#11 Isiah "Zeke" Thomas
Position: Guard ▪ Height: 6-1 ▪ Weight: 180 lbs.
Born: April 30, 1961 (Age 51) in Chicago, Illinois
High School: St. Joseph in Westchester, Illinois
College: Indiana University
Draft: Detroit Pistons, 1st round (2nd pick, 2nd overall), 1981 NBA Draft
NBA Debut: October 30, 1981
Hall of Fame: Inducted as Player in 2000
Isiah "Zeke" Thomas was one of the greatest "small men" ever to play professional basketball. His only peer at point guard in the NBA during the 1980s was the Lakers' Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who at 6-9 brought unique physical skills to the position.
Thomas, who stood barely over 6-feet, was in his day the grittiest performer to play the position, a feisty competitor who offered no quarter and expected none in return. Like Johnson, Thomas possessed the skill and determination to take over a game at will.
Thomas helped build a last-place Detroit Pistons team into back-to-back NBA champions in the late 1980s. Thomas' sunny smile belied an inner toughness that made him a key member of a scrappy, physical group of players dubbed the "Bad Boys" of Detroit.
"I call him the baby-faced assassin," an opposing coach once told the Charlotte Observer, "because he smiles at you, then cuts you down."
Like many of his teammates, Thomas was tempestuous, edgy, vocal and not opposed to balling up his fist when he felt the need. And he knew how to handle pain; he often played with injuries resulting from his rough-and-tumble style.
Though Thomas was an unselfish player, his personal achievements were impressive. In 13 years with Detroit, he became the franchise's all-time leader in points, assists, steals and games played. He made the All-Star Team in all but his final year and was named NBA Finals MVP in 1990.
Along with Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Utah's John Stockton, Thomas became the fourth player in NBA history to amass more than 9,000 assists. His 13.9 assists per game in 1984-85 set an NBA record for the highest single-season average ever, until Stockton bested it with 14.5 in 1989-90.
Thomas played high school ball at St. Joseph's in Westchester, where he led the team to the state-title game as a junior in 1978. In 1979, he was a member of the gold medal-winning United States team at the Pan-American Games.
That fall Thomas enrolled at Indiana University. The street-hardened freshman impressed Coach Bobby Knight from the outset, averaging 14.6 points and 5.5 assists in his first season. That summer Thomas was selected to play on the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, but a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games robbed him of the Olympic experience.
As a 19-year-old sophomore, Thomas (16.0 ppg, 5.8 apg) steered the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA Championship. Following that season he passed up his final two years of collegiate eligibility and entered the 1981 NBA Draft.
The 1980-81 Pistons were the second-worst team in the league, with a 21-61 record. Detroit was one of the few franchises that didn't have a player capable of scoring 20 points per game. The hapless club made Thomas the second overall pick in the 1981 draft behind DePaul's Mark Aguirre, a childhood friend of Thomas who later became his teammate. (Thomas, who had promised his mother he would finish college, received his degree in criminal justice six years later -- on Mother's Day.)
During the mid-1980s, Thomas, Magic and Sidney Moncrief were the best all-around guards in the league. Still needing to carry much of the Pistons' offensive load, Thomas scored more than 20 points per game in each season from 1982-83 to 1986-87. The quick-handed guard was among the NBA's most prolific ball thieves.
But above all, he was the consummate quarterback, consistently placing near the top of the league in assists. In 1984-85, he set an all-time record by averaging 13.9 assists. He was selected to the All-NBA First Team for three consecutive seasons from 1983-84 to 1985-86. While keeping his own point totals healthy, Thomas fed Laimbeer, Tripucka, John Long and Vinnie Johnson a steady diet of scoring opportunities. Thomas could pass to anybody. In being named MVP of the 1984 and 1986 All-Star Games, Thomas recorded 15 and 10 assists, respectively.
When Chuck Daly came aboard as head coach for 1983-84, the Pistons became a playoff team once again. They were quiet in the first three years of Daly's reign, losing annually in the preliminary rounds to the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics or the Atlanta Hawks. But then, in 1987, Detroit came within one game of reaching the NBA Finals.
The Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics was one of the roughest of the era. Recriminations flew off the court, while elbows and expletives were traded on the hardwood. The experience was a painful one for Thomas. With five seconds left in Game 5, Larry Bird stole a Thomas inbounds pass and fed Dennis Johnson for a layup, giving Boston a 108-107 win. The war came to a head in Game 7. After 48 minutes of pounding, Boston survived, 117-114.
Thomas emerged from the series more driven and competitive than ever. The Pistons now had one of the league's most talented and bruising lineups, with Thomas, Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars.
With Thomas in top form, Detroit seemed ready to surge past Atlanta and the Milwaukee Bucks for the division title in 1987-88. The Pistons met the challenge, finishing the year in first place at 54-28. Thomas' statistics dipped a bit (19.5 ppg, 8.4 apg), but only because he was part of a complete team with few, if any, weaknesses. He could concentrate more on helping to bring out each player's individual talents.
In 1987-88, the Pistons reached the NBA Finals for the first time since moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne in 1958. In a painful repeat of the previous season's loss to Boston, Detroit lost a seven-game heartbreaker to the defending NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers. (Before the Game 1 tipoff, Thomas and close friend Magic Johnson exchanged what may have been the first on-court kiss in league history.)
Holding a three-games-to-two series lead, the Pistons lost Game 6, 103-102, despite 43 points from Thomas (25 points in one quarter, setting an NBA Finals record), who played on a badly sprained ankle. Los Angeles, behind James Worthy's 36 points and 16 rebounds, sweated out Game 7 and won, 108-105.
Thomas and the Pistons peaked in 1988-89, when their 63-19 record was tops in the league. Detroit picked up Thomas's buddy, Mark Aguirre, from the Dallas Mavericks in a controversial midseason trade for Dantley, giving the Pistons still more scoring power. Seven Pistons averaged more than 13.5 points, a tribute to Thomas' unselfishness and slick playmaking.
The Bad Boys pulled out all the stops in the playoffs, sweeping Boston in three games and Milwaukee in four to reach the Conference Finals against rival Chicago. Despite a great effort from the Bulls' Michael Jordan, Detroit won in six games and advanced to meet the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Los Angeles, though dominant throughout the decade, was ill-prepared for the series. In his last season, 42-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was ineffective and guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott were slowed by hamstring injuries. The overpowering Pistons swept the Lakers for their first-ever NBA title.
The Pistons played and intimidated, their way to a second consecutive NBA Championship in 1989-90, becoming the second team since the 1968-69 Boston Celtics to win back-to-back crowns, and the sixth team ever to do so. During the season they used a 25-1 midseason tear to finish with a 59-23 record.
Thomas was named MVP of the Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, averaging 27.6 points and 7.0 assists. After the series, Thomas told HOOP magazine: "We never quit. We always feel we are going to win, no matter what the score is. It's all a battle of will. You have to keep asking yourself, 'How bad do you really want it?'"
Lingering physical problems slowed Thomas in the twilight of his career, and the aging Pistons faded further into the shadow of Jordan and the Bulls. By the 1993-94 season it was clear that Thomas, then 32 years old, was nearing the end of his playing days. That season he suffered a hyperextended knee, a broken rib, a strained arch, a calf injury and a cut left hand. Then, in his last home game against Orlando, he tore an Achilles tendon, effectively ending his career.
Thomas retired with 18,822 points (19.2 ppg), 9,061 assists (9.3 apg), and 1,861 steals over 979 games -- all Pistons records. He shot .452 from the field and .759 from the free-throw line. In 1996-97, Thomas was honored as a member of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.