"Is it a Snickers?"
It was there he sprang the question, and there she answered. They were married a year later and settled into a spacious five-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the swanky Detroit suburb of Bloom field Hills, just a few miles from the Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Pistons. Mary Thomas already had her home, the ranchhouse he bought her in the predominantly white Chicago suburb of Clarendon Hills. "He wanted me out of the ghetto, and I wanted to stay near the old neighborhood," she says. She was uncomfortable at first, away from the only home she had known for years, but the woman who once stared down the Vice Lords and marched into Mayor Daley's office moved west with her sense of humor intact.
Her boys come often to visit her—Larry coaches a junior high school basketball team in nearby Hinsdale—and Isiah always stops by when he is around, relishing the thought of her finally having what she never had before.
"Seeing her in that house when she moved in—that probably is the most happiness, the most pleasure, I've had in my life," he says. "Watching her going from having nothing to having something. When I go home, I can walk to the refrigerator, and it's got food in it! That's happiness. We've got food in the house, and bills are being paid! Just the simple things."
Thomas always wanted to buy his mother that home in the suburbs, but the vision is not complete with that. When you are the designated Chosen One. there is no choice in some matters. "I gotta finish school," says Thomas, who is but 22 credits shy of a degree in criminal justice at Indiana. "I have to finish, you see, because I'm the start of a new tradition, of a new family era. For my nieces and nephews, I'm like the start of something new. I got to make sure that I follow all the rules and do everything right. So when they come along, they can do the right things. It doesn't matter whether I'm comfortable doing that or not. I got to do it, simply because if I don't do it, then it would make no sense for me to have these opportunities. If I don't take advantage and do the right things, then my life was a waste."
In the days since his arrival in Detroit, he has put little to waste. He has thrown himself into community service work, making antidrug commercials and speeches, and he labored tirelessly last summer organizing "No Crime Day" in Detroit, an idea he conceived and promoted. With the help of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, whom he approached with the idea, last Sept. 27 was set aside as a day when the populace was asked to desist from wrongdoing, a sort of moratorium on crime.
If the idea seems a bit starry-eyed, Young and Thomas insist that it worked as they had envisioned. "We accomplished the things we really wanted to," says Thomas. "There were masses of people who organized themselves in block clubs and neighborhoods and communities to try to prevent crime. That's what we really wanted to do—raise people's consciousness." With Young, Thomas is the co-chairman of a committee working to keep the movement alive. Young says he has never known a celebrity as involved in Detroit or as community-spirited as Thomas.
Now all Isiah has to do is somehow, someday, lead the Pistons to a world title—a goal that does not seem all that farfetched these days. After a period of adjusting to major personnel changes—Detroit acquired the high-scoring Adrian Dantley for Kelly Tripucka in one of the biggest deals of the off-season—the Pistons went on a tear that has made them one of the hottest teams in the NBA. With Dantley and Thomas providing a potent one-two punch, Detroit won 18 out of 22 games and was suddenly being taken seriously as a playoff contender. "That's the only reason that you play and practice," Thomas says. "If I work hard enough, we'll win it. If our team doesn't win a championship while I'm here, I wasn't good enough to win it. It's that simple."
Yes, simple, just as basketball is a simple game, a children's game, What Isiah Thomas has to decide now is whether he wants to gear up or gear down, whether he wants to razzle and dazzle or squeeze and ease—whether he just wants to play, or wants to win. The question is really as simple as the game itself, and as old as Naismith.