NBA legend Isiah Thomas talks Detroit basketball and politics

The Detroit Pistons drafted Thomas on this day in 1981

By: - June 9, 2022 5:13 am

Isiah Thomas in 1981 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

With the second overall pick, the Detroit Pistons drafted 20-year-old Isiah Thomas of Indiana University on June 9, 1981. 

Thomas, a Chicago native, quickly immersed himself in the Motor City and helped the National Basketball Association team go from last place to league champions by the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons. Thomas, who became friends with former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, music legend Aretha Franklin, was among the notables who helped to host South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela on his epic visit to Detroit on June 28, 1990.

During an exclusive interview with the Advance, Thomas, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and current cable NBA-TV analyst, talked about the 1980s and ‘90s in Detroit and why he has connected with its residents.  

“I hope you understand when I say this, I feel like I’m everybody’s brother or cousin or family relative and I’m grateful,” Thomas said on Sunday.

Isiah Thomas in 1982 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

The following are excerpts from the interview: 

Michigan Advance: So you’re a Chicago kid, and you get drafted to play for Detroit, a place that is very proud, but it was hurting economically. It’s a scrappy city, a lot like Chicago. It has a significant Black population like Chicago. They both had a Black mayor for a period during the 1980s. Harold Washington, an African American, led Chicago for several years until his fatal heart attack in 1987. Was it tough for you to come here and fit in?

Thomas: It wasn’t tough at all. The city and people and mainly, you know, the music industry embraced me right away. You know, meeting Coleman Young, you know, right away. My adolescence was spent in Chicago; my whole adult life was in Detroit. 

Michigan Advance: Tell me about the nickname ‘Zeke.’ How did that come about?

Thomas: That came from when I was playing in the 1979 Pan American games. John Duren, who was a great guard at Georgetown University. He was in the backcourt with me. The other guards were Ronnie Lester and Kyle Macy. We were working on this trap [defensive play]. John said that it took too long for him to say Isiah. So he said, “I’m just gonna call you Zeke.” And then that summer the [Isaac Hayes] song, ‘Zeke the Freak,’ had come out. That punctuated it!

Michigan Advance: Tell me about the relationship with Coleman A. Young. I remember 1986 No Crime Day.  As you know, that was an effort to encourage youth and others to move away from negative behavior. You and Young worked together often during those days. Correct?

Thomas: We did a lot of work together. And [it started with] my mother, [Mary Thomas] actually, when I first got to Detroit, when she found that I was going to Detroit. She was the first one who was like, you know, you have to meet Coleman Young. She was the one that reached out to the mayor’s office and made the introduction. And now it’s like, I just can’t walk into the mayor’s office. My mom was gangster like that. So, Coleman, and you know, Aretha were like the two that really adopted me and took me in and the work that we started doing in Detroit. And, you know, we did No Crime Day together.

Isiah Thomas with UAW President Owen Bieber as well as Winnie and Nelson Mandela in 1990 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Michigan Advance: And when Nelson Mandela visited Detroit, you were present. There is a photo that I’ve seen of you and Mandela standing at a podium. Was that special for you? 

Thomas: Yeah, in ‘90 when we were world champions. Well, the symbolism of that moment had a picture, you know, in, in me having the opportunity to be in the room with Mandela and Coleman Young, and to hear them discuss race, racism, and apartheid. Just listening to them talk, hearing a real deep history and understanding. [Mandela] and Coleman Young just gave me all kinds of valuable information. And then [Mandela’s] presence and he walked into the room. How can I say it, his energy, his spirit. If you were to feel loved, that’s what energy was like.

Michigan Advance: You mentioned Aretha Franklin. And I know that you two were tight. You certainly were here for her home going service [in August 2018]. Talk to me about your relationship with her.

Thomas: Again, you know, this comes from my mom, you know, as you know, she was instrumental in putting these relationships together. You know, when I got to Detroit, Aretha just became like a family member. She helped guide me through those first crucial years of understanding Detroit. Told me what to do and what not to do.

Michigan Advance: Was she like a big sister, or auntie?

Thomas: Big sis, you know, friend, confidant, you know, everything.

Isiah Thomas with Detroit Pistons teammate John Salley, UAW President Owen Bieber, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young as well as Winnie and Nelson Mandela | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Michigan Advance: Why do you think the ‘Bad Boys’ team connected with the community?

Thomas: I think we represent it, you know, the struggle and the triumph of Detroit. We had our ups and downs. But we also had a team that really represented not only Detroit, but all of Michigan. … We were the first team that put 50 to 60,000 people in the arena. I know, they like to give [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] credit for moving the game forward. But when you go back and you look, you know, the highest-rated games and the highest attended games, Pistons versus [Boston] Celtics, Pistons versus [Los Angeles] Lakers, Pistons vs. [Chicago] Bulls.

Michigan Advance: Talk to me about the legacy of pickup basketball in Detroit and Chicago. Did you play hoops in the inner city during your NBA career? 

Thomas: So, they’re very similar. Somebody who you have never heard of could give you the business [on the court.] I played everywhere [in Detroit.] I played at St. Cecilia. I played at U-D [Mercy.] I played at a park on Mack [Avenue.] I think that’s what people truly appreciated about me as a basketball player. I had no ego, and I will play with anybody, and I will go try to play with kids anywhere and try to give them the knowledge that I had learned in the NBA and let them know that they can do it. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.