The kid seemed too good to pass up. When Isiah Thomas, then executive vice president of the Toronto Raptors, phoned NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol last fall to inquire about becoming the network's new NBA color analyst, Ebersol couldn't resist. "Of course I was interested," he says.
Never mind that Thomas had never broadcast a game. Here was a former point guard who had twice led the Detroit Pistons to the NBA title, a 12-time Ail-Star who had been president of the players' association, a part owner and the de facto general manager of the Raptors, and a man with the most infectious smile this side of Magic. Color? Thomas would provide a spectrum.
"I come into this as a rookie," says Thomas, whose broadcast partner is the seamless Bob Costas. "I don't come into this professing to be the top guy."
Indeed, nearly three months into his new career, Thomas falls somewhere between Madden (John) and maddening ( John Tesh). O.K., closer to the latter. Despite his charismatic presence, Thomas has a soft voice that doesn't engage viewers the way Hot Rod Hundley's does. His energy level wavers during a telecast, and he says "You know" too much, as in, "Yeah, you know, we, you know, Jordan when he guards you, you know, he shuts you down, you know?"
Here's our halftime report at the midpoint of this rookie's season.
Twenty-Four-Second Violations: During the Feb. 22 Orlando Magic- Los Angeles Lakers game, Thomas took :28 off the clock discussing' Penny Hardaway's market value. Meanwhile, two possessions elapsed. A similar transgression occurred the following Sunday during the Utah Jazz- Houston Rockets game when Thomas waxed nostalgic about John Stockton for 31 seconds. The rook should take a cue from Costas: Keep it brief.
Loose Calls: It's O.K to have fun, as when the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal followed his own errant shot and dunked it and Thomas exclaimed, "Uugghh! Shaq Daddy's in the house!" But what was he thinking when the Rockets were trailing the Jazz by two with 1:06 remaining and he said, "As a point guard you are thinking now about who's in foul trouble"? We wanted to know who should be getting the ball.
Second-Shot Opportunities: During the Magic-Lakers telecast, Thomas noted that when his former coach, Chuck Daly (now of Orlando), has a hot hand on offense, "he will milk it and milk it and milk it." At the Houston-Utah game he made good points early (e.g., the Rockets direct their offense almost exclusively to the left side), then revisited them too often. On the subject of repetition, Thomas says "energy" far too often.
Three-pointers: Thomas called the Pistons' acquisition of Brian Williams "a mistake." After Orlando's Danny Schayes took a charge from the Lakers' Robert Horry, Thomas said of Schayes, "He reminds me a lot of Bill Laimbeer [except that Laimbeer] would've slugged him right in the jaw." For such candor, he gets nothing but net.
During the first two months of Costas's rookie season (1974-75) with the ABA's St. Louis Spirits, he uttered an on-air expletive and arrived for a game midway through the first quarter. He got better. So can Thomas.