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After his sophomore year, Thomas entered the 1981 NBA draft. The Detroit Pistons picked the point guard second overall. In his first season as playmaker, the team posted an 18-game turnaround. The 19-year-old led the squad in assists and steals, while averaging 17 points per game. He was named to the NBA all-rookie team and participated in the first of 12 consecutive NBA All-Star games.
Thomas steered the Motor City Bad Boys against the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls, and the Los Angeles Lakers for NBA supremacy. He reached his zenith in 1989 and 1990, when the Pistons won back-to-back championships.
During that time, Thomas set a record by averaging 13.9 assists per game. He was selected to the all-NBA first team three consecutive seasons and was named most valuable player in the 1984 and 1986 All-Star games.
Four years later, he retired after tearing his Achilles' tendon. He left having scored 18,882 points, dished out 9,061 assists, and claimed 1,861 steals — all Pistons records. The team retired his number 11 in 1995, and in 2000, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. "I like what I've accomplished," Thomas says unabashedly. "I'm happy that I've been able to make a career out of basketball."
As a player, Thomas was known for an electric smile and effortlessly upbeat attitude. As an executive, he has had a rougher go. In 1994, he became part owner and executive vice president of the expansion Toronto Raptors. Four years later, he left the club after a dispute with partners over the franchise's direction. He set his sights on the upstart Continental Basketball Association, a league that developed players for the NBA and had 12 teams.
In 1999, Thomas bought the CBA for $10 million. A year later, the NBA offered to buy the league for $11 million and a percentage of the profit. The former Pistons star passed.
When he accepted the head-coaching job with the NBA's Indiana Pacers in June 2000, Thomas transferred the CBA's ownership to a blind trust. Suddenly directionless and faceless, the league lost attendance, and in 2001, it folded with more than $2 million in debt. Clay Moser, former president and general manager of the Idaho Stampede, later groused, "The league was doing fine before [Thomas] got here. In a matter of 18 months, he ran it into the ground."
Thomas's tenure with the Pacers also went poorly. Although he brought in talent such as (now Miami Heat) center Jermaine O'Neal, (now Los Angeles Lakers) forward Ron Artest, and (now Memphis Grizzlies) point guard Jamaal Tinsley, the team lost in the first round of the playoffs each of three seasons. In 2003, NBA legend Larry Bird took over and canned Thomas.
Next the Knicks hired him as president of basketball operations. He brought in former Pistons coach Larry Brown and traded draft picks for Chicago Bulls center Eddy Curry. Soon he was overseeing the team with the NBA's highest payroll and second-worst record. In 2006, owner Jack Dolan fired Brown and named Thomas coach.
Then came perhaps the worst moment in his life. In January 2006, with the Knicks in the cellar, Anucha Browne Sanders, who had been fired as vice president of marketing days earlier, sued Thomas, the team, and Madison Square Garden. Her claim: The 12-time NBA All-Star had sexually harassed her. He referred to her as a "bitch," "ho," and "motherfucker," according to the suit. And he made inappropriate sexual advances. Her complaints to Knicks management were ignored, she claimed.
"He felt like he needed to conquer me," Browne Sanders told Essence. "And if he wasn't going to conquer me, he was going to destroy me."
On October 2, 2007, a Manhattan jury of four women and three men held Thomas and Madison Square Garden responsible for the sexual harassment. Damages came to $11 million, and Thomas was canned April 16, 2008. The following day, the New York Post ran this headline: "Finally! It's the End of an Error: Isiah Booted From Bench."
Today, he denies the allegations. "That trial was a real pain," he says, even refusing to acknowledge the jury's verdict. "I was found not guilty," Thomas insists, "but it is never written that way."
The hard fall took a mighty toll on Thomas, who on October 24, 2008, was treated for overdosing on sleeping pills. Bizarrely, he claimed his teenage daughter had been taken to the hospital, which prompted Harrison, New York's police chief, David Hall, to tell the Associated Press: "He is lying... These people should learn something from Richard Nixon — it's not the crime, it's the coverup."
But just a couple of months later, Thomas ran into FIU athletic director Pete Garcia during halftime of the 2009 Orange Bowl in Miami. The tall, salt-and-pepper-haired Cuban-American had cut his teeth during two stints as an assistant athletic director at the University of Miami and as a Cleveland Browns executive. FIU's former president Modesto Maidique hired Garcia in 2006.
Garcia was bothered by the fact that the team had endured five consecutive losing seasons, and he was seeking a change. He recalls he was acquainted with Thomas through mutual friends in the NFL.
"We exchanged numbers," Garcia says. "About a week or so later, I called Isiah up. I asked him if he would be interested in building his own program."