We are basically the league of dreams.
—ISIAH THOMAS, in a promotional tape for the CBA
Like a modern-day Music Man, he swept through river cities and mid-major markets with a grand and glorious proposition. It was the summer of 1999, and Isiah Thomas, dripping charm, unleashed a polished sales pitch to the owners of the nine franchises in the Continental Basketball Association, the NBA's de facto farm system. Guided by what he called "a passion for grassroots basketball," the former Detroit Pistons star proposed to purchase the teams and incorporate them into a single entity. He promised to use his charisma, his contacts and his cachet to transform the league into what he called "the Microsoft of basketball."
Yet by February of this year, the CBA resembled many a dotcom: bankrupt and defunct. Betraying both a colossal ego and delusions of grandeur about the league's value and potential, Thomas, 39, led the CBA, a going concern for more than half a century, into ruin. When he had an opportunity to salvage the league—and save himself millions in personal liability—by selling it to the NBA, he gave in to hubris, avarice and bad advice and rebuffed the offer. All that remains of the CBA is a K-2-sized mountain of unpaid bills, nearly 4,000 creditors and a deep reservoir of bitterness, most of it directed at Thomas. "The league was doing fine before he got here," says Clay Moser, former president and general manager of the Idaho Stampede and a onetime CBA regional vice president. "In a matter of  months he ran it into the ground." (After initially agreeing to an interview, Thomas declined to speak with SI.)
Since its founding in 1946, the same year as me NBA's inception, the CBA had survived persistent adversity and instability. From the Puerto Rico Coquis to the Topeka ( Kans.) Sizzlers to the Rapid City (S.Dak.) Thrillers, some 100 franchises—nearly two dozen in the '90s alone—came and went. Rosters were in constant flux as players were summoned to the NBA on 10-day contracts or wooed by that deep-pocketed team in the Philippines. The league changed commissioners as often as some folks switch their long-distance carriers. Though a few teams turned a profit, most had six-figure losses each year.
That was all supposed to change under Thomas. His quixotic business plan foresaw a future that included national sponsors, webcasts of games, expansion to hundreds of teams internationally, the sale of chunks of franchises to NBA stars such as Chris Webber, and the landing of a big-time television contract. Above all, his vision was to make the CBA an even more direct pipeline to the NBA, using his connections to forge a stronger alliance with the league and its commissioner, David Stern. After seven months of tough negotiations, the CBA owners agreed in September 1999 to sell their teams for a total of $9 million to IT Acquisitions, a corporation Thomas had set up for the deal. Thomas paid half up front, and he personally guaranteed the remaining $4.5 million, due over four years. "There was this optimism because he was Isiah Thomas and he had access to boardrooms that none of us did," says Gary Hunter, the CBA's commissioner when Thomas made the deal. "He was going to take us to a whole other level."
Unfortunately he did precisely that. While Thomas's mistakes cut a wide swath, centralizing the league proved particularly disastrous. When he took control from team owners and transferred it to the CBA's Phoenix headquarters, he undermined long-standing relations between teams and local businesses. What's more, for a league in which team support was regional at best—how many people outside central Washington follow the Yakima Sun Kings?—his quest for national sponsors and TV coverage was fruitless. The lone leaguewide television contract, signed with BET in 2000, was for 14 telecasts at a modest $20,000 per game. The two major corporate sponsors Thomas enlisted? One was Rimrocka, a clothing company that provided free warmups and uniforms. The other was the fledgling shoe company N.E.X.T. Up, whose goods drew complaints from players for their style and fit.
The league had always operated on a shoestring budget; its largest single source of revenue was a $2.2 million fee it collected from the NBA for providing a training ground for referees and allowing the big league to plunder players such as Mario Elie, Anthony Mason and John Starks. Thomas, however, spent liberally. One of his first moves was hiring Don Welsh, a longtime friend and former hotel executive, as league president. Though Welsh had no background in sports, Thomas rewarded him with a salary of $250,000, or roughly $100,000 more than his predecessor's, plus a loan of $175,000 and a performance bonus. Thomas installed eight vice presidents—only three based in cities with a CBA franchise—at an average of $125,000. He also hired his nephew Larvell Thomas as a sales rep for the Rock Island, Ill.-based Quad City Thunder. Team employees say that Larvell didn't show up regularly for work and that he once inquired about including his girlfriend on the health plan. (SI's attempts to locate him were unsuccessful.)
CBA sources also say that under Thomas, the league incurred considerable new expenses, initially ponying up $30,000 a month to the MWW Group, a public relations firm in East Rutherford, N.J. Perhaps the most curious expenditure was paying Gallup $409,000—roughly 10% of the league office's annual budget—to commission a study "to assess the league's management culture and help strengthen the brand." Pressed last year by team executives about his runaway budget, Thomas smiled and told them that he had to spend money to make money.
Other times, Thomas was less glib when his business acumen was questioned. During a September 2000 conference call among team executives and Thomas, Tommy Smith, then general manager and CEO of the Sioux Falls (S.Dak.) Skyforce and a four-time CBA Executive of the Year, expressed doubts about the owner's commitment to the league. Echoing the sentiment of many, Smith remembers saying something like, "You promised us the moon and then didn't even build us the rocket." Three days later Smith received a call from the league office saying that he would be paid through the remainder of the year but need not return to work. "The bottom line is we're talking about a man with a gigantic ego," former Fort Wayne ( Ind.) Fury general manager Rich Coffey says of Thomas. "If you weren't a yes-man, he didn't want to hear it."
As the league hemorrhaged money and Thomas found himself dipping into his personal assets to cover losses, the trappings of the bush leagues seemed to hold less appeal to him. During a barnstorming tour in November 1999, Thomas appeared one afternoon at a La Crosse ( Wis.) Bobcats game. According to Diane Bosshard, the Bobcats' general manager at the time, he couldn't be coaxed out of the locker room to sign autographs after the game. Telling Bosshard that he was "too tired," he canceled his appearance later that evening in Quad Cities, about an hour away, despite a packed house for Isiah Thomas Night. Grand Rapids Hoops investor Dan Elve recalls that Thomas came to a Hoops home game but declined a request to address the crowd. "He thought he was too good for the CBA," says Moser, who claims that IT Acquisitions still owes him $25,000. "He just wasn't interested in the communities."