Isiah Lord Thomas III (born April 30, 1961) is a retired American basketball player who played professionally for the Detroit Pistons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The 12-time NBA All-Star was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Thomas has also been a professional and collegiate head coach, a basketball executive, and a broadcaster.
Thomas played collegiately for the Indiana Hoosiers. He went on to play professionally as point guard for the Pistons from 1981 until 1994 and led the “Bad Boys” to NBA championships in the 1988–89 and 1989–90 seasons. After his playing career, he was an executive with the Toronto Raptors, a television commentator, an executive with the Continental Basketball Association, head coach of the Indiana Pacers, and an executive and head coach for the New York Knicks. He was later the men’s basketball coach for the Florida International University (FIU) Golden Panthers for three seasons from 2009 to 2012. In early May 2015, amidst controversy, Isiah was named president and part owner of the Knicks’ WNBA sister team, the New York Liberty, subsequent to the re-hiring of Thomas’s former Pistons teammate, Bill Laimbeer, as the team’s coach.
In the 1981 NBA draft, the Detroit Pistons chose Thomas with the No. 2 pick and signed him to a four-year $1.6 million contract. Thomas made the All-Rookie team and started for the Eastern Conference in the 1982 All-Star Game.
In the opening round of the 1984 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and the Pistons faced off against Bernard King and the New York Knicks. In the pivotal fifth game, Thomas was having a subpar performance, while Bernard King was having an excellent game. However, Thomas scored 16 points in the last 94 seconds to force the game into overtime. The Knicks, however, held on to win in overtime.
In the 1985 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and his team went to the conference semi-finals against the 15-time NBA champion Boston Celtics led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson. Detroit couldn’t shake the Celtics in their six-game series, eventually losing.
In the 1987 NBA Playoffs, Thomas and the Pistons went to the Eastern Conference Finals and faced the Boston Celtics. It was the furthest the team had advanced since moving from Fort Wayne when they were the Zollner-Pistons. The Pistons were able to tie the Celtics at two games apiece. Detroit’s hope of winning Game 5 was dashed at the Boston Garden with seconds remaining in a play by Larry Bird: Thomas attempted to quickly inbound the ball, Bird stole the inbound pass and passed it to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup.
In 1988, the Pistons’ first trip to the Finals saw them face the Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Before the series, Thomas and Johnson would exchange a courtside kiss on the cheek prior to tip-off as a sign of their deep friendship. After taking a 3–2 series lead back to Los Angeles, Detroit appeared poised to win their first NBA title in Game 6.
In the 1988–89 season, Thomas, along with teammates Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, Vinnie Johnson, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards, John Salley, Bill Laimbeer, and Mark Aguirre, guided his team to a 63–19 win–loss record. Detroit played a brash and dominating brand of basketball through the playoffs that led to their nickname “Bad Boys”. First they defeated Boston who had been suffering persistent injuries. The Pistons then defeated Michael Jordan and the up-and-coming Chicago Bulls in the Conference Finals to set up an NBA Finals rematch with the Lakers. Thomas and the Pistons then won their first of back-to-back championships when they defeated the Lakers in a 4-game sweep. The following year, Thomas was voted NBA Finals Most Valuable Player of the 1990 NBA Finals after averaging 27.6 points per game, 7.0 assists per game, and 5.2 rebounds per game in the series with Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers. The Pistons continued to play well between 1991 and 1993 but were not able to return to the NBA Finals as they were eclipsed by the growing Chicago Bulls dynasty. An aging and ailing Thomas decided to end his career at the end of the 1994 season, but he tore his Achilles’ tendon in April 1994, forcing him to end his career as a player a month earlier than planned.
Thomas was named to the All-NBA First team three times and is the Pistons’ all-time leader in points, steals, games played and assists. He ranks seventh in NBA history in assists (9,061, 9.3 apg) and ranks fifteenth in steals (1,861). Thomas was known for his dribbling ability as well as his ability to drive to the basket and score. His No. 11 was retired by the Detroit Pistons.
Career highlights and awards
2× NBA champion (1989–1990)
NBA Finals MVP (1990)
12× NBA All-Star (1982–1993)
2× NBA All-Star Game MVP (1984, 1986)
3× All-NBA First Team (1984–1986)
2× All-NBA Second Team (1983, 1987)
NBA All-Rookie First Team (1982)
J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award (1987)
NBA assists leader (1985)
Detroit Pistons all-time leading scorer
No. 11 retired by Detroit Pistons
NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team
NCAA champion (1981)
NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player (1981)
Consensus first-team All-American (1981)
USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year (1980)
NBA All-Star Game head coach (2003)