The NBA’s Little Prince Has Gone From Chicago’s Mean Streets to Life of Wealth and Fame--but He Remembers
To Isiah Thomas, it was another city, another hotel, another coffee shop and another interview.
He was talking about the tedium of life on the road in the National Basketball Assn.
It was a Wednesday night in Oakland. To him, it seemed no different from a Tuesday night in Kansas City or a Thursday night in Phoenix.
This has been a particularly tiresome seven-game trip for Thomas’ team, the Detroit Pistons. They played Sunday night in Seattle against the SuperSonics, Monday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers and Tuesday night in Portland against the Trail Blazers.
Thursday night, they were going against the Warriors in Oakland before returning to Los Angeles for a game tonight against the Lakers.
“The hardest part is getting to the games--sitting around at the airports, sitting around the hotels,” said Thomas, who, at 23, already is a four-year NBA veteran.
The games are still fun, the 6-foot 1-inch point guard said, his large, expressive eyes brightening as he talked about the crowds and the players and the competition.
“Then the game’s over, and it’s like you’re deflated,” he said, his smile disappearing.
It’s back to the hotel, back to the airport, off to another city, another hotel and another coffee shop.
Thomas was telling it like it is on the road, not complaining. Anyone who has been around him for any length of time knows he seldom complains. Even when he played for Bob Knight at Indiana, Thomas didn’t complain.
Besides, he said, how could he complain, considering the money he’s making? He recently agreed to a 10-year contract extension, which one of his advisers said is worth close to $1 million a year.
Thomas said he knows a lot of people who would trade places with him without ever looking back.
The man walked into the coffee shop, looking for Thomas, but Thomas spotted him first, out of the corner of his eye. As he scrambled out of his chair, he called the man’s name. They embraced.
Thomas introduced him as Jesse McIntosh. McIntosh was wearing Coke-bottle thick glasses. Never mind, Thomas said, before the accident that ruined McIntosh’s eyesight, he was one of the best basketball players ever to call Chicago’s West Side home.
Some of the other players from the West Side include Terry Cummings of the Milwaukee Bucks, Mark Aguirre of the Dallas Mavericks, and Thomas, each of whom has been an NBA All-Star. But Thomas said there were many other players there who were their equals, among them Jesse McIntosh.
“Can I get some tickets?” asked McIntosh, who lives in Oakland.
“You got ‘em,” Thomas said.
McIntosh is a contemporary of Thomas’ older brothers but remembers Thomas well as a prodigy at Our Lady of Sorrows Youth Club.
By the time Thomas was 4, he was providing halftime entertainment at Catholic Youth Organization games, performing dribbling routines while wearing a basketball jersey that hung on him like a dress.
But McIntosh has even earlier memories of Thomas.
“I can still see you, Double Runt, standing there with both hands wrapped around a ball, dribbling it with two hands,” Jesse said. “The ball was bigger than you were.”
Like most of the players from the West Side, McIntosh couldn’t convert his basketball skills into a career.
He joined the Army after high school, hurt his knee during a pickup game, then returned to the West Side, where he was shot in the eye during a street disturbance.
The best player on Chicago’s West Side this year was Benji Wilson, but he was shot and killed for no apparent reason last November as he walked with his girlfriend near their high school.
Two 16-year-olds, alleged to be gang members, await trial. They have pleaded innocent.
Asked if he had considered, after Wilson’s death, that the same fate could have befallen him when he was in high school, Thomas said, “It did cross my mind.”
But he said he never worried at the time about being victimized in the neighborhood because he was protected by an unwritten code.
“If the members of a gang, the Vice Lords or the Black Souls or the Disciples, could see you had something on the ball, they would usually leave you alone,” he said. “They might want a couple of bucks, but they wouldn’t hurt you. They could see I was going somewhere with my talent in basketball.”
Thomas contributed $1,000 to a Ben Wilson scholarship fund.
“In Ben’s case, I guess there were a couple of guys who didn’t know any better,” he said.
Also protecting Thomas were two older brothers, who watched over him and kept him out of harm’s way.
“How’s Gay-Gay,” McIntosh asked about one of Thomas’ older brothers, Gregory.
“He’s in a drug rehab center, getting well,” Thomas said.
“How’s Lord Henry?” McIntosh asked of Thomas’ other older brother.
“He’s thinking about going to a rehab center,” Thomas said.
