Before Isiah Thomas was a 12-time NBA All-Star, two-time champion and Hall of Famer, he was just a kid from Chicago.
The West Side, specifically, where Thomas said yesterday in a panel interview with Jason Goff, Kendall Gill and Jabari Parker for the “Be Chicago: Together We Can” fundraiser, the hoopers are hungrier.
Thomas spent his high school years (1975-79) at St. Joseph’s, where he forged as decorated a career as any in Chicago high school history, securing a state title in 1978 and McDonald’s All-American status in 1979. Then came a national title at Indiana University in 1981. Then, 13 years of excellence at the highest level, all with the Detroit Pistons. Thomas’ two NBA titles (1989, 1990) bridged the gap between the Lakers and Celtics-owned 1980s and the Michael Jordan Bulls-dominated 1990s. He was a disruptor, fierce competitor and all-time great at every phase of his basketball career.
Yet, it’s impossible to overlook the tension between a large swath of Chicago sports fans, who famously foster deep love for those they perceive as their own, and Thomas. Those were underscored heavily with the release of Episodes 3 and 4 of “The Last Dance” and the discourse that stemmed from them.
The Bad Boy Pistons teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s that rivaled the Bulls are viewed by many as the final obstacle between Jordan, the Bulls and dynasty. Their physicality bordered on excessive, even then, and over time that has twisted into unbridled villainy. Barbs traded over the years between Thomas and Jordan (also featured in “The Last Dance”) add to the animosity between both teams, and both cities.
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Has that perception unfairly tainted Thomas’ reputation in the city from which he hails, and for which he’s done so much, as a player and person? Gill thinks so.
“He doesn’t get enough credit (in Chicago),” Gill said of Thomas in the "Be Chicago" segment, adding that, in his estimation, Thomas is the greatest high school basketball player in the city’s storied history. “The reason why is because of the Detroit-Chicago rivalry, and I think a lot of people lost track that Isiah was one of us, you know. Much like they’ve done Derrick Rose, much like they’ve done Jabari (Parker). You sometimes forget, he’s one of us! And we always have to hold that in regard, and that’s what most people have to go back and look at.”
Parker pushed back on the notion that Thomas is overlooked at all — at least, by those who know him.
“Isiah may be forgotten to most people who are just fans, and that’s what they are,” Parker, whose father Sonny Parker is a Chicago basketball icon in his own right, said. “But in the city of Chicago, he is well-respected, he’s a legend, and everybody will never forget his importance to us and the groundwork that he’s laid the foundation for.”
Chicago was nicknamed the “Second City” because of mass reconstruction efforts after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But beyond cosmetics, it’s a city with multiple identities to this day. As Thomas described it, two of them are “the Michigan Avenue Chicago” and the “neighborhood.” He hails from the latter, and in fact, said he was never accepted in the former while coming up.
“The Chicago that I knew in my neighborhood is [where] I wanted to be respected, and where I always go back to help and support,” Thomas said. “When you say do I get the respect and love that I deserve from Chicago? I get the respect and the love from the ground, from the people.
“In terms of the writers and the radio personalities, they don’t know me, and I don’t really know them. At the same time, I respect them and I got love for ’em, but we gotta be real, there’s two different Chicagos. And the Chicago I grew up in, and the Chicago that they talk about, are two different places.”
In his eyes, nothing depicted, said, or written about Thomas can take that away.
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