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Isiah Thomas's studied, mature orchestration of the Detroit Pistons' NBA championship last week went a long way toward changing his image among basketball purists. Thomas kept the tempo at a controlled, even pace, which disrupted the fast-breaking Portland Trail Blazers. And when he wasn't doing that, he was creating something from nothing, with long-distance jump shots, body-twisting drives and steals in the open floor. Six other NBA guards, including teammate Joe Dumars, were selected by the media ahead of Thomas on the three All-NBA teams this season. But by the time the Pistons had beaten the Blazers 92-90 in Game 5 to clinch their second straight championship last Thursday night in Portland, there was only one great guard still playing basketball—Isiah Lord Thomas III.
On Friday afternoon, however, less than 24 hours after he was unanimously named the Finals MVP, and even as the city of Detroit was still cleaning up from a night of celebration that had turned deadly (box, page 35), Thomas's triumph had turned to anger and anguish. He returned to his home in suburban Detroit to find his wife, Lynn, in tears in front of the television set. She had just finished watching a report by a Detroit television station, WJBK, that linked her husband with an FBI investigation of a multimillion-dollar sports betting ring.
WJBK's report, and subsequent stories by Detroit newspapers, said that Thomas was not a target of the federal investigation, which was confirmed to SI by Stephen Markman, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. But investigators reportedly were interested in checks from Thomas that were cashed by a man named Emmet Denha, a close friend and former next-door neighbor of Thomas's, as well as the godfather of his two-year-old son, Joshua. According to the local media reports, Denha, a Detroit-area supermarket owner and Piston season-ticket holder, is under investigation, in connection with a nationwide gambling probe, for possible money laundering.
The WJBK report also said that Piston forward Mark Aguirre, one of Thomas's closest friends, approached a former FBI agent named Ned Timmons and told him that Thomas had a gambling problem. As SI went to press, Timmons could not be reached for comment. Aguirre had made no public statement as of Monday afternoon, but Thomas told SI that Aguirre said he does not know Timmons.
The television report also said that Aguirre "apparently" told Timmons that Thomas had participated in "high-stakes" dice games, and a report that followed in the combined Saturday editions of The Detroit News and Free Press said that Thomas had hosted such games in his suburban Detroit home.
In interviews with SI and several Detroit media outlets and also in a long statement released by John Caponigro, his attorney, Thomas said that he sometimes cashed checks at one of Denha's supermarkets so he could avoid the hassle that comes with his appearing in public places. The checks, said Thomas, were for his monthly living allowance, regular disbursements issued by the Detroit office of the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, which handles his personal finances.
The total amount of Thomas's checks cashed by Denha is at issue. Newspaper accounts said these transactions may have totaled as much as $350,000 over an unspecified period, and that in one month, November 1989, Thomas cashed about $100,000 in checks. Those November checks have reportedly been subpoenaed by a grand jury.
Caponigro, on Monday, called the $350,000 figure "highly inflated" and said that the $100,000 figure for one month was "very, very high."
In his statement Thomas also said that during his nine years in Detroit he has been involved in impromptu dice games "on three or four social' occasions." Thomas said that none of his wagers in any of the games could be considered high-stakes. He was quoted in media reports as saying the wagers were for $10 and $30. Several of Thomas's current and former teammates told SI that they have no knowledge of Thomas's having a gambling problem.
The NBA said it is "looking into" the Thomas matter and released this statement Monday by deputy commissioner Russ Granik concerning possible disciplinary action in connection with Thomas's admission that he played dice games: "If all this amounts to is something comparable to an occasional game of poker or gin rummy, we don't see that as any cause for NBA involvement."