Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas is one of the greatest point guards in basketball history, and arguably the greatest “little man” to ever play in the NBA. Under Isiah’s leadership, the Pistons followed his example, sacrificed personal statistics for team success, and broke through to win multiple NBA championships in an era that had been dominated by high-powered teams from Boston and Los Angeles.
While the present-day NBA features several well-rounded point guards with captivating dribble moves and startling quickness, Isiah was the prototype of the total-package small guard when he entered a giant-infested NBA in the early 1980s. In order to combat the trend that pushed undersized players out of the league, Isiah relied on the knowledge he had gained from a lifetime of life experiences and athletic experiences. And, while you might be tempted to file away Isiah’s abilities as a simple case of God-given talent, the reality is that much of what made Isiah great can be learned by anyone who cares to study a few simple lessons about his life, and put those lessons into practice.
1. Isiah played several sports other than basketball
You would probably assume that a player as gifted at basketball as Isiah would have practically grown up with a basketball glued to his hands. And, you would be wrong. Isiah played organized football, baseball and volleyball in addition to basketball, and he only became a full-time basketball player after his high school basketball coach barged into the locker room and personally stopped Isiah from trying out for the freshman football team.
According to Isiah, one of the things that ultimately made him such an effective point guard was the time he spent playing other sports, which not only taught him to rapidly bond quickly with different groups of players in order to accomplish goals, but football in particular taught him to how to anticipate player movements as they ran routes and prepared to receive the ball.
“Football was all about the angles,” Isiah explained. “So in terms of passing angles and anticipation, all of that comes into point guard play in basketball. When you’re running routes as a wide receiver, the timing has to be perfect. You have to hit a certain marker, and you have to turn and catch the ball. In basketball, a guy is running a pattern, and he has to run it with timing and precision every single time, and if he’s slow, it disrupts the timing of the play. You learn those things in different sports, and then you bring them into your one sport.”
2. Isiah was taught how to dribble by the Harlem Globetrotters
Everyone that appreciated the flashiness of Isiah’s ballhandling will probably still be somewhat surprised to discover that he learned his skills through interacting with legendary Globetrotter playmakers Marques Haynes and Curly Neal. Eloise Saperstein, daughter of Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, brought Haynes and Neal to the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago to share their knowledge with young players. Anxious to improve his skills, Isiah participated in the Globetrotters’ clinics, and elevated his game in the process.
“The Globetrotters would come through Chicago because they were touring a lot,” Isiah explained. “I was fortunate enough that Eloise Saperstein took a liking to me and what we were doing at the Boys Club, and I got to spend some quality time taking lessons from them, watching them dribbling the basketball and seeing the drills they did. Then I would go home and replicate the things they were doing out on the floor.”
3. Isiah wasn’t even the best dribbler in his own peer group
Michael Moody and Willie Scott may not be household names in the basketball world, but they had the distinction of both being better ballhandlers than Isiah on their Biddy Basketball team. In fact, while Isiah is famous for being one of the greatest dribblers in the history of the NBA, Isiah’s Biddy coach actively discouraged him from handling the basketball.
“Believe it or not, I was ‘the big man’ on our basketball team,” Isiah laughed. “The coach at the time, who was Johnnie Gage, was telling me not to handle the basketball. So my dribbling ability didn’t come quick. It took a lot of practice. In Chicago, when we were growing up, they would take it from you. Just like they would take your food or your lunch money, they would take the ball from you… and just as violently. So you had to learn to dribble and protect the basketball.”
4. Isiah approached the game on an intellectual level
Ask Isiah what it takes to play point guard well, and the answer you receive will resemble something out of a graduate-level course in metaphysics. Rather than tackling the question from the standpoint of physical abilities and skills, Isiah explains point guard play in intellectual and emotional terms, and his answer reinforces the notion that a point guard is truly the floor general for his team.
“The point guard has to be the smartest guy on the floor, because he has to retain the most information during the course of a game,” Isiah explained. “You have to understand time, score and tempo, but you also have to keep a mental file of who’s in foul trouble on the other team, how many time outs they have left, who’s shooting well on the other team, and who’s shooting well on your own team. Moreover, you have to understand the emotional intelligence of the team you’re playing against as well as the emotional intelligence of your team on that particular day, because peoples’ emotions change. It’s a game of physics and emotional intelligence that you have to be able to manage. You have to handle the emotions of the other team and the emotions of the team you’re playing against them with.”
