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Mike Downey

Isiah KO's His Image as Class Act

May 31, 1987|Mike Downey

BOSTON — At first, I was not sure which Thomas to feel sorry for, Pinklon or Isiah. One of them got knocked out, technically, in a fight for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. The other one got knocked out, positively, in a fight for the heavyweight basketball championship. Knocked right out of the running.

I guess if I had to feel for somebody, it would be for Isiah, because I know him. I wouldn't know Pinklon Thomas if he had me in a clinch. Come to think of it, I don't know anybody named Pinklon. I had an Uncle Pinklon once, but he died.

Isiah, well, he's always been a pretty interesting guy. I saw him play high school ball. I saw him win the national college championship with Indiana. I knew him in his early years with the Detroit Pistons, when, of Indiana Coach Bob Knight and me, the only one who was talking to Isiah was me.

One thing I have always known is that Isiah Thomas is not the little angel he is often made out to be, but he is not a little devil, either. He has a dark side, sure, and a temper, and a profane streak, and an ego. Same as everyone else, though perhaps to different degrees. He is not as sweet as Captain Kangaroo or Mister Rogers or Earvin Johnson. He is not Webster. But he is not a bad guy.

That is why I felt sorry for Isiah on Saturday, as Detroit's basketball season came unglued, and so did he. When the Pistons lost the seventh and final game of their Eastern Conference championship series with the Boston Celtics, 117-114, it was too bad. I suppose in my heart of hearts, I wanted the Pistons to win. And I hoped Isiah would make up for his lousy, game-losing pass in Game 5.

I have to admit that after Game 6, as a couple of TV cameramen switched off their hot lights, I leaned over to Isiah and said: "I'll be pulling for you Saturday, but don't tell anybody."

He laughed and pointed up at the TV lights and said: "You just did."

Unfortunately, more for him than for me, Isiah had no such luck. He did not win the last game, with a last-second shot or with any sort of shot. He did score 25 points, but it took him 28 shots to do so, and he missed 18 of them.

He also fouled out. And he fouled out with a mean, nasty foul, slamming Danny Ainge practically into the scorer's table.

And he was even more foul in the locker room after the game. He had few kind words for the winners. "(Bleep) Danny Ainge," he said, for one thing. And he made an unkind remark about Larry Bird, saying that while the three-time MVP was a good player, if he were black, he would be "just another guy."

Minutes before, someone had asked Isiah what he thought of Bird's play in Game 7. He grimaced.

"Played a good game," he finally said, and that was all he said.

Bird had 37 points.

Maybe Isiah deserves some credit here for, if nothing else, being honest, speaking his mind. Candid people are hard to come by. Some of the things Isiah said Saturday, more about Boston's curious ability to win at home than about Bird's pigmentation, might have represented what a lot of other people were thinking, but kept to themselves.

I mean, come on now, don't you wonder how a team can go 84-2 at home, while struggling so hard to win everywhere else? This season's Celtic team was incredibly ordinary on the road. On Detroit's home floor during the Eastern finals, Boston lost by 18, 26 and 8 points. At home, though, they lose about as often as the Harlem Globetrotters.

My only wish is that Isiah would have cooled it a little. To people who don't know him, he came off as a poor sport, a hard loser, maybe even a bad guy. I don't think he's a bad guy, but that stuff about Bird was uncalled for. It's one thing for a fool rookie like Dennis Rodman to say something like that, but Isiah's too old, too smart, too good for that.

If he doesn't like Bird, let him say so. Bird is no angel, either. People who aren't on the court don't hear him ragging his opponents all day long. And it wouldn't have killed Bird to get over his Bill Laimbeer grudge by now.

But OK. If that's the way Bird wants to be, fine. It's his life. Let him be as stubborn as Isiah.

I just wonder what would happen if Larry Bird said something like: "If Isiah Thomas was white, he . . . " And then went on from there. Oh, what howling there would have been.

So, I don't feel quite as sorry for Isiah Thomas today as I thought I would. He is still a good basketball player, and not a bad person. But I am not pulling for him quite as hard as before.

No, the person I feel sorry for today is Adrian Dantley. Here's a guy who has been one of the best players in the league for many years, but has never had a reasonable chance before this of winning a championship. He didn't win one in college, either, having gone to Notre Dame.

I watched Dantley loaded into an ambulance Saturday. He had one quarter to go, had 18 points and had every intention of leading Detroit to the Eastern Conference title.

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