking on the Los Angeles Lakers and close friend Earvin "Magic" Johnson. The two guards even exchanged an on-court kiss before Game 1 of the Finals.

With Detroit up 3-2 in the series, Isiah Thomas set a NBA Finals record with 25 points in one quarter but the Pistons lost, 103-102. In the decisive Game 7, NBA Finals MVP James Worthy scored 36 points and had 16 rebounds as the Lakers edged out the Pistons 108-105.

Sparked by a midseason trade for Mark Aguirre from Dallas, who was the top overall pick just ahead of Thomas in the 1981 NBA Draft, the Pistons finished the 1988-89 season with the best record in the NBA. Detroit would get its shot at redemption against the Los Angeles Lakers in a rematch during the 1989 NBA Finals. With an injured Lakers team missing Byron Scott and Magic Johnson, who injured his hamstring in Game 2, the Pistons won the game in a four-game sweep.

The following season, the Pistons became just the third NBA franchise in NBA history to win back-to-back championships after defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in five games. Thomas was selected as the NBA Finals MVP, averaging 27.6 points, 7.0 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game.

It was the last time Thomas would make the NBA Finals as the Pistons would slowly decline as the Chicago Bulls' era was on the rise.

During the 1993-94 season, the 32-year-old Thomas would battle a share of injuries. In a span of a season, Thomas suffered a hyperextended knee, a broke rib, a strained arch in his foot, a calf injury and a cut left hand. The final blow came in his last home game against the Orlando Magic when Thomas tore his Achilles' tendon, ending his career the following month when he announced his retirement.

Isiah Thomas retired with 18,222 points (19.2 ppg), 9,061 assists (9.3 apg) and 1,861 steals, all Pistons records. In 1996, Thomas had his number 11 jersey retired by the Detroit Pistons. In 1997, Thomas was selected as a member of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.

Michael Jordan Feud

Rivals on the court, rumors swirled during Thomas' career that he and Michael Jordan had an off-court feud. During the 1985 NBA All-Star game, Thomas passed Jordan the ball twice during the game, allegedly in an attempt to "freeze-out" Jordan.

During the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, Thomas was behind a walkout of his teammates at the conclusion of the series, refusing to shake hands with the Chicago Bulls.

Thomas was noticeably absent from the 1992 United States men's national basketball team (The "Dream Team") in Barcelona. Rumors stated that Jordan didn't want to play alongside Thomas because of their experience at the 1985 NBA All-Star game.

In 2009, Magic Johnson revealed in a book co-written by himself, Larry Bird and Jackie MacMullan that he also did not want Thomas on the Dream Team, in part because he believed Thomas spread rumors that Johnson was gay or bisexual. Thomas denied having spread any rumors about Johnson.

Post-Playing Career

Toronto Raptors

Following his retirement, Thomas took a front office position as part owner and Executive Vice President with the expansion Toronto Raptors on May 24, 1994. During his time with the Raptors, Toronto went 52-122 and drafted future NBA stars Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady and Marcus Camby. The two sides would part ways in November 1997 after a disagreement on the direction of the franchise and he sold his 9 percent stake in the team.


NBC offered Thomas a broadcasting job as its lead NBA analyst in December 1997. Thomas worked alongside Bob Costas and Doug Collins and with the studio team.


On August 3, 1999, Thomas purchased the Continental Basketball Association for $10 million. As owner, Thomas announced that the league would operate as a single-owner entity and the league would still be the developmental league of the NBA.

Thomas made several rules changes to the league including making double-teaming a player illegal unless it was during the last five minutes of regulation and abolished the quarter-point playoff scoring system.

Salaries were slashed for the players, going from $1,500 per week to $1,100 per week on average. Rookies were paid $800 a week.

In March 2000, the NBA offered to buy the CBA from Thomas for $11 million and a percentage of the profits. Thomas was set to make $2 million from his investment but decline the NBA's offer.

On June 28, 2000, the Indiana Pacers offered Thomas a head-coaching job. The NBA doesn't allow coaches to own a team in another league, so Thomas would have to sell the CBA in order to accept the Pacers gig.

Before Thomas was able to sell the CBA, the NBA announced that it would stop using the basketball association as a feeder system and would form it's own minor league feeder system. The CBA's relationship with the NBA would end in 2001.

Unable to sell the league, Thomas placed the CBA in a blind trust on October 2, 2000 and formally accepted the Pacers offer. With the league in a blind trust, there were no assets to handle the day-to-day operations of the league including travel and money to pay the players.

On February 8, 2001, the CBA suspended operations. With the league over $2 million in debt, the teams are offered back to the original owners. Two weeks later, the league filed for bankruptcy. Five teams in the CBA joined the International Basketball League to finish out of the season.

The CBA reorganized in time for the 2001-02 season.

Indiana Pacers

Thomas replaced Larry Bird as head coach of the Indiana Pacers in October 2000. The 2000-01 season was considered a rebuilding year with the retirement of Rik Smits and the departure of Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson and Dale Davis, who was traded for Jermaine O'Neal. Thomas would lead the Pacers to the playoffs, losing to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.

During the midseason of 2001-02, the Pacers traded Jalen Rose and Travis Best to Chicago for Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Kevin Ollie and Ron Mercer. With a rising O'Neal, the Pacers returned to the playoffs and forced the top-seeded New Jersey Nets to five games in the opening round.

In 2002-03, Thomas had his best season record wise, going 48-34 and serving as head coach of the Eastern Conference in the 2003 NBA All-Star game. However the Boston Celtics upset the Pacers, a three-seed in the playoffs, in the first-round.

Bird returned to the Pacers in the offseason as President of Basketball Operations and fired Thomas with two years remaining on his contract. Thomas had a regular season record of 131-115 and 5-10 in the postseason.

