Who is Isiah Thomas? For the uninitiated, he was a great college and NBA basketball player, a “hall of fame” legend. If you want to see how superior Isiah Thomas the basketball player was, just go to YouTube, punch in his name and watch the highlight footage that speaks for itself.
In short, Thomas was an electrifying, all-time great point guard and champion at every level at which he competed—from high school, to Indiana University where, precociously, he led the Hoosiers to an NCAA basketball title, to the Detroit Pistons, whose NBA misfortunes he somewhat singlehandedly changed, immediately, after the Pistons drafted him out of college.
Thomas subsequenty led the Pistons to consecutive NBA championships in the 1990’s.
What is less acknowledged about Isiah Thomas is just how seriously narcissistic a personality he is, and possibly how sociopathic he is. It is not that his misdeeds (on, but mostly, off) the court, since his retirement, haven’t been well-chronicled. There was his infamous “dissing” of Michael Jordan at the NBA All-Star Game in the early 90’s, where he organized a “freeze-out” of the great, rising superstar, in effect assuring that Jordan would lack chances to shine during the game.
Continuing his Jordan fixation, Thomas next orchestrated, again passive-aggressively, his team’s “walk off the court” rebuffing of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls after the Bulls defeated the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Championship, a victory that signaled the Bulls’ ascendancy at the time, and the beginning of Thomas’s Pistons’ decline, as the reigning superpower in the NBA.
The power-and-control obsessed Thomas couldn’t stomach this changing of the winds and so, reflecting his emerging grandiosity, he stooped to organizing this childish protest on his way “out of power.”
Were these trifling displays of unsportsmanlike behaviors? Not really. They always presaged much more than that. They were, in fact, early signs of Thomas’ serious, pathological narcissism. Ruthless on the court, he would prove ruthlessly self-centered, and, most tellingly, troublingly unaccountable off the court.
After retiring from an injury, Thomas assumed an executive management role with the Toronto Raptors, then an expansion NBA team. He left this position, surprise surprise, in conflict with the team’s management and dispute over its direction. Perhaps no big deal? But I note again—when we are dealing with narcissistic personality disturbances, it is the pattern that needs to be recognized, if possible, in its earliest manifestations.
Following his suspect run with the Raptors, Thomas purchased the Continental Basketball Association for roughly $10 million, leading this established NBA developmental league into bankruptcy through what many then (and have since) concluded was his extraordinarily incompetent, reckless mismanagement.
Thomas never owned his responsibility, not a shred of it, for the demise of the CBA. Rather, his abdication of responsibility for the messes he’s made has become a theme in his post-NBA career.
After an undistinguished run, next, as head coach of the Indiana Pacers—a job opportunity he was offered (remember this!) by then Pacers President Donnie Walsh—Thomas assumed a new position as President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks in 2003.
Now, a newly minted Knicks executive and given a fresh dose of undeserved autonomy, Thomas commenced to running the Knicks organization like a manic day-trader, dealing players during his three-year reign in a reckless, impulsive frenzy; worse, displaying utter, arrogant disregard for the team’s fiscal condition which he recklessly, and remorselessly, compromised.
Ultimately, he left the organization, upon his departure in 2008 (particularly with respect to its “salary cap” status) in financially disastrous ciscumstances.
Re-enter Donnie Walsh, the erstwhile Indiana Pacers executive who’d given Thomas his first NBA head-coaching opportunity. The Knicks hired Walsh, a veteran NBA executive, to undo the mess that Thomas had left. Thus, Walsh has spent the last two years undertaking the unenviable task of having to dig the team out of its financial hole, making it possible for the Knicks to compete in the free agent signing market going forward.
It should be noted that during Thomas’ bacchanalian reign in his executive role with the Knicks, he was also accused of sexual harassment by a Madison Square Garden employee, Anucha Browne Sanders, who accused him of sexual (and non-sexual) harassment. This lawsuit was subsequently settled for $11.6 million, an immense figure for a sexual harassment suit.
To this day, Thomas has taken zero responsibility for the damage he caused the Knicks organization. Just as he denied running the CBA into financial ruin despite damning evidence that that’s precisely what he did, so he’s denied running the Knicks, during his tenure with the team, into the financial icebergs into which he indisputably ran them; and, of course, unsurprisingly, he denied any responsibility in the case of Ms. Sanders, preferring (and yes, this is my editorial position) to scapegoat her in order to protect himself.
In October of 2008, Thomas was hospitalized for an alleged overdosing of Lunesta, the sleep aid. He was reportedly found unconscious at his home, and needed emergency medical attention. Subsequently, he was alleged to have tried to “cover up” this episode by suggesting that it was his teenage daughter, not he, who was hospitalized for this incident, prompting the local police chief, who was also the investigator, to suggest that Thomas had thrown his daughter under the bus.
In other words, it appears that Thomas may have preferred (and tried!) to deflect the unfavorable attention to himself onto his daughter, who was innocent and vulnerable. But how surprising should even this latest example of the depth of Thomas’s manipulativeness and self-centeredness have been?
