One NCAA Championship: 1981.
Twelve All-Star appearances: Two MVPs.
Fifty Greatest Players of All-Time: He's one of them.
One name is all you need: Isiah.
(Well, maybe one name and 10 Burning Questions from our own Eric Neel ...)
1. If I made you NBA commissioner for a day, what's the first thing you'd do?
Increase shot attempts. Institute a shot minimum so we can get scoring up.
Would you ever want a job like that?
To be the commissioner? Mmmmm, no. (pauses) Well, actually, yeah. I change my mind. Who wouldn't want that job?
What about your last job? Does the firing still sting?
I haven't found the place to quite put it yet. It was such a shock and it was so unexpected. I'm still trying to deal with it.
Did it feel to you like the decision was personal?
To me, I can only look at it and say, you know, there was a change in management, and Bird wanted a friend of his to coach his team. He had played with Carlisle and coached with Carlisle and basically wanted his friend to coach, and that's the only way I can look at it.
If you were a head coach today, would you do anything differently?
No, because of the success I had, I wouldn't change anything. When I took the job, I told Donnie Walsh I'd have the team in the NBA Finals in our fourth year; and this team this year will probably make the Finals, so I wouldn't change anything.
Do you see yourself coaching again?
I would prefer the NBA, but I wouldn't rule out a college job.
2. Thinking back to your own rookie season, what advice do you have for LeBron and Carmelo as they navigate this first year?
Stay aggressive, don't let your confidence dip in your game, and make sure that you somehow try to get eight hours of sleep and eat three meals a day. It's a long season.
What's the biggest difference between the NBA today and the NBA in your day?
The athletes in the game today are spectacular. When we were playing, Michael Jordan was the only guy in the league who could run and dunk from the foul line. Now there's an athlete like that on every team.
Do you like today's game?
I don't like watching teams stall the ball. I like teams to get up and down and let the players play and let their great athleticism come through.
What's the biggest misconception the average NBA fan has about NBA players?
That they don't work hard. You couldn't perform at this level of play and do the things they do without having put some quality hours into the gym every day.
3. You're doing a promotion with the NBA and Staples where one lucky fan gets to go to All-Star Weekend with you. What's that fan in for?
(laughs) A wild time!
It's early in the season, but who would you put on your 2003 All-Isiah team?
Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Kidd.
4. When you think back on your career, what's the single greatest basketball moment for you?
Definitely winning back-to-back championships and being called the best small man to ever play the game; those things are quite special.
Do you have a favorite basketball memory that is out of the spotlight?
My most favorite basketball memory would be Feb. 14, 1980. We were in Iowa City, Iowa, playing the Iowa Hawkeyes in a Big Ten game. It was Mike Woodson's first game back from back surgery. And watching him work, and get back through rehab ... I remember he came off a pick on the left-hand side and I hit him with a pass and he banked the shot in off the glass and we went up 2-0. That's probably one of the most special feelings I've ever had on a basketball court. Mike was a special person and a special player.
5. If I could give you one career mulligan, what would you do over again?
I would shake Michael Jordan's hand when we walked off the floor after they beat us in 1991. That was poor sportsmanship we exuded. And that was the only time in my career that I had ever really been a poor sport. If I had to do it all again, that's a decision I'd definitely want a mulligan on.
6. What do you do now to keep your competitive edge sharp?
I work out five times a week. I don't play as much as I used to play, but I play with the kids in the backyard. But you know, coaching is really the place I've found where I can release the competitive fire that's inside of me.
Off the court, the biggest role model in my life has been my mom -- seeing her struggle for us, seeing what she's been able to accomplish. In coaching, Larry Brown has become a mentor to me. We were on the 1980 Olympic team (the team that boycotted) together. Having the opportunity to sit and talk with him over the years has been a big advantage for me.
Who was your toughest opponent on the court?
Maurice Cheeks. I could score on everybody else, but I had a difficult time with him. Magic, Bird, and Jordan, those guys were easy. I'm probably the only guy walking the planet who can say he beat them more, head-to-head, than they beat him.
And Mo Cheeks is the only guy walking the earth who can say, "I knew how to shut down Isiah Thomas."
Well, he could say he gave me a hard time ... but he didn't shut me down, now. There was no turning this faucet off. (laughs)
Who was the teammate who brought the best out of you?
I would go back to my high school teammates, two guards I played with, Ray Clark and Hector Gonzalez. You've never heard of them, but they were two guys that always believed in me. When you're in high school, you're not sure of yourself; but they were very influential in helping me get over a lot of growing pains I was going through at that time.
How did growing up in Chicago shape you as a player and a person?
In Chicago, we had to take the ball to the hole. You couldn't stand outside and shoot jumpshots because the wind was blowing too hard. And if you missed a jumpshot, you might get beat up, so you definitely had to perfect your dribbling skills and get to the basket. And you also had to be very tenacious and tough just growing up in the neighborhood. At least three or four times a week, you were in a fistfight; and you didn't always win your fights, but you had to fight. And that helped shape and mold the kind of person I am, I think.
If you hadn't played basketball, what other profession would you have wanted to try?
I wanted to be a lawyer. I got my degree at Indiana in criminal justice. That being said, financially, I don't know if my family would have had enough money for me to attend college. So, either I would have been on the streets hustlin' or in the military, if basketball wasn't an option.
8. You often refer to it as "the game of basketball." What's the difference between "the game of basketball" and just plain "basketball"?
When I talk about the game of basketball, it's a thing that John McLendon (who was one of Dr. Naismith's students, and the only black student of Naismith's at that time) taught me growing up. When I was nine years old, he told me with this basketball you can travel all over the world. You can see everything and meet everyone, and you can make a life out of the game of basketball. The values that you learn from a team, those become your values as a man, and they become championship qualities in you -- the way you teach, the way you talk -- and if you are true to the game, the game will be true to you. Yeah, there's the game of basketball and then there's just going to the park and playing basketball. You and I are on the phone today because of the game of basketball.
9. We know so many things that you're great at on the court. What would you say is your greatest skill off the court?
You'll have to talk to my wife about that! (laughs)
Hmmmm, it would have to be somebody kind of edgy, with just a little attitude. (laughs) Hmmmm, there ain't too many brothers that's acting, you know. I'll say Matt Damon, but he would have to be a brother to do it. He could go there.
True or false: The Lakers will win the title this year.
Most underrated player in the game today?
Most underrated player of all-time?
One thing you most hope to be remembered for 100 years from now?
That I helped a lot of people.