New York Knicks

On December 22, 2003, the New York Knicks hired Thomas as President of Basketball Operations, replacing Scott Layden. Just two weeks after accepting the position, Thomas made his first major trade, acquiring Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway from the Phoenix Suns in an 8-player deal. Thomas wasn't done, trading small forward Keith Van Horn and center Michael Doleac in a three-team deal with the Knicks, landing Tim Thomas and Nazr Mohammed.

Thomas replaced head coach Don Chaney with Larry Wilkins on January 15, 2004.

With a 39-43 record, the Knicks made the NBA playoffs, but were swept by the New Jersey Nets in the first round.

Wilkins wouldn't remain with the team long, resigning from the Knicks on January 22, 2005. Assistant coach Herb Williams would serve as interim coach the rest of the season. The Knicks finished with a 33-49 record.

The Knicks signed Larry Brown to a five-year contract worth $50 million before the start of the 2005-06 season. Thomas acquired two centers in the off season, signing free agent Jerome James and acquiring Eddy Curry from the Chicago Bulls in a sign-and-trade deal. Thomas sent Tim Thomas, Michael Sweetney, the Knicks 2006 first round draft pick, the right to swap first round picks with the Knicks in 2007 and second round draft picks in 2007 and 2009. The draft picks were not lottery protected, so the Knicks eventually lost the 2nd overall pick in the 2006 Draft and the 9th overall pick in the 2007 Draft. The Bulls were looking to move Curry after the center refused to take a heart test to check on the status of a previous heart condition. Despite having the highest payroll in the NBA, the Knicks were one of the worst teams in the NBA, going 23-59 in Brown's first season.

Brown was fired on June 23, 2006 and paid him an $18.5 million buyout. Owner James Dolan named Thomas head coach.

On December 16, 2006, the Knicks and Nuggets were involved in a wild brawl at Madison Square Garden. Seven players were suspended, including Carmelo Anthony, who was slapped with a 15-game suspension. NBA commissioner David Stern looked into Thomas' role in the brawl, as he told Anthony not to go near the basket. Thomas claimed his words weren't a threat but a lesson in sportsmanship. The NBA decided it needed more conclusive proof that Thomas ordered one of his players to deliver a hard foul and he avoided suspension.

Nine months after Dolan told Thomas he needed to show "evident progress" as head coach or he would be out of a job, the Knicks owner signed Thomas to a new contract extension. At the time of the announcement, the Knicks were 29-34, six wins better than all of the previous season. The Knicks finished the season 33-49, missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

At the 2007 NBA Draft, the Knicks traded Steve Francis and Channing Frye to the Portland Trail Blazers for Zach Randolph, Fred Jones and Dan Dickau. The Knicks had one of their worst seasons in franchise history, going 23-59 for their eight consecutive losing seasons. The fans were getting weary of Thomas and chants of "Fire Isiah" were common at Madison Square Garden.

On April 2, 2008, Dolan hired Donnie Walsh to replace Thomas as President of Basketball Operations. Following the season, Thomas was reassigned from his head coaching position. As a result of the deal, Thomas was banned from having any contact with Knicks players for fear he would undermine the new incoming coach. Thomas went 56-108 as head coach of the Knicks.

Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

On January 24, 2006, Anucha Browne Sanders filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Thomas and Madison Square Garden. In the lawsuit, Brown Sanders claimed that Thomas sexually harassed her and that she was fired for her complaints about the alleged harassment.

Thomas denied the allegations and said he had no part in her firing. On October 2, 2007, a federal jury determined that Thomas had intentionally discriminated against Browne Sanders by aiding and abetting a hostile work environment based on sex, but he did not aid and abet retaliation against her and did not have to pay punitive damages.

However, Madison Square Garden was also found liable and Dolan was ordered to pay $11.6 million in damages. MSG and Dolan announced they would appeal the ruling but eventually settled outside of court on December 10, 2007 for $11.5 million.

Drug Overdose

On October 24, 2008, Thomas rushed to White Plains Hospital Center after overdosing on Lunesta, a sleep medication pill. Officers found Thomas unconscious, but breathing, and it was ruled an accidental overdose. Harrison Police Chief David Hall felt Thomas tried to cover-up the incident by claiming his 17-year-old daughter was the one rushed to the hospital for treatment. Thomas denied the allegations by Hall and said it wasn't a suicide attempt.

Florida International University

On April 14, 2009, Thomas was named as the head coach of the Florida International University basketball program. Thomas announced that would donate his first year's salary back to the university.

Due to a contract misunderstanding, Thomas threatenend to pull FIU out of a season-opening game against North Carolina (Thomas thought the contract for the event called for FIU to play Ohio State). Florida International did play the game, which UNC won. The Golden Panthers started the season 0-3 before Thomas earned his first win as a college coach on Nov. 17 against Florida Memorial.

In Feburary of 2010, Thomas was reportedly linked to the Los Angeles Clippers job, though he said he was completely focused on FIU and did not say if he'd had any contact with the Clippers.

In the summer of 2010, Thomas announced he was taking a job as a consultant to the New York Knicks while remaining the head coach at FIU. However, after discovering that maintaining both positions would be a violation of NBA by-laws -- as a team employee, he would not have been allowed to have contact with college underclassmen -- Thomas announced he would not be working with the Knicks.

Thomas was fired by FIU following the 2011-12 season. He was 26-65 in three seasons with the Golden Panthers.


Isiah Lord Thomas was born on April 30, 1961 in Chicago, Illinois. The youngest of nine children, Isiah's father left the family when he was 3-years-old, leaving Mary Thomas, Isiah's mother, to raise the children alone. Thomas and his wife Lynn have two children, Joshua and Lauren.