When he was introduced on May 24 at Gretzky's Toronto restaurant as the Raptors' vice president of basketball operations, Thomas burst through a hoop, holding a basketball. The next day the Toronto Globe and Mail grumbled, "[This]...is the sort of stunt one might expect from Harold Ballard or George Steinbrenner."
The newspaper meant Thomas's hiring, not the hoop.
Bob Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers and Serge Savard of the Montreal Canadiens became the general managers of their former teams when they retired, but they were taking over established franchises. Toronto has grown accustomed to builders, men like Pat Gillick, who developed the Blue Jays into World Series winners, and Cliff Fletcher, who revived the pathetic Maple Leafs. Thomas didn't seem to fit. He was 33, with no experience.
"People thought it was a Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson thing," says the 34-year-old Bitove, referring to the Dallas Cowboys' erstwhile Arkansas tandem. Bitove was a student at Indiana University when Thomas led the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA championship and later attended University of Windsor Law School, across the river from the scene of Thomas's triumphs in Detroit. "It wasn't. The only thing the IU connection helped was in convincing Isiah he couldn't do the job by commuting this year," says Bitove. "I always thought a Pat Gillick type was the epitome of a G.M., but there's a difference between baseball and basketball. In baseball you draft 18-year-olds and hope they can be taught to hit a forkball. In basketball the skills are apparent, but you have to know the psyche of the individual. Nobody understands players better than Isiah. I always thought Isiah was shrewd."
Thomas was the National Basketball Players Association's president for six seasons, so he knows salary caps aren't the things with dangling tags players wear after winning a title. He is a successful businessman, chairman of American Speedy Printing Centers and a director of OmniBanc Corp., a black-owned holding company in the U.S.
Besides, Thomas really does have experience as a general manager. Didn't he trade Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre in 1989? Like his buddy Messier, who used his influence to torpedo former coach Roger Neilson in New York, Thomas urged Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey to deal the lane-clogging Dantley for Aguirre, a boyhood friend of Thomas's from Chicago. "All you hear is how Mess and me got rid of guys," Thomas says. "Sometimes what I did created tension, but there wasn't a person in the organization who thought my opinions were just personal, that they weren't about winning." The results: The Rangers won a Stanley Cup the next season with new coach Mike Keenan, and Dantley's exit freed minutes for Dennis Rodman, a key player in the Pistons' two championships.
Thomas did have extraordinary clout. He vacationed in Europe with Piston managing partner Bill Davidson. He got the team to hire conditioning coach Arnie Kander. He even recommended Billy McKinney for the Detroit general manager job after McCloskey went to the Minnesota Timberwolves, although McKinney looked morose last Jan. 7 when the Pistons called a press conference to announce that Thomas had been offered a front-office position and would be "a Piston for life." Reports said Davidson would give Thomas equity in the team, that Thomas would be general manager, that the deal was worth a stupefying $55 million. Thomas would say only, "This is one of the happiest days of my life."
As it turned out, his life expectancy was four months. Thomas claims that even he doesn't know why things soured, but after a ruptured Achilles ended his playing career last April, the Pistons had no job for him. "If there was a power struggle," Thomas says, "it wasn't on my part."
"Things got a little strained," Piston president Tom Wilson says. "Mr. Davidson wasn't prepared to make Isiah an offer of ownership, and rumors about the deal seemed to have a life of their own. Would he coach? Be G.M.? Guys were thinking, Don [Chaney, the coach] tells me to do this, but who should I listen to? The stress made it uncomfortable."
So Thomas moved on to a $125 million expansion team, to NBA 101. He talked to Los Angeles Laker executive VP of basketball operations Jerry West, Bull general manager Jerry Krause, even Arizona Cardinal coach Buddy Ryan about how they approach their jobs. He studied winning franchises in all sports, seeking common themes. He helped develop a computer program for Raptor scouting, a system that will include psychological testing. He will hire a coach next spring for THE RAPTORS PLAYERS, who sound better in theory than they will probably play.