“That’s tough, real tough,” McIntosh said. “Once it gets a hold of you, it’s hard to shake.”
With untempered pride, Thomas talked about Lord Henry, who, in Isiah’s estimation, had the most basketball talent of any of the seven Thomas brothers.
A star among stars at Our Lady of Sorrows, Lord Henry could have been another George Gervin, Thomas said.
“Whenever I see Ice, I see Lord Henry,” Thomas said. “Their mannerisms, the way they move on the court, the way they shoot, everything’s the same.”
Excluding his brother, Thomas’ favorite player at Sorrows was Sammy Puckett.
Puckett, a smooth shooting off-guard, wore No. 11 in high school. To this day, Thomas wears No. 11.
The memories are all that remain of Our Lady of Sorrows Youth Club. It was closed in the late ‘60s.
“I still don’t understand why they did it,” McIntosh said. “That was the only place the gangs went where they didn’t fight. They played pool and Ping-Pong and danced, and there were all those beautiful glass backboards. Now, there’s no place for kids to go except the streets. That’s why the gangs are back, stronger than ever.”
Thomas agreed. “I wish I had some answers,” he said. “The biggest problems facing youths in the Chicago ghetto, if you want to call it that, are that there is nothing to do, there are no jobs available, and their parents can’t afford to send them to college.”
“The only places you can work are the Burger King and the five and dime,” McIntosh said.
“Unfortunately,” Thomas said, “that sometimes leads to them selling drugs so they can get some money to eat. They’re just trying to live, trying to survive. I can’t say, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ or, ‘You shouldn’t do that.’ You really can’t fault people for trying to survive. I know. I’ve been there.”
Asked how he feels about his brothers’ drug addiction, Thomas said: “They’re doing pretty well. They’ve got problems, but so does everybody.
“Some people try to make it sound like I’m ashamed of them, but I’m not ashamed. They’re my brothers, and I love them.
“Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s wasn’t that great for a black man. They had some hard times. Stop and think about some of the changes they had to go through. I’ve got a lot of respect for them.”
Thomas said that Gregory and Lord Henry paved the way for an easier life for their brothers, including him. Of his four younger brothers, one is a policeman, one works in the Illinois secretary of state’s office, and two work for the city of Chicago. They have two sisters who live at home with their mother, Mary.
Thomas’ older brothers made sure he remained on the straight and narrow path, but it was his mother who provided the road map.
When provoked, she also was capable of enforcement.
Commonly told is the story of how the leader of the Vice Lords, backed up by the rest of his gang, knocked on her door to ask whether her sons were going to join the Vice Lords or the Black Souls.
Neither, Mary told him.
“There’s only one gang around here, and that’s the Thomas gang,” she said. “I lead that.”
Thomas enjoys that story but said there is more to it. Not usually mentioned is that the Black Souls’ leader lived in the same building as the Thomas family, and that the Vice Lords’ leader was bailed out of jail more than once by Mary Thomas.
With his first professional contract, Thomas bought his mother a house in the suburbs. But he said she still spends much of her time in the neighborhood.
To this day, she is called Dear, not only by her children but by almost everyone else’s children there.
“She was a mother to everybody,” McIntosh said.
“Sometimes, I’d find only a half a saucer of food at dinner time because she’d given the other half to one of the neighbors who needed it more than I did,” Thomas said.
“I’d come home and find Jesse sleeping in my bed. I’d have to sleep in the closet. We didn’t think anything about it. That’s the way we lived in our house.”
When it came time for Isiah to choose a high school, his mother encouraged him to leave the neighborhood because she wanted him to have the best education possible.
His basketball ability earned him a scholarship to a suburban, predominantly white Catholic school, an hour and a half from home by bus and the el train.
It paid off with a college scholarship to Indiana.
He left Bloomington after two years to turn professional but only after signing a contract with his mother that bound him to continue working toward his degree. He attends one session each summer.
Even though Thomas has been gone from Indiana twice as long as he was there, he has not been able to put the experience of playing for Knight behind him.
In almost every interview, Thomas is questioned about Knight, probably because of the persistent rumors that Isiah left school early to escape the irascible coach.
Asked if he is close to Knight, Thomas said: “If you mean he calls me to talk, or I call him to talk, no, we don’t do that.”
Asked about Knight’s chair-throwing incident this season, Thomas said: “He threw it.”
