Sports

A fast break out of town

Isiah Thomas quits the team he huilt from scratch

JAMES DEACON December 1 1997
Sports

A fast break out of town

Isiah Thomas quits the team he huilt from scratch

JAMES DEACON December 1 1997

A fast break out of town

Isiah Thomas quits the team he huilt from scratch

JAMES DEACON

When Isiah Thomas blew into Toronto three years ago to become general manager and part owner of the expansion Toronto Raptors, he had a reputation as big as his ambition. His mere presence gave basketball prominence in a sports town dominated by hockey and baseball, and the Raptors became his team. And why not? As a player, Thomas had been a lightning-quick, high-scoring point guard who, though a small man by basketball standards, had led the Indiana Hoosiers to the U.S. college championship in 1981.

In the National Basketball Association, he helped transform the sadsack Detroit Pistons into two-time league champs, in 1989 and 1990.

In Toronto, he promised to do in the executive suite what he had done on the hardwood, and his Hall of Fame credentials and unbridled confidence excited fans and players alike. They believed in Isiah— never Thomas, just Isiah—or at least they did until last week when, with the team staggering and in desperate need of leadership, Thomas abruptly resigned and blew out of town.

What prompted Thomas’s fast break? The Raptors may have appeared to be his team, but he held only a minority position. Shortly before his resignation, Thomas hinted at philosophical differences with majority owner Allan Slaight, particularly over the budget to acquire players. Later, he admitted that he was partly driven out by the financial burden. With a nine-percent stake in the team, which is estimated to be worth $190 million, Thomas had to pay tens of thousands of dollars a month out of his own pocket to pay his share of the Raptors’ debt. His pockets, he said, were not that deep, and he couldn’t assume some of the risks that his wealthier partner was willing to take. Asked if he was getting out because he could no longer afford the job, Thomas answered: “You could say that.” Slaight, meanwhile, denied standing in the way of on-court progress, and he publicly professed ignorance as to what poisoned the partnership.

It all started when former team president John Bitove Jr., an Indiana University grad, brought Thomas to Toronto. After Slaight bought out Bitove last year, Thomas tried to purchase the team himself—only to see that bid collapse in August. The failure did not sit well with Thomas, who had risen from a Chicago housing project to unimaginable success. His broad, engaging grin had always belied a fierce competitiveness, especially on the court—it was Thomas, after all, who gave the Pistons their personality, and their rough (some say dirty) style of play earned them the nickname the “Bad Boys.” So while he professed no hard feelings when his ownership bid failed, Thomas reportedly told friends that without control, he would not remain with the Raptors.

He has alternatives. A job as a TV basketball analyst with NBC was under discussion, and at a news conference he said he might also look at opportunities to steer another team. The future is not as rosy for the squad he leaves behind. Slaight and new general manager Glen Grunwald, Thomas’s assistant and onetime teammate at Indiana, promised to move quickly to soothe concerns among players and fans. That may be a tall order. Attendance at drafty SkyDome is slipping, the oncepromising team had won just one game by last weekend, and Thomas’s most recent draft picks—notably injury-prone Marcus Camby—have not performed to expectations. More worrisome than that, many players, including star point guard Damon Stoudamire, made clear their allegiance was to Thomas, not Slaight. “Isiah,” said forward Walt Williams, “is a big part of why a lot of the guys are here.” And now, for better or worse, he’s gone.