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In defense of Isiah Thomas

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Jason Whitlock

Jason Whitlock writes about the sports world from every angle, including those other writers can't imagine or muster courage to address. His columns are humorous, thought-provoking, agenda-free, honest and unpredictable. E-mail him, follow his Twitter or become a fan of Jason Whitlock on Facebook.

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Yep, I’m going to defend Isiah Thomas.

I’m sure that sounds as crazy as traveling to Jena, La., in 2007 and defending the people who thought six black boys jumping and stomping a white boy was a vicious, cowardly crime worthy of serious jail time.

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I did that. I don’t mind being viewed as crazy. I don’t mind pointing out that we in the media often get things wrong, get caught up in our biases and inaccurate narratives and use people and communities as punching bags for profit.

So let me begin my defense of Isiah Thomas with the story about his alleged suicide attempt and his alleged blaming of his alleged suicide attempt on his daughter.

On the day of his alleged “crimes,” Thomas and his wife took their daughter to the hospital for some sort of medical emergency. Later, in the early evening, Thomas went home and, by all accounts, accidently popped too many sleeping pills. He fell into a state of unconsciousness and had to be rushed to a hospital in the wee hours.

Later that day, before he was released from the hospital, a New York Post reporter called Isiah’s cell phone. Thomas, in an attempt to explain he hadn’t tried to commit suicide, said he hadn’t overdosed and expressed concern about his daughter’s health.

Just think about it. In less than 24 hours, you leave your wife and daughter at a hospital. You go home to get some sleep. You wake up in a hospital bed. A reporter calls you asking for comment. In a brief cell-phone conversation, you quickly try to explain your sad, bizarre day. A New York tabloid newspaper takes a couple of sentence fragments and paints the picture you’ve accused your daughter of attempting suicide.

It “wasn’t an overdose,” Thomas told the New York Post reporter. “My daughter is very down right now. None of us are OK.”

The New York Times takes the Post’s sensationalized characterization of Thomas’ comments and gets a New York police chief to blast Thomas for blaming his daughter.

Isiah Thomas has a brief conversation with a reporter trying to explain he didn’t try to commit suicide and that his daughter’s illness has him and his family concerned.

The nation scoffs, laughs and is further convinced Isiah Thomas is a scumbag.

Maybe you’re good with it because Thomas is rich and famous and too arrogant for your liking. Maybe you’re good with it because you believe Thomas destroyed the New York Knicks. Or maybe you believe Thomas deserves it because Anucha Browne Sanders won a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Knicks and claimed Thomas sexually harassed her.

It’s not all good. It’s wrong. It’s why smart people place no faith in the American media. We’re broke, irresponsible, reckless and unfair.

Sanders’ lawsuit was a joke. People in New York know that. The media know it.

I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of Isiah’s tenure as president and coach of the Knicks. As best I can tell, he and Knicks owner James Dolan hatched an immature, quick-fix plan to make the Knicks relevant and it predictably backfired.

That failure falls on Isiah more than Dolan.

A true innovator, a savant, a courageous visionary ignores a well-intentioned, irrational boss and gives him something far better than what he childishly wants.

Isiah flopped as president of the Knicks. So what? Bill Belichick flopped as coach of the Browns.

No, what troubles me is the media-led destruction of Isiah’s dignity. You’d think he’d strangled his coach, blown through millions making it rain at strip clubs, negotiated a pay-for-play scam while at Indiana and operated a dogfighting ring that doubled as a front for a Colombian drug cartel.

Let’s see. According to Magic Johnson, Isiah went from kissing Magic on national TV to privately spreading rumors that Magic was gay. This makes no sense. Isiah was Magic’s best friend. Isiah would be outing himself.

Isiah’s problems with the media began in 1987 when he got swept up in Dennis Rodman’s post-game rant about Larry Bird being just an average player. Rodman was wrong. Thomas tried to clarify Rodman’s statements and offer nuance and context to the legitimate beef that the overwhelmingly white reporters and broadcasters who covered professional sports relied on stereotypes to define black and white players.

Stereotypes like this one:

Bird was smarter and worked harder than the black players he dominated in the 1980s.

 

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That suggestion justifiably bothered Thomas. He was trained by Bobby Knight. Thomas was an Indiana legend just the same as Larry Bird. Thomas was a little man who relied on intelligence, courage and work ethic to compete against bigger, stronger players.

Everything that was said about Larry Bird could be said about Isiah Thomas. The Pistons’ super-physical, “Bad Boy” style of play was identical to Boston’s.

In trying to cover Rodman’s idiocy, Thomas repeated Rodman’s quote in his answer to reporters and the media hung Isiah with Rodman’s words.

It’s fun and it’s good business to ridicule Isiah Thomas. Is it the right thing to do?

He pulled himself up by his boot straps, embraced education, involved himself in sound business decisions throughout his career, maintained a marriage, won championships, invested some of his wealth in the education of others and remained loyal to his family and friends from the west side of Chicago.

Is Thomas perfect? Hell no. I don’t know anyone who is, especially not anyone with the kind of fame and wealth Thomas enjoys.

But Isiah Thomas is not Charlie Sheen or O.J. Simpson. Thomas is what we say we want inner-city athletes to become.

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