He is, for anyone who has encountered him, one of the more intriguing and confounding characters in the great wide world of sport.
Visionary or hustler, charmer or snake?
So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Isiah Thomas rises again, in an absolutely Isiah kind of way, apparently lurking in the shadows behind Tuesday's megatrade that sent Carmelo Anthony from Denver to the New York Knickerbockers in return for (among other things) 60 per cent of the Knicks' starting lineup.
Donnie Walsh is New York's general manager and president, and it is he (along with coach Mike D'Antoni) who has rightly received the lion's share of credit for taking a franchise that resembled a smoking crater following Thomas's disastrous tenure, and turning it into a playoff team this season.
But despite some unconvincing statements of organizational solidarity, it would appear that the architects of this deal are the Knicks', er, unconventional owner James Dolan, and the fellow known as Zeke, with whom he remains infatuated. This despite the massive damage Thomas inflicted on his team and on the organization's reputation, which extended beyond its woeful performance on the court to include a sexual-harassment suit that cost the club an $11.5-million (all currency U.S.) court judgment, and a fine for conducting illegal workouts of draft prospects that cost an additional $200,000 in league fines.
Thomas's role in the Anthony deal is known in basketball circles almost certainly because Thomas quietly made it known. That's his modus operandi. Though he is supposed to be fully engaged coaching the team at Florida International University, he has retained Dolan's ear, and with Walsh's contract set to expire this spring, might yet make a previously unimaginable return to Manhattan.
He is, to put it mildly, an operator.
Following his Hall of Fame playing career with the Detroit Pistons, Thomas came to Toronto, the basketball guru hired by then Raptors owners John Bitove and Alan Slaight to build their expansion team, and to be the smiling face of the sport in a virgin market. Both roles he performed reasonably well (the team's four first-round draft picks under Thomas were Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, the latter acquired for Antawn Jamison on draft day). Until an internal ownership war revolving around the construction of what would become the Air Canada Centre, there was a real sense that the team was on course.
"The game plan I had was to build a utopia for players, a haven for everything they ever wished for or dreamed about from management," Thomas said, right after that dream went awry.
Thomas always had larger ambitions, as he was happy to explain, including becoming a majority owner (he had a 9-per-cent stake in the team). At one point, after the fractious break up of the Bitove-Slaight partnership, he actually produced an offer to buy the Raptors outright, though there was never any indication that he had anywhere near the resources to actually carry it out.
He left Toronto in a huff, Stoudamire was gone soon afterward, and Thomas was quick to make everyone understand that the Raptors' death spiral was a direct result of his departure.
The opportunities kept coming - first as a television analyst, then running the Continental Basketball Association (into bankruptcy), then as coach of the Indiana Pacers, and finally with the Knicks. At every stop, Thomas made a few friends and made more enemies, inspired tales of backroom intrigue, and didn't manage a clean exit. That was especially true of his tenure in New York, during which one of the NBA's storied franchises became a league-wide laughingstock.
Dolan finally got rid of him, but in the end, he just couldn't quit him. Last year, he tried to convince Walsh to install Thomas as general manager. Walsh, understandably, refused.
This winter, during the protracted Anthony soap opera, Thomas convinced his old boss that he was the only guy who could get the deal done. And now that he has, albeit at an enormous cost, it's hard to imagine how Walsh remains. (Now if the Raptors and Bryan Colangelo part company, there's an intriguing possibility.)
It seems absurd, from the outside. Why would Dolan possibly want Thomas back at the scene of the crime?
But anyone who remembers the smile, the charm, the shared confidences, the carefully nurtured relationships, understands the power of that personality, remembers how he could tell you that the sky was green and you'd at least want to consider the possibility.
Underestimate him? Write him off? Like saying so long to a cat after only six or seven lives.