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Do these two entities, the NBA and the CBA, need each other? Logic suggests that they do, but the two men don't. "The exact form that an NBA developmental league would take is still open to question," Stern says. Thomas quixotically claims that the CBA is a "business opportunity that stands alone. If the NBA participates, that's great. If it doesn't, it's still great. If the NBA decided one day to say, 'We're not going to take players from the CBA,' I think small-town America would still want basketball."
Outside the offices of the Sioux Falls Skyforce, at the Western Mall, there's always a fresh pot of coffee for the exercisers. "We don't open the door too fast," general manager John Etrheim says, "or we might clip one." On Nov. 1 at noon, a few hours before Thomas's press conference to reaffirm the CBA's commitment to Sioux Falls, the mall was deserted except for pairs of senior citizens walking and chatting amiably. When Thomas and his entourage arrived, the exercisers passed him without a glance.
The Skyforce is, in many ways, a model CBA franchise. Season-ticket sales are strong (3,600), and the team led the league in attendance the past two seasons and at week's end was averaging a league-best 5,120 per game. The franchise has the kind of corporate fingerprint that Thomas likes: Local companies, such as J&L Harley, and national concerns with branch offices in Sioux Falls, such as Gateway computers, fill the 23 skyboxes and the courtside seats at the 29-year-old arena. And fans come a long way for the games: Mike Luken and his 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer, drive 100 miles each way from Watertown, S.Dak. They get the chance to talk on the road. They've barely missed a game in the seven years since Jennifer's mother died.
Skyforce CEO Tommy Smith, who's got the boots and the big ring and the bonhomie that go with his Nashville accent, explains the team's philosophy. He doesn't care that it would pass for heresy in the world of big-time sports. "We don't want the numbers on the scoreboard to determine whether you're having a good time," he says. "I don't believe that winning is the only thing that determines your happiness." Apparently Thomas doesn't think this is heresy; in December he appointed Smith general manager of the Quad City team as well.
When Thomas walked in, the Skyforce staff members—including John Hovda, who dons a woolly wolf suit to become Thunder, the team mascot (a big draw for the 10-and-under crowd)—were noticeably nervous. But once it became clear that Thomas hadn't flown halfway across the country to fire them all, they relaxed and asked the sort of questions you put to a new boss: health insurance, 401(k)s. Thomas went around the table, asking them to tell him their names and something about themselves. "I had pictures of you on the wall when I was in school," said Amy Meyer, the office manager, blushing.
Jeremy DeCurtins, an operations assistant, said he was a wide receiver on the University of Sioux Falls football team that won an NAIA Division II national championship a few years earlier. Thomas extended his hand. "Hello, champion," he said. "You know, there aren't too many of us around."
Isiah Thomas often speaks in the first person plural. Sometimes it's the royal we, and why not? How many kings had better days than Thomas did? (O.K., sure, but against the Lakers?) Sometimes it's the corporate we: Thomas as the new voice of the CBA or as the brains of Isiah Investments. But usually he seems to be invoking an actual community, one to which he belongs and on whose behalf he has chosen to speak, vividly, as if the entire collective were there with him, or at least on hold on his cell phone: the Pistons, past, present, and future; former Indiana players who still jump at the voice of Bobby Knight; all world champions who currently walk the earth. Sometimes, Thomas's we is an irresistible bit of flattery; he invariably explains the new CBA rule forbidding the double team by saying, "So what we're going to do is bring the game back to the grassroots level, where it used to be when we would go to the park, and it was five-on-five, me against you." The room grows silent for a moment as everybody in earshot who has ever touched a basketball searches his muscle memory for one single shot to put up in that ideal park Thomas has just conjured.
His sense of community is infectious. But businessmen who find themselves across the table from the new owner of the CBA should ignore the cherubic smile and the big ol' eyebrows like those of the Wise Potato Chips owl. Concentrate instead on the scar over the left eye. During a 1991 game in Utah in which Thomas was scoring at will, the Jazz's Karl Malone planted an elbow there, knocking Thomas out and opening a gash that required 40 stitches. Thomas took his stitches and returned to the game. That's the man you can't see under the makeup and the bright lights of NBC studios.
"Isiah is not a basketball player who went into business—he's a businessman who happened to play basketball," says Bruce Stern (no relation to David), the founder of the National Rookie League. Bill Ilett, a former owner of the CBA's Idaho Stampede, sat with his fellow owners during negotiations that preceded the mass sale to Thomas, and he reports, "Isiah didn't need his lawyers."
Thomas is going to need that savvy if he hopes to stabilize a foundering minor league and make it profitable. "You want to know a sure way to make a small fortune?" Charley Rosen, former coach of the defunct Savannah Spirits, asks. "Start with a big fortune and buy a CBA team."