Of all the names that have been mentioned as possible coaches for the Wizards -- from Buck Williams to Jim Boeheim, from Gar Heard to Mike Jarvis -- the most intriguing name of all is: Isiah Thomas. Whoever thought he wanted to coach?
Didn't coaching seem beneath Isiah's aim?
And isn't he a tantalizing prospect?
Depending on whom you talk to, Isiah Thomas is portrayed either as an insightful natural leader, or an egomaniacal manipulator -- often by the same person!
We have seen Isiah be petty. He foolishly made a lifelong enemy out of Michael Jordan by freezing out Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game. Apparently, Isiah felt threatened by Jordan's sudden burst of fame, and he wanted to show the rookie who the top dog was. We've seen Isiah be arrogant. When Chicago swept Detroit from the playoffs in 1991, denying the Pistons their three-peat, Isiah led the Pistons off the court without shaking hands with the Bulls. When Isiah marched out there was still time left on the clock!
If Isiah coached the Wizards, it would be fascinating. He is a charming and dangerous man. His ambition and drive are so strong he might turn the team around. Or he might grab for so much power that he chokes the life out of the team.
And I would hire him here in a heartbeat.
Unlike Shaquille O'Neal, who, as we know, "has been a winner on every level except college and the pros," Isiah has been a winner on every level. His high school team was the best in Chicago. He won an NCAA championship at Indiana in 1981. His Bad Boys in Detroit won two NBA titles. Don't let that cherubic smile fool you; Isiah was the baddest of the Bad Boys. Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer, John Salley and Dennis Rodman were the villains in the public's mind, but everything that team did started with Isiah Thomas. He'd do anything to win. Play dirty? Sure. Isiah found a kindred spirit in Laimbeer, and then conveniently let Laimbeer absorb the heat.
Isiah Thomas ran the Pistons more than Chuck Daly -- in the way Michael Jordan ran the Bulls more than Phil Jackson. Kissing Magic Johnson on the cheek before those playoff games in 1989 shouldn't have fooled anybody into thinking Isiah was sweet. It was said that year in Detroit that the only reason the Pistons traded leading scorer Adrian Dantley to Dallas for Mark Aguirre was to pacify Isiah, who was buddies with Aguirre since high school. The sacrificial nature of the trade infuriated Dantley, but with Isiah happy next to Aguirre the Pistons won the next two championships.
Two months ago Wes Unseld said this is what he was looking for in a coach: "I want someone who has been a winner. Who knows what it takes to win, and knows how to win."
Hmmm. I guess people can stop calling now.
Hiring Isiah Thomas as coach -- even with all the potential for corrosion -- is a dramatic, bold step the Wizards need. Isiah is one of the few guys who can charm fans and sell tickets by not playing. And if it doesn't work out, well, how much worse off will the Wizards be in two years than they are now?
Let's face it, the Wizards are dreadful now. They are made wrong, with all their talent on the outside. Nobody will step in here and make chicken salad out of this. This team has to be blown up and remade new. Why wouldn't you give Isiah Thomas a shot at that? He was such a great and fearless player -- the greatest small guard ever it says here, above Bob Cousy, Tiny Archibald and John Stockton. Surely you'd take a flyer on someone like that, if only for the respect he would immediately command among your players. How could these guys not listen to Isiah?
Who out there looks better to you? Phil Jackson is not interested in this team. This team doesn't appear to be interested in Mike Fratello. The rest of them are just names. Doc Rivers was an attractive candidate who Orlando scooped up. The Wizards dawdled on Rivers, but maybe they were already smitten with Isiah.
Two years ago, of course, you'd have cocked your eyebrows at the notion of a neophyte like Isiah becoming a head coach without a shred of coaching experience. But Larry Bird changed all that. Ironic, isn't it, that Bird would be opening a door for Isiah after Isiah said of Bird in 1987: "If he were black, he'd just be another good player." Isiah quickly apologized for the remark, and Bird quickly accepted.
There is a downside with Isiah. He left bloody from Detroit and Toronto. He is seen as cunning and self-absorbed. Jordan's grudge against Isiah cost him a most deserved spot on the 1992 Dream Team. Not even his own coach, Chuck Daly, screamed for justice -- and it was a crime that Isiah Thomas was left off that team.
Isiah's public comments against the players union during this year's lockout are bound to anger the Wizards' union leaders, Mitch Richmond and Juwan Howard. Would Richmond be inclined to leave if Isiah came in? Would Isiah want to trade Richmond or Howard, or both? Let me ask you this: So what? If the Wizards are in the lottery with them, why keep them? The Wizards need an overhaul, not a tune-up.
The Wizards must be serious about Isiah, or Abe Pollin wouldn't have gotten involved. I'd tell Abe and Wes Unseld to be forewarned -- Isiah may well want more than the coaching job. He may want to be GM. He may have far grander designs (though ownership seems unlikely now that a right-of-refusal deal has been struck with Ted Leonsis and Jon Ledecky).
I remember going to the all-star game in 1985, and asking all the players there what they thought they would be doing if they weren't playing basketball. Isiah Thomas, who never lacked self-esteem, smiled angelically and informed me he would be a U.S. senator. He was 23 years old at the time.
Last week, wearing one of those million-dollar high-vested suits on TV, Isiah Thomas said of his dalliance with the Wizards, "We're just kind of dancing, but we haven't kissed yet."
Kiss him already.
Let's see if he's a frog or Prince Charming.