The smile. You notice the smile first. When Isiah Thomas smiles, when his eyes light up and his teeth flash and those huge dimples appear, you can't help but think of the last sophomore guard who took a Big Ten team to the NCAA basketball championship. Earvin (Magic) Johnson, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, did it for Michigan State two years ago. But nobody calls Isiah "Magic." His coach at Indiana, Bobby Knight, calls him "Pee Wee." His old pal from the West Side of Chicago, Mark Aguirre, knows him as "Zeke." To Indiana's fans, who have taken to displaying bed sheets with quotations from the Book of Isaiah ("And a little child shall lead them"), he is "Mr. Wonderful."
Now that Indiana has the title and Thomas the MVP award, it remains to be seen whether he will follow Johnson's example and turn pro prematurely. Although he's only 6'1" tall, seven inches shorter than Magic, he has the shooting, passing and dribbling skills to make a first-rate NBA guard. Even before the championship game. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith was comparing Thomas to Phil Ford, the former Tar Heel playmaker who now stars for the Kansas City Kings. "We're talking about two of the best point guards in college basketball history," Smith said.
Thomas is leaving the door open for pro offers. "If I have the opportunity, I probably will look at it," Thomas said before his 23-point, five-assist effort against the Tar Heels. However, he might well stay on at IU, with an eye to becoming a lawyer one day. "You can only play basketball so long," he says, "and then you have 35 or 40 more years to do something else with your life."
The youngest of nine children, Thomas grew up so poor that he remembers "times we couldn't eat." When the family couldn't afford sufficient food, Isiah's mother, Mary, whom he describes as "the greatest woman in the world," would take food from the cafeteria where she worked. His father, also named Isiah, tried to make ends meet by driving a truck. "I wouldn't trade anything for those days now," young Isiah says. "You learned to take care of your shoes, you learned to take care of your shirt." Today Thomas carries himself in a way that gives no clue to his past deprivation. He speaks slowly and softly, thoughtfully and articulately. His taste in clothes runs to three-piece suits.
When Thomas was a senior at Westchester St. Joseph's High, he was one of the top college prospects in the country. He was under intense pressure to join his buddy Aguirre tit DePaul, but finally he decided to play for Knight. He had received mail saying Knight tied up his players and beat them. "It was so crazy," says Thomas, "that no intelligent person could believe it." When Knight visited the Thomas home, one of Isiah's brothers, who wanted him to attend DePaul, embarrassed him by insulting the IU coach and engaging him in a shouting match. Nevertheless, Thomas stuck to his decision. He figured that getting away to Bloomington would be as good for him as Knight's discipline.
Thomas was so superior to any of the other Indiana players that Knight realized he would have to adjust his coaching style. This wasn't easy for a man who believes so strongly in the concept of team basketball. Meanwhile, Thomas had to learn that, to play for Knight, he couldn't display the same kind of freedom that, say, Aguirre does at DePaul. At the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. Knight got so mad at Thomas he threatened to put him on a plane home. "You ought to go to DePaul, Isiah," Knight recalls yelling at the freshman-to-be, "because you sure as hell aren't going to be an Indiana player playing like that."
A productive first year, in which Thomas teamed with Mike Woodson to lead Indiana to the Big Ten championship (the Hoosiers were beaten by Purdue in the Mideast Regional of the ensuing NCAAs), didn't resolve the conflict between Knight and Thomas. Before this season began. Knight became so upset with Thomas that he kicked him out of a practice. "It was my turn, I guess," says Thomas, flashing that smile. Knight was making a point and the point was this: no player, no "matter how talented, is bigger than Knight's philosophy.
The relationship began to improve in late December, when Knight made Thomas the captain and told him to run the show on the floor. Thomas responded so positively that, as the season unfolded, he and his coach became downright friendly. When a Purdue player took a cheap shot at Isiah in a game at Bloomington, Knight called a press conference to defend his star. And 19 days later, when Thomas hit an Iowa player and was ejected from a game. Knight refused to criticize Thomas. In turn, Thomas has become intensely loyal to Knight. After Indiana beat St. Joseph's to win the Mideast Regional in Bloomington, one of the first things Thomas did upon entering the locker room was to urge a couple of high school stars sought by Indiana to work hard over the summer "so we can do it again next year." Hardly the words, by the way, of a man seriously considering the pros.
In his 26 minutes of playing time against LSU last Saturday, Pee Wee displayed his myriad skills, hitting six of eight shots, scoring 14 points and dishing out four assists. After a plodding start, Monday's game was even better. You might even say it was his Magic moment.