“There was the poverty line. Then there was the line below it. That’s us.” That’s how Isiah Thomas describes growing up as the youngest of nine in West Side Chicago. He is not ashamed to say his family was on welfare, waiting in soup lines. As difficult their life was, the Thomas parents made sure education was never neglected – it was their ticket out of poverty.
Young Isiah had his sights set on law school. Basketball was just a way of getting outside the four blocks he spent his free time in. If you played basketball, the team would sometimes travel. When the possibility of basketball being Isiah’s ticket to success emerged, his father wasn’t too enthusiastic about it. To him, it was just a form of entertainment; in his eyes, Isiah had to go to school and get a degree.
But, as often, Isiah’s mother, Mary Thomas had the final word. Quite literally. She was the one who organized a press conference and said: “My son decided to go to Indiana.” Isiah did no such thing; this was 100% her decision. Why did she make such a decision? Bob Knight. But if you were in their house when Knight visited to recruit Isiah, you’d probably think there was no chance Isiah will play for Indiana.
Coach Kight was recruiting me to play for Indiana in Bloomington, Indiana. The next town over from Bloomington was Martinsville, Indiana, where the Klan started at. The Klan has a big presence in the state of Indiana. My brother asked him, ‘When Junior’s down there if something’s to go down with the Klan, who’s going to take care of him?‘ I thought it was a funny answer – coach Knight said, ‘Well if we’re winning, they will.‘Isiah Thomas, Club Shay Shay
Thomas’ brother wasn’t being overly cautious. When Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was considering Indiana during the ABA days and saw all African-American players were carrying guns in the locker room. When Monroe asked them about the guns, they told him it was because “They got the Ku Klux Klan everywhere around here.” So Thomas’ brother didn’t find the answer as funny as Isiah did and challenged Knight.
My brother didn’t think that was funny, and they got into a back and forth. Then my brother said, ‘Hey, we can take this outside.‘ Coach Knight stood up, took his jacket off, rolled up his sleeves, and went ‘Yeah, let’s take this outside.‘Isiah Thomas, Club Shay Shay
Everybody in the house started panicking, trying to defuse the situation. Only one person didn’t move one bit, and it was Mary Thomas. Isiah noticed she had a smile on her face and was nodding her head in approval. After things calmed down, Knight made a promise that sealed the deal.
He said ‘I’m going to offer your son three things:Isiah Thomas, Club Shay Shay
A. He gonna graduate from college.
B. He’s gonna be a gentleman.
C. Everything I know about basketball I’ma teach him.‘
And that was it.
Isiah quickly learned most of the rumors about playing for Knight were true. No-one was spared, no matter how talented they were. But as with most of his players, Thomas speaks of Knight in superlatives. Coach would get on you, but he always had your back.
Mary Thomas made the right choice.