5. Isiah’s inspirations were local legends, not NBA stars
Because Isiah lacked access to televised NBA games, he didn’t get an opportunity to pattern his style of play after NBA legends playing at the time like Earl Monroe or Walt Frazier. However, patterning his game after more accessible players in the Chicagoland area worked out just as well, so superstar inspiration wasn’t necessary in order for Isiah to ultimately become a superstar in his own right.
“The heroes in the neighborhood were my brothers and people that played at different high schools,” Isiah said. “The two guys I tried to pattern my game after were my older brother, Lord Henry Thomas, and Sammy Puckett who played at Hales Franciscan and also went on to Notre Dame. Sammy actually wore number 11, and I wore number 11 because of him. He and my brother had a great rivalry, and those were the two players I would emulate, mostly on an intellectual level. They taught me that basketball is like chess; you have to learn to strategically manipulate and position the other four men with you out on the floor and use them to beat the other team.”
6. Isiah learned how to position himself for success
According to Isiah, once you understand that basketball is a game full of mistakes, it actually becomes an easier game at which to excel. The key is to minimize the number of mistakes you make, and to place opposing players in situations where they are likely to make the greatest number of mistakes. Once you learn to recognize the situations that are unfolding on the court because you’ve already played through them, you can put yourself in a position to capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes.
“The game slows down because your critical thinking skills speed up,” Isiah said. “When you recognize what’s about to happen, you can think faster than the opponent. Recognition of these situations is something you learn over a series of years. Once you understand what’s about to happen, you can put your opponent in a position where he only has two choices, and whichever decision he makes, you’re prepared to counter that action. It’s just one of those cases where every action has a reaction.”
7. Isiah trained himself to have skills for every situation
When Isiah arrived in the NBA, the point guard position had evolved into a role in which players didn’t shoot the ball very much and simply distributed the ball to their teammates. However, Isiah recognized that he would be much more effective as a player if he had the ability to score. Otherwise, his opponents would be able to negate his abilities simply by taking away his passing lanes.
“You play the game 94 feet, and you have to be able to operate successfully in every part of the floor,” Isiah said. “That means if you’re in the post, you need to have post moves. If you’re in the corner, you need to have dribble moves out of the corner and a shot from the corner. If you’re on the wing, you need to be able to shoot it from the wing and you to be able to drive right or left, or to get to whatever spot on the floor you need to get to. If you can only do one thing, you don’t come to the arena with a well-packed suitcase of complete skills. You’re deficient in an area. I didn’t want to be deficient in any area; I wanted to be a complete player. And if you can’t shoot the basketball, you’re not complete.”
8. Isiah acknowledged his limitations
While professional athletes are typically thought of as uniquely gifted individuals, Isiah is quick to point out that Mark Jackson, one of the all-time assist leaders in NBA history, was not a particularly great athlete. As Isiah put it, Mark got more out of his limited athleticism than anyone else because he understood his limitations and played with great intelligence. This is because almost everything required for basketball success can be learned, so focus your energy on learning to play within your limitations, and don’t dwell on things beyond them.
“We’re all blessed with different physical attributes,” Isiah explained. “Some people can just run faster and jump higher than others, and there’s nothing you can do about that. I remember going to the bench during a game when I was guarding Jordan, and I told Chuck Daly, ‘Sure, I can stay with him while we’re on the ground and I can slide my feet, and I can stay right next to him, but if he jumps I just have to wait for him to come down!’” I just can’t get up that high. So we as athletes recognize the deficiencies we have and the additions that other people bring to the table athletically, and we appreciate those.”
9. Isiah minimized his potential for making mistakes
Are you willing to eat entrees composed almost exclusively of chicken and fish for 13 straight years while also abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes? Isiah was. While describing himself as “insanely disciplined,” Isiah felt like dedication to his diet and conditioning gave him an edge during the last five minutes of his games, and that is where he routinely came up big.
“The game usually stays even, and in the last five minutes it becomes a game of conditioning and a game of intelligence,” Isiah explained. “Victory favors the team that makes the fewest mistakes. When you’re fatigued and tired, you’re susceptible to making mistakes. So I always prided myself that no one in the NBA was going to be in better shape than me. They may be bigger and stronger, but as far as being able to run fast, I prided myself on being able to run fast for 48 minutes while playing at the same pace the entire time.”
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