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NBA 75 Series: #21 Isiah Thomas

At #21 of my NBA 75 Greatest Players of All time is arguably the greatest diminutive guard in NBA History who helped the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 with his leadership, scoring, dazzling playmaking, and toughness, helping dethrone players such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan on his way to titles, Isiah Thomas. Thomas was born on April 30th, 1961, in Chicago, Illinois, growing up in the West Side of Chicago. He started playing basketball at the age of three, already dribbling and shooting baskets at Catholic Youth Organization games during halftimes.

Thomas would attend high school at our Lady of Sorrows and then St.Josephs in Westchester. Playing under head coach, Gene Pingatore, as a junior Thomas would lead St. Joes to a state finals which would gain him recognition as a top prospect in the country. He would go on to play collegiately for the Indiana Hoosiers under the legendary, verbally abusive head coach Bobby Knight.

Knight was so strict that during the 1979 Pan American Games he got so mad at his star freshman guard that he threatened to send him on a flight home… The guy was psychotic! He even kicked Thomas out of a practice, and Knight’s coaching style was no matter how talented you were he didn’t care, he wanted his players to play hard and play the right way. Knight’s demanding personality wouldn’t deter Thomas, as he would eventually become a fan favorite to the Hoosier fans and Knight by averaging 14.6 points, 5.5 assists, 4 rebounds, and just over two steals per game.

Thomas’s abilities at just 6-foot-1 would cause Knight to have to adjust his coaching style, as Thomas and Mike Woodson would help lead the Hoosiers to a Big Ten championship and to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. During Thomas’s sophomore campaign in 1980-81, he increased his scoring average to 16 points per game, while adding on 5.8 assists and 2.2 steals per game as the captain of the team. The relationship between Knight and him grew exponentially compared to when they first met with Knight even standing up for his star floor general in a press conference after Thomas took a cheap shot during a Purdue game.

Thomas would end his sophomore season with another Big Ten title, being named first team All-American, but would also lead the Hoosiers to the 1981 national championship over the North Carolina Tar Heels, which was the school’s fourth title, earning him the Most Outstanding Player award. He would score 23 points on 8-of-17 (47%) shooting while also impacting the game in other ways with five assists and four steals in a 63-50 victory.

Thomas’s college career and skills would go on to make him the second overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft to a Detroit Pistons franchise that was a laughing stock in the NBA that finished 21-61 prior to Thomas’s arrival and had yet to have any legit winning seasons. Thomas would make an immediate impact his rookie season with averages of 17 points, 7.8 assists, 2.1 steals per game to help improve from the previous season by 18 wins, finishing 39-43.

Ultimately, Thomas would continue to improve and go through his growing pains such as the losing to the Boston Celtics by Larry Bird's steal off the inbounds play that he turned over in Game 5 of the 1987 ECF. This would help him become known as “Zeke” the leader of the Bad Boy Pistons of the 80s that would go on to win back-to-back NBA Finals in 1989 and 1990. He’s one of the greatest point guards and small men to ever play the game, standing just barely over 6-feet tall. The only point guard better than him during his time was Magic Johnson. He was a feisty competitor and perhaps the toughest point guard to ever play the game.

That smile of his buried an inner toughness that made him a scrappy player on those Pistons teams. He was a dangerous mid-range shooter, had sick handles, a clever playmaker, had incredible speed, and had amazing acrobatic drives to the hoop, similar to a Kyrie Irving today. Thomas is a two-time NBA Champion (1989-1990), Finals MVP (1990), 12-time NBA-All Star, two-time All-Star Game MVP, five-time All-NBA selection, led the league in assists (1985), and All-Rookie first team (1982).

He’s the only player to beat Magic, Michael Jordan, and Bird on his way to his championships which is a feat not any other great player can say. He’s one of nine players to have over 9,000 career assists and would have better career stats if a torn Achilles didn’t shorten his career to just 13 seasons. Despite that Thomas is amongst the top point guards in league history and is the only player on my list thus far, aside from Giannis who never played with a top 50 NBA Player of All Time, which makes his achievements even more impressive.

Put respect on Zeke’s name!

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