But that's one match-up Thomas admits he's not ready for. "The only person I've been surprised by has been Kareem," says Thomas, who played against Abdul-Jabbar's Lakers in the preseason. "Everyone calls him the dominant center, but he's much better than that. The things he does, the plays he makes...You look at him and you can tell he's been taught very well."
So was Thomas. Given his fascination with fundamentals, there was little doubt why he chose Indiana and its taskmaster, Knight, despite pressure from what seemed like the entire city of Chicago, including his mother, to stay at home and attend DePaul. Choosing Indiana may have been one of the few things he's done exactly as he wanted to.
As Thomas relates that story in a Washington hotel room, there's a knock on the door and he opens it to find a sportscaster and camera crew from a local station. Thomas begs off because of fatigue, but the sportscaster is insistent. They talk several minutes more before a compromise is reached: Thomas will see them a few hours later. Thomas isn't upset about the ambush, but rather because "that man is probably thinking I'm a jerk for not talking to him." Robertson says Thomas would like to be everything for everybody, and Thomas doesn't disagree.
"He got that from me," says his mother, Mary Thomas. "The minute someone looks at us with sad eyes, we're over there trying to help." Isiah's father left the family when he was four, leaving Mary, a retired Chicago Housing Authority worker, to raise nine children. The youngest, Isiah, has always been a favorite. "Even now I'll wake up at midnight or one in the morning and give him a call," Mary Thomas says. "I was kind of like his first coach. I'd always talk to him and wherever I went, he went. We walked and talked many a day together when he was younger. He probably didn't understand what I was saying, but he looked up at me like he did."
Thomas says he wasn't a bad kid, "just hardheaded," but before he could prove it on the streets, his brothers directed him to the local Boys' Club.
"There were people who got shot and stabbed and all that stuff, but we enjoyed the West Side," says Thomas. "I appreciate it even more now. Take something like shoes: You take care of them better because when you were young and got a pair they had to last for a year or two. Or three meals a day. I know everybody doesn't get that.
"You can't take things for granted. I think about where I am and it's awesome, it's crazy. One day you're not able to get anything and the next day you can have whatever you want."
Except respite from the rigors of the NBA life-style. "People have no idea how difficult it is playing in the league, how tiring the travel can be," he said before last Friday's game with the Bullets, in which he found out firsthand: John Lucas blew past a fatigued Thomas for a couple of easy buckets. Late in the game Thomas was fouled while shooting and went to the line for a pair of important free throws. Up for the first, Thomas toed the line, took a deep breath, bent his knees—and shot an airball. Later, he would say, "My mind said yes but my legs said no." Nevertheless, when the ball hit the floor, the biggest smile in the Capital Centre belonged to Isiah Thomas.