Thomas is in Akron to see the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Washington Bullets in an exhibition game, and this is normal-a-cy: A cop at the airport asks if Thomas will coach ("If I do, take out your gun and use it on me"); a hotel guest reminisces about Larry Bird's beating Detroit on a last-second shot in 1985; and a man at a pay phone waves and yells, "Hey, Isiah, I'm having dinner at your mother's."
Family friend? "Never saw him before," says Thomas, whose mother, Mary, lives in Chicago. "But I'm sure he's having dinner at my mother's. She'll meet somebody on a bus and invite him to dinner. I'd come home from school, there'd be 15 people in my living room I didn't know."
When he and his wife, Lynn, went out in Detroit, Isiah would often plant a fake mustache on his baby face and tug a hat low over his forehead. And even with no disguise, people sometimes missed him because they assumed he was taller. (As an NBA executive, he has shrunk a half inch from his program height of 6'1".) Thomas will spend much of the next six months on the road, evaluating talent, assessing recommendations of head scout Bob Zuffelato and his staff. In every arena Thomas enters, there will be a buzz.
Thomas will be more famous than the men he'll scout, which is not surprising when you consider that each existing NBA team will protect eight players for the expansion draft, and the Canadian clubs will choose sixth and seventh in the college draft. The Raptors and the Vancouver team, the Grizzlies, will pick from a pool of players at the bottom of the rosters of the current 27 teams, men not in "the rotation."
To Thomas's left, Chicago Bull assistant coaches Jimmy Rodgers and Jim Cleamons furiously scribble Cavalier and Bullet plays, but Thomas focuses on action away from the ball. He scouted the summer leagues, where lesser NBA players hone their games, but the preseason is where he must keep panning for what he calls, in capital letters, A RAPTORS PLAYER.
Which is? "Look at our logo," Thomas instructs. "Our players will clearly connect with the logo, creating the image. You'll look at our players and say, 'He's a Raptor.' "
Is he saying he'll draft prehistoric guys with two toes? Thomas grimaces. Sorry. No hints. No names. Scouting is intelligence gathering, and he is way too intelligent to share it with you.
("A Raptors player," Toronto president John I. Bitove says a few days later, "is one who plays with an aura of confidence, a hungry player, a team player, one with Raptor purple in his blood.")
During the game, Thomas occasionally whispers into a small tape recorder. He jots notes at halftime on a legal pad inside a leather binder—the word energy is visible for an instant—but snaps it closed when he suspects that someone's peeking. Ted Stepien, a former Cavalier owner, stops by and says, "I tried to move the Cavaliers to Toronto in '83. It'll be a gold mine. You're going to need a shovel to shovel it all out of there."
Cleveland wins 117-103, and the Akron police form a detail to whisk Thomas from the building. As Thomas signs autographs, one of the Bullets, Ernest Hall, who was cut last week and has been bouncing around minor leagues since 1991, yells, "Isiah, Isiah, check me out next year, baby."