They were lounging around one day talking about religion, not basketball, and all at once the conversation turned to the afterlife. Isiah Thomas gave the idea a long moment of reflection, and at last he said to his wife, quite earnestly, "Lynn, do you think they have basketball in heaven?" Well, she allowed that, yes, they probably did play hoops in the ever after.
"I sure hope they do," mused Isiah. "They've got to have some form of recreation up there. I mean, sitting around eating grapes would be cool for a while, but you have to have something to do. I sure do hope they play ball. If not, I'll be the Naismith of heaven."
Isiah Thomas is a romantic, off and on the basketball court, and the game is the central passion in his life.
"I'm in love with basketball," Thomas says. "It's my release. It's my outlet. If I get mad, I go shoot. It's my freedom. It's my security. It's my drug; it's my high. It's my nowhere. When I'm playing, I'm nowhere. Nothing else exists. Nothing else matters. You see, nothing else goes on when you're nowhere. I just let it flow."
Indeed, there have been those sublime moments on the basketball court when the point guard for the Detroit Pistons has risen to a kind of otherworldly dimension, to that almost ethereal level of the game where only he and the Michael Jordans and Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons come to play.
"Isiah is the most perfect point guard in the game today," says Don Nelson, coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. "When you're talking about the true point guard, the smaller guard, Isiah is the most perfect. I think of two players when I think of point guards: Isiah Thomas and Maurice Cheeks [of the Philadelphia 76ers]. Everybody else is evaluated in comparison with those two. There isn't anything Isiah can't do or doesn't do on the basketball court."
"Six-foot-one, whippet-quick," says Pat Riley, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. "Can drive, penetrate, create. Tough little kid...I love him because he's a spontaneous, creative player who makes things happen."
To be sure, there have been all those evenings when there was something from Dr. Naismith's own heaven in the way Thomas played the game. The Pistons' coach, Chuck Daly, spent four years as an assistant coach with the 76ers back in the days when Julius Erving was still regularly working his casual wonders on the hardwood, and Daly recalls the nights that the leaping, spinning Erving wowed them breathless wherever he played.
"I used to sit out there and look around at the crowd and say, I hope these people know what they're seeing,' " says Daly. " 'I hope they know they will never see this again.' I'm doing that again, watching Isiah: I hope these people understand that they will never see that move again."
There is that sudden, graceful burst of speed that leaves a defender spinning at midcourt, that pass flicked quickly to the open man, that finger-rolling layup after threading through three men. And that commanding aura he radiates on the court, the one that says this game belongs to him. He had it that day against the Knicks in the playoffs in 1984, when he scored 16 straight points in 94 seconds of the fourth quarter and nearly won it for the Pistons all by himself.