After all, Thomas has thrown others in his life “under the bus.” He is reputed to have started rumors that his “best friend,” Earvin “Magic” Johnson, an all-time great NBA player, contracted the HIV virus due to what Thomas maliciously insinuated was Johnson’s bisexuality when, in fact, there wasn’t a shred of evidence to suggest Johnson was bisexual. Johnson has written of his sense of betrayal that his putative best friend drove these rumors. Their once charmingly and publicly close friendship, which was marked by the affectionate kisses they’d plant on each others’ cheeks before intense games against each other as NBA competitors, dissolved on the evidence of Thomas’s treachery.
Johnson has suggested in his biography how difficult it was for him to reconsider the character of Thomas.
Thomas’s ex-coach and Basketball Hall of Famer, Chuck Daly, of the Detroit Pistons, once observed that Thomas could leap from an airplane without a parachute and be expected to land, somehow, unhurt. Ostensibly, Daly was referring to Thomas’s admirable resilience, but what he really was identifying, whether he knew it or not, was less Thomas’s impressive resilience than his capacity to charm his way, snake his way, into one after another opportunity seemingly irrespective of the trail of damage he leaves behind.
Thomas is indisputably a very seductive, charming personality, who exudes tremendous confidence and poise. As famously, brilliantly slippery and smooth as he was on the court, he is just as much so off the court. Thomas’s grin is flawless in its projection of sincerity and playful, innocent mischievousness.
But Isiah Thomas just is not the persona he projects so effortlessly. Beneath his innocent facade is a seriously manipulative personality who has shown a pattern of behaving with defective loyalty, empathy and remorse towards those he’s hurt, damaged and exploited.
In 2009, after resigning from his position with the Knicks, his reputation having finally taken a serious hit, Thomas finagled yet another seemingly improbable opportunity: he was offered, and accepted, the head coaching reins at Florida International University. This would be his first college head coaching opportunity at a division one school. As usual, Thomas performed flawlessly at the press conference, projecting sincere gratitude for his latest opportunity and asserting his fullest commitment to the program, its players and his future recruits. Thomas sounded as convincing as ever that this was where he belonged, where he wanted to be.
Once again, as his ex-coach Daly had admired, he had landed on his feet with a new opportunity.
Yet before he’d barely hit the ground running, Thomas was already, according to many legitimate sources, angling for chances to return to the NBA. Hardly established in his new position as FIU’s head coach, Thomas was already self-servingly seeking opportunities to reestablish his NBA employability at the expense of (if not not behind the backs of) the school officials who had just hired, and invested their faith, in him at a time when his personal stock was devalued.
In other words, this was the gratitude Thomas showed his new employers at FIU, virtually flaunting, audaciously and without compunction or shame, his underlying agenda to network himself back in the NBA.
Recently, in an ESPN.com article, Thomas stated on the record that he covets his former job with the Knicks. This is the position his former mentor, Donnie Walsh, who you’ll remember offered him his first NBA head coaching job with the Indiana Pacers, presently holds. Walsh, again you will remember, has spent the last two years undoing the financial damage Thomas caused the Knicks. Yet Thomas is quoted in the article as saying that he thinks about reclaiming his former position (Walsh’s present one) “…every day of the week.”
Note that Thomas states this not from a position of unemployment, which would be brazen enough, but rather from his position as employed as the second-year head college basketball coach at FIU!
Howard Beck, a New York Times sports reporter who, in my opinion, has been soft on Thomas in years’ past, finally slams Thomas in a recent piece “The Alternate Universe of Isiah Thomas” (Nov. 6), in which he exposes what I will call Thomas’s sociopathic abdication of responsibility for the false and seemingly self-deluded assertions he makes about his incompetent performance as Knicks’ executive.
Let me be clear: Beck doesn’t suggest Thomas is a narcissist or sociopath. He merely outlines in the article the ways in which Thomas pathologically refuses to account for his past performance as Knicks’ executive.
Beck also addresses the extent to which Thomas holds, unflappably, if not delusionally, to his impunity for his past transgressions and to his fitness to assume new, similar, fresh responsibilities. But again, I would argue that this is less a delusional aspect of Thomas’s personality than it’s a reflection of his seriously narcissistic, even sociopathic, tendencies?
Is Thomas a confident man? Sure of himself? Resilient? Opportunistic?
Perhaps he’s all of these things, and they are qualities that can be admirable. But what Thomas also is—and which turns these admirable qualities into actually destructive ones—is seriously narcissistically personality disordered.
As someone who grew up a big-time basketball fan, and who, like many others, admired his basketball brilliance tremendously, I find it unpleasant to have to come to the conclusion that Isiah Thomas indeed has many sociopathic qualities: he is charming, glib and persuasive; yet he is disloyal, opportunistic, cunning and conniving. Moreover he can be callous and exploitive, seeming to lack empathy and a conscience.
In short, Thomas leads his life with extremely deficient levels of accountability towards those he’s hurt and betrayed.
Thomas’s track record seems to suggest that his “attachments” over the course of his adult life appear to be based on expedience, which is to say that when his attachments no longer benefit him, he appears to be someone who with little, if any, shame and remorse, can easily abandon, detach from, or betray those to whom he formerly professed loyalty.
As I mentioned, Isiah Thomas’s smile can light up, even blind a room, but that “light” appears to be very superficial. Beneath the veneer, inside Isiah Thomas, there appears to be very little light, only darkness. Apparently much darkness.
(This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)