Before his inaugural season as league owner had ended, Thomas tried to do what most everyone else in the CBA—players, coaches, refs, public relations directors—had tried to do: graduate to the NBA. His last stint in that league had hardly been an unqualified success: In November 1997 he was forced out as vice president of the Toronto Raptors after three years. Still, in April 2000 he met with the Atlanta Hawks to discuss their coaching vacancy. He was also reportedly a candidate for coaching positions with the Dallas Mavericks, the New Jersey Nets and the Washington Wizards. Last July he signed a four-year, $20 million contract with the Indiana Pacers. "He convinced us of his vision," says former La Crosse owner Bill Bosshard (Diane's husband). "Then he realized his business plan was faulty and figured, I better grab a coaching job,' and abandoned us."
Thomas's supporters, however, say that the move made sense, and not only for financial reasons. "[In the CBA] you have 1,000 people show up for stale popcorn, cold hot dogs, flat Coke, and you have dogs jumping through hoops at halftime," says Ivan Thornton, a New York-based financial adviser to Thomas. "You're flying around on puddle jumpers getting to and from these cities. You compare that to the NBA." Another friend of Thomas's surmises that Thomas was motivated to coach after watching Doc Rivers win Coach of the Year honors in 1999-2000, his rookie season with the Orlando Magic. Thomas and Rivers have a rivalry going back to their high school days in suburban Chicago. "Isiah was like, 'If he can do it and be successful, why can't I?' " says the friend.
There was one catch. Under the NBA's constitution, no one with a "management interest" (including a coach) is permitted to hold a financial interest in another basketball league. One source says that Thomas didn't believe the league would enforce that provision because of his stature; later, sources say, he complained that the NBA had bullied him into abandoning the CBA. But the NBA made clear to Thomas the ramifications of becoming a coach. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik says he informed Thomas of them the month before he spoke to the Hawks. "The first time we heard he was looking at a coaching job," says Granik, "we told him he couldn't own the CBA at the same time."
Knowing that Thomas had to sell the league, a group of seven former team owners called a meeting last June with Thomas and his representatives at the O'Hare Hilton in Chicago. The group, which still hadn't been paid $4.5 million of the original $9 million purchase price, was prepared to forgive that debt and assume most of the others to take back the league and restore local ownership. At the appointed time, neither Thomas nor his representatives appeared. After half an hour, the group called Welsh. "Where the hell are you?" he was asked. Welsh apologized profusely, then said, "Isiah won't let us attend."
The NBA also offered to buy out Thomas. It had already announced plans to launch a developmental league, and building it around the existing infrastructure of the CBA made sense. Thomas claims that the NBA offer was for $11 million, which would have represented a handsome 22% return on a short-term investment. (Granik says the league offered less than that but enough to make Thomas whole on the original purchase price; Thomas would also have received a share of future profits and not be exposed to future losses.) Regardless, a sale would have enabled Thomas to pay off the balance of his debt and freed him to join Indiana. Sources say, however, that Thomas declined, citing advisers who had told him that the league was worth $20 to $30 million. Shortly thereafter, the NBA announced that the developmental league would consist of new franchises in the Southeast. Thomas wouldn't receive another offer that came close to the NBA's.
Unable to sell the league last summer, Thomas was prohibited from taking over the Pacers until he placed the CBA in a blind trust administered by Thornton. The NBA ordered Thomas to sell it within one year. When the 2000-2001 season commenced, the CBA was unraveling fast. Even after receiving season-ticket and sponsorship revenues up front, the league started with a deficit. Rumors abounded that the entire season would be scrapped. It wasn't, but after one month of play the CBA had lost more than $1 million and was struggling to make payroll on time. "We didn't talk basketball before the games," says Raja Bell, a star guard for the Sun Kings. "It was, 'Do you think we'll get paid on Friday?' "
Though it had always been a magnet for NBA scouts and an ideal showcase for CBA talent, the Feb. 7 All-Star Game was canceled. "It would have cost us anywhere from $250,000 to $350,000," says Welsh, "and we did not have the cash to do it." On Feb. 8, the CBA was officially euthanized. The league issued a four-paragraph fax announcing that it was suspending operations and returning teams to local ownership. "Though disappointing to me personally, the decision allows basketball to continue in the cities that have supported the CBA for many years," said Thomas, who, according to the league, advanced funds to pay players through their last games. Team executives, however, likened the maneuver to borrowing a car and returning it without an engine. On Feb. 23, the CBA filed for Chapter Seven in a Grand Rapids bankruptcy court, submitting 744 pages of unpaid bills, totaling at least $4.7 million, and 101 pages of unpaid wages. The league listed its only assets as old uniforms, 12 cars, some office equipment and the value of its team logos.
Thomas's defenders say that once he was ordered to place the league in a blind trust, the CBA's fate was sealed. "I cannot overemphasize how dramatic his departure was and what it did to our plans," says Welsh. "When you look at his original business plan, it made a lot of sense. There is no doubt that with Isiah's background, knowledge and contacts, if he had been allowed to open doors for the CBA while coaching in the NBA, we would not be having this conversation."
Still, many wonder about Thomas's motives for buying the league in the first place. Did he really think the CBA was a potential cash cow? "It was a good deal," says Joe Lombardo, a friend and financial adviser of Thomas's. "We felt it could be turned around." Or was this another case of a former athlete succumbing to hubris? "He thinks of himself in the same class as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson," says Coffey, "and he thought he could be a big businessman too."
The fallout from the CBA's demise will continue for months, if not years. Creditors seeking payment for services, back wages and unpaid rent are lining up to attach IT Acquisitions' minimal assets. In Grand Rapids, the CBA owed Van Andel Arena more than $100,000 in unpaid rent for Hoops games. The Hoops switched to another minor league, the International Basketball League, but arena officials, uncertain about the status of the team's ownership, had changed the locks on the doors. Unable to retrieve its uniforms, Grand Rapids had to play its first IBL game in Fury jerseys borrowed at the last minute from Fort Wayne and worn inside out.