Why, he was asked, is he so forthright about everything else and so reticent about Knight?
Frowning, Thomas said: “What do you want to know?”
What is it like to play for Knight?
“He’s very demanding,” Thomas said. “He wants things done his way. If he says, ‘Do this,’ you do it. If you don’t, you’re out of the game.
“No matter what you’ve heard before, I enjoyed being there. I learned a lot of things playing under him. There’s no doubt I became a better basketball player by playing there. The best move I ever made was going to Indiana.”
“Everybody has their own opinion,” Thomas said. “The bad thing is that sometimes people read a reporter’s opinion and think it’s fact. Then a reporter in San Francisco picks it up and reports it as fact, and then a reporter in Portland does the same thing, and there you have it.
“I didn’t have any more fights with Coach Knight than Quinn Buckner did, or Scott May did, or Mike Woodson did.”
Interrupting, McIntosh said, “You left because you wanted your mother to have some money, didn’t you?”
“It was a pure economic decision,” Thomas said. “I was in a situation where I could play professional basketball and still be a college student.”
Said McIntosh: “It was like a million dollars dropped out of the sky.”
Laughing, Thomas agreed. “That’s exactly what happened,” he said. “It dropped out of the sky.”
Had he talked to Knight before making his decision?
“No, because I didn’t think it would be fair to him,” Thomas said. “I would have been putting him in a situation where he had to be biased. I discussed it with my mother and my family. I took it from there.”
Was Knight resentful because he hadn’t been consulted?
“I don’t know,” Thomas said. “That would be a good question to ask him. But nobody does because they’re too afraid of him.”
“Afraid of him?” McIntosh said. “What are they afraid of?”
“Afraid,” Thomas said, laughing, “that he’ll throw a chair at them.”
“It might have been different for me if I’d gone to college,” McIntosh said. “But my high school didn’t prepare me for college. They gave me math credits even though I never went to math classes. I know now that I could have made it, but I didn’t think at the time I was college material.”
Blind for three months after the shooting, McIntosh has recovered just enough to see through his thick glasses. He gets by on disability checks while going to computer classes.
“You know, they got computers now that blind people can operate,” he said.
Thomas offered to buy him dinner. “It’s the least I can do, considering all the moves I stole from you,” Thomas said.
McIntosh didn’t argue.
“I wish I could still play hoop,” McIntosh said. “That’s the thing I miss the most.”
Said Thomas: “That’s what I was talking about before you came. I’m making a living doing something I would be doing for free if there wasn’t an NBA.”
“I saw you in the All-Star game,” McIntosh said. “What’s it like, playing with the Doc?”
Thomas flashed a conspirator’s smile, looking as if he had pulled something over on league officials by persuading them to let him share the court with the game’s most famous players.
“The first exhibition game I played in my rookie year was against the Lakers,” he said. “I went on the court and saw Magic and Kareem and Jamaal Wilkes, and I thought, ‘Damn!’ ” He wiped his brow as if the moment still makes him sweat.
Said McIntosh: “Yeah, Double Runt, but you belong up there with ‘em.”
“But you’ve still got to give ‘em respect,” Thomas said. “Sometimes, I’ll be out there just watching the Doc. I’ll say to myself, ‘That’s the Doc!’ And he’ll blow right on by me.”
McIntosh glanced at the menu long enough to realize he couldn’t read it and asked Thomas to read it to him.
Thomas recommended the prime rib, the most expensive item.
It may have been just another night on the road for Thomas. But all McIntosh could see through his scarred eyes was a brother from the neighborhood, staying in one of Oakland’s finest hotels, buying prime rib with per diem money, and earning seven figures for playing hoop.
A young man approached the table and asked Thomas for his autograph.
“Ain’t it something?” McIntosh said, shaking his head.
When the young man left, McIntosh said, “You got it made, Double Runt. You hit it big.”
“I’m dreaming,” Thomas said. “But as long as I’m in this dream, I’m going to make the most of it.”
Across the bridge, the seductive lights of San Francisco glimmered. Thomas resisted the call, saying he was going to his room to watch the Warriors on television against Seattle.
“I might pick up a couple of moves that will lead to a couple of steals, which might mean the difference in the ballgame,” he said. “You never know.”
As he said goodby, Thomas slipped a $20-bill into McIntosh’s palm and wished him well.