Isiah Thomas tried to convince Jack McCloskey, the general manager of the Detroit Pistons, to bypass him in the 1981 NBA draft.
Detroit had the second pick. Mark Aguirre, a scoring star for DePaul, was expected to go No. 1 to the Mavericks. Thomas, the leader of Indiana University's national championship squad, was the clear No. 2 prospect. He wanted to play for his hometown Chicago Bulls, who had the sixth pick.
"Every question [McCloskey] asked me, I answered intentionally wrong," Thomas said in the terrific "30 for 30" documentary "Bad Boys," which airs tonight at 8 ET on ESPN.
McCloskey wasn't fooled.
He nabbed the best little man in NBA history without hesitation, changed the course of professional basketball in the Motor City and empowered the thorn that would irritate the four most important men in NBA history: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and David Stern.
Isiah Thomas didn't want to be a Detroit Piston. I kept thinking about that delicious bit of irony as the documentary laid out Thomas' primary role in turning a moribund franchise on the outskirts of a dying city into a force that throttled the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls and frustrated a heavy-handed commissioner.
Thomas' Bad Boys made the Palace of Auburn Hills necessary and perfectly reflected the defiance of a city mainstream America wishes would go away. When the documentary was over, I wondered if history was repeating itself.
Detroit doesn't want Isiah Thomas.
The Pistons have collapsed again. Joe Dumars has been dismissed as team president. The Pistons have missed the playoffs for five straight years. The organization is finally paying the price for running Larry Brown out in 2005. I wrote a series of columns for ESPN.com in 2005 detailing the foolishness of jettisoning Brown for Flip Saunders. The Detroit media were uniformly castigating Brown and calling for his removal.
There's a similar uniformity today shredding the idea of Thomas resurfacing as an executive with the team he turned into back-to-back champions at the end of the 1980s.
I get why the national media trash Thomas. He's an easy target. The New York tabloid media relish portraying Thomas as the most incompetent man to ever wear a suit and tie in the NBA. Thomas had an unsuccessful stint as the president of the Knicks. There's no denying that. But much of the other off-the-court controversial narrative used to discredit him is unfair garbage.
Let me be transparent: I've been friends with Thomas the last five years. But he's not my Basketball Jeff George, the NFL QB I grew up with in Indianapolis whose reputation I protect like he's a Whitlock.
I'm quite comfortable publicly criticizing Thomas. But over the years, I've spent considerable time looking into and reflecting on the negative stories that have dogged him. They don't stand up to objective scrutiny. Most of them are like the 1987 Larry Bird controversy that originally put Thomas at odds with the media.
The "30 for 30" documentary does a solid job of fairly presenting what transpired in the Detroit locker room after the Celtics eliminated the Pistons from the playoffs and Dennis Rodman touched off a controversy by saying Bird would be just another player if he were black.
Thomas was asked about Rodman's comments. He repeated what Rodman said and laughed. Thomas said at the time that his laughter clearly signaled he was being sarcastic.
I don't particularly care if Thomas was being sarcastic. The NBA thrived in the 1980s off the racial tension produced by Bird's dominance in a league dominated by black athletes. In the frustrating moments after a difficult loss, two black athletes in their early 20s repeated an unsophisticated argument that was raging among black NBA fans throughout the '80s.
The comments were dumb. They weren't that big of a deal. They didn't expose Thomas or Rodman as bigoted. They exposed them as emotional and combustible ingredients in a racial pressure cooker that made the NBA ultra-relevant during the Bird era.
I digress. My point is that Thomas' basketball hometown should be more forgiving, sympathetic and diligent in assessing the greatest player in Pistons history. Detroit and its media should know Thomas best.
I don't think they do. I think everyone has swallowed the negative talking points.
Thomas ruined the CBA!
When was the CBA ever great? When? Stern put the kibosh on the CBA because he wanted to launch his own developmental league. Is the D-League some sort of raging success? Or is it surviving on the back of the NBA?
I could pick through almost every Isiah negative narrative and point out the distortions and outright lies. I've done it before.
But I'm not going to waste your time. Thomas and Bill Laimbeer (as head coach) deserve a chance to run the Pistons. They were the substance that propelled the Bad Boys to greatness. They were the brains and the heart driving the Pistons. They were the leaders.
No one doubts Thomas' ability to evaluate young talent. His draft reputation is strong. He made some bad decisions in free agency in New York. Every GM makes mistakes in free agency. He learned some lessons at Jim Dolan's expense. Good for Detroit.
Let the national media crack unfair jokes about Thomas. The people in Detroit owe Thomas a fair, objective and sincere evaluation. Years ago Thomas didn't realize he embodied the spirit of Detroit. The "Bad Boys" doc left me believing Thomas is exactly what the city needs again.