In the Old Testament, the Book of Isaiah is filled with messianic hope. In the front offices of the Continental Basketball Association, the book on Isiah Lord Thomas III is that he's something of a savior too. How does the former Detroit Piston account for his evolution from point god to the Profit Isiah? "Basically, you become a brand," he explains. "Isiah is a brand. It's a brand that's accepted internationally. But what the brand really [represents] is credibility, trust, loyalty. Now, if you can put a credible business behind that...." The brand flashes his famous smile. It's still bright enough to blind a ref.
In October the brand bought the CBA, paying $10 million to take over a league in which seven franchises had folded over the previous two years. At first glance it didn't look like Thomas's best move: Last season the nine surviving franchises together lost more than $2 million. Although attendance was growing—the average draw of 3,809 per game was a league record—the figure concealed a more dire situation. "Isiah saved the league," an assistant at one of the most financially troubled teams says. "Three teams stayed in business last year just because of rumors of this deal. If they had folded, no more CBA You can't play with six."
Taking over failing businesses is nothing new for Thomas. In 1992, while still a Piston, he and a partner bought the bankrupt American Speedy Printing Centers. Today it's the fourth-largest quick-printing chain in the U.S. "Turnarounds are very interesting," says Rick Inatome, a business associate of Thomas's. "Momentum is everything, and Isiah is a mastermind of momentum."
Just as he did with Speedy Printing, the CBA's new owner immediately started calling on troubled franchises. He huddled with the front-office staffs of the Connecticut Pride and the Quad City Thunder, and he reassured corporate sponsors of the Rockford Lightning and the Yakima Sun Kings. "One thing Isiah has learned is, there are many forms of capital in business," Inatome says. "Both of these deals required social and charisma capital."
During a stop in South Dakota in November, Thomas projected his star wattage g and major league glamour on Terry Schulte's Chevy dealership, which sponsors the Sioux Falls Skyforce. "That's a sharp outfit you got on there," Schulte said, noting Thomas's subtle country-squire ensemble: a herringbone jacket of russet tweed over a five-button caramel-colored waistcoat. "You didn't buy that in Sioux Falls, I can tell you that."
Inatome is right: Already the momentum seems to have shifted. After half a season under new leadership, CBA attendance and corporate sponsorship revenue were up 10% over last season. Thomas predicts that the league will even show a modest profit this year. He says that more than 40 cities have contacted him about joining (in many cases, rejoining) the league, and he can now talk seriously about creating regional rivalries, with Bridgeport ( Conn.) and Springfield (Mass.)'to join Hartford in New England; Detroit, Flint (Mich.) and Gary (Ind.) to add a few more notches in the Rust Belt; Anaheim, Fresno and Pomona, Calif., along with Everett and Spokane, Wash., to hang on the Pacific rims along with the Sun Kings. Even Wilkes-Barre—whose Barons were one of the original teams in the league when it began business 54 years ago as the Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League—is ready to lace up the Chucks and try it again.
Thomas is not without competition in this vast expanse of what he calls "emerging domestic sports markets." If you're the type who likes a nice league prospectus for bedtime reading, you already know about the IBL (the brazenly ambitious International Basketball League) and two leagues still on the drawing board: the CPBL (the delightfully oxymoronic Collegiate Professional Basketball League) and the NRL (the National Rookie League, with its players' curiously short shelf life). The IBL, which has been running and gunning in eight cities since November, pays an average $50,000 per player over a five—month season-roughly twice the CBA average—although IBL contracts forbid players to accept NBA call-ups. The CPBL and the NRL hope to tip off in the next two seasons.
NBA commissioner David Stern has added his voice to this chorus, going on record about his league's need for its own minor league, one he hopes to have in place within the next 18 months. What could this mean for the CBA, which has been the NBA's affiliated developmental league for 20 years, operating under an agreement that covers player call-ups, referee training and substantial subsidies to the CBA league office? If Stern should form his own minor league, the effect on Thomas's league would be disastrous: Few players would play for CBA pay without the prospect of reaching the NBA. Perhaps in an effort to protect his investment against such a blow, Thomas has gathered a lineup of NBA stars—Glen Rice, Jalen Rose, Damon Stoudamire and Chris Webber, among others—interested in buying shares (which would never exceed 49%) of expansion franchises. Such sales would bring the league (and Thomas) short-term capital and, perhaps, a crossover following of big-city fans.
Stern is noncommittal about the NBA's plans. "We continue to analyze the best minor league relationship for the NBA, and that may or may not be the CBA," he said in November, calling attention to the CBA's recent history of financial instability. But, Stern acknowledged, "because Isiah seems to be earnest and active and brings a good deal [to the table] as a manager," the NBA renewed its affiliation contract with the CBA through this season.
At week's end business between the two leagues was being conducted as usual: Swingman Mark Davis jumped from the La Crosse ( Wis.) Bobcats to the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 18. But the one-year term looks a lot like a tryout for Thomas, and Stern has mused publicly—perhaps as a negotiating tactic—about establishing an NBA minor league in Europe. There's a sense of d�j� vu to this game of brinkmanship: Thomas was head of the NBA players' association during collective bargaining with the owners in the early '90s. He and Stern speak highly of each other's skills at the negotiating table. In fact, Thomas's acquisition of an entire league can be seen as a sort of homage to Stern. The new CBA mimics the business model that Stern established for the WNBA, replacing the old model (a confederation of separately owned franchises) with a single entity responsible for all league decisions.