Friday, November 21, 1997, marked the end of the world as we knew it, judging by the coverage that appeared in The Toronto Sun. After three years of unfulfilled dreams of building a championship basketball team, Isiah Lord Thomas III, the unhappy general manager and part-owner of the Raptors, was packing up and leaving his “baby” for a broadcasting job at NBC. For more than an hour, wiping away tears and exuding sincerity, he spoke of wanting to thank “the people of Toronto, who I’ll miss dearly, and the members of the media for the respect you’ve given me.” Sob, sniffle. “We’ve built a foundation. I only wish I could have been around to finish the house, move in the furniture and invite you all to dinner.”
Later, the lights were dim and the waiters at Ruth’s Chris Steak House bustled to restore order after the press conference. Gone were the mikes and cables. Gone were the trays of lavish barbecued kebabs, garlic bread and shrimp hors d’oeuvres. And gone was the pack of reporters. Well, all except Thomas’s coterie of media friends gathered at the bar. The Toronto Sun‘s Heather Bird, Bill Harris and Craig Daniels plus a handful of broadcast journalists waited for their special farewell. Upon first sight of the sad-eyed Bird, Thomas picked her up, hugged her and uttered, “Oh, Birdie,” before they both wept.
Bird’s Saturday column was a lament about “losing Isiah”: “Yesterday…when he was alone save for a few folks, he held his hand over his eyes and wept during an emotional farewell….But through his tears, he vowed to return, perhaps with another team, to fight again some day.” Daniels, the Sun‘s basketball columnist and reporter, had been in mourning since the previous day, when his news story on Thomas’s departure ran under the headline “Team in Turmoil,” set in type big enough to announce the outbreak of a minor war. In his column two pages along, he mused sardonically, “I guess Thomas must be a bad person even though…I never saw Thomas treat people, including the media, with anything but respect….And I guess nobody in Toronto will miss Isiah Thomas.” Harris’s piece in the Saturday sports section was a little more straight-ahead, but still sympathetic. After quoting Thomas saying, “[My] pockets couldn’t support my emotions any more,” he concluded with another Thomas quote: “It’s a billionaire’s business. It’s a corporate business. I’m not old enough to act like a corporation.”
The coverage was a perfect illustration of the cozy three-year relationship the charismatic Thomas had with most of the Toronto sports press-what James Deacon, sports editor of Maclean’s magazine, characterizes accurately if unimaginatively as “an extended honeymoon.” Thomas cast a spell over the city and used his press favourites to get out well-timed leaks. He charmed and he seduced. Toronto Star sports writer Mary Ormsby, who has followed pro sports for 17 years, says simply: “Everyone just fell in love with him. He was so new, he was so different, he was this great star.”
THE HONEYMOON BEGAN THE MORNING OF May 24, 1994. The lights were dimmed in Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant as Thomas’s silhouette appeared behind a screen showing a Raptor logo. When Thomas burst through wearing a Raptors leather jacket and holding a basketball, he also literally burst onto the Toronto sports scene. It was the first time Toronto’s all-white, middle-class sports press had caught a glimpse of the then 33-year-old Thomas: a beautiful, articulate, wealthy black American regarded as one of the 50 greatest players in the history of NBA.
John Bitove Jr., then Raptors president, had succeeded in his bid for an NBA team in November 1993. Having Thomas as vice-president of basketball operations was a dream come true. Bitove had first encountered Thomas in 1980, when Bitove was attending Indiana University and Thomas was the star on the Hoosiers NCAA championship team. Later, while Bitove studied law at the University of Windsor, Thomas was across the river, growing into the Detroit Pistons’s prized point guard, having joined the team after leaving Indiana in ’81. Thomas stayed for 13 seasons; as team captain, he led the Pistons to NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, earning MVP honours for the 1990 playoffs. He was the team’s all-time leader in points, assists and steals.
For Toronto, Thomas was the complete package. Not even Madison Avenue could have dreamed him up. He came with diplomatic answers to questions and endless analogies-raising babies, building a house, baking a cake-for the process of creating a winning team. He spoke like a preacher-gazing up to the sky, using his hands to emphasize his message-and constantly referred to himself in the third person. Thomas’s basketball bona fides brought instant credibility to the fledgling basketball organization. His GQ-ish style-from his 1,000-watt smile to his three-piece designer suits-brought an image.
The press approached him with deference, even awe. True, there were a few dissenters. Star basketball columnist Chris Young criticized Bitove for suggesting Thomas was the most capable in the league for the position, rather than admitting he was a long-time Thomas admirer. He wrote: “A cynic would call it an old-boys’ network, or perhaps the move by an owner with more fan(fare) than sense in him.” Neil Campbell, then a Globe sports reporter, criticized the Raptors for being more concerned with style than substance: “Hiring Thomas to run the basketball show…is the sort of stunt one might expect from a Harold Ballard or a George Steinbrenner.” But for the most part, the media were wowed. Dave Perkins, at the time the Star‘s sports editor, compared Thomas-who had been GM for less than a day at that point-to Pat Gillick, the Toronto Blue Jays’ long-time general manager who over 18 years had built a two-time consecutive World Series championship team. Craig Daniels described Thomas as “one of the most charismatic names in the game” and quoted Bitove to counter the skepticism about Thomas’s management credentials: “He has been more than a player on any team he has played on.” It wasn’t long before many in Toronto’s sports circle considered Daniels “the lint in Thomas’s pockets.”
Clearly, Thomas deserved some praise for his early moves as GM. For instance, in the inaugural draft, he acquired Damon Stoudamire, who would become the 1995/96 NBA Rookie of the Year. But his subsequent drafts and trades were less successful. Sharone Wright, for example, was an expensive bust, and forward Marcus Camby, picked second in the 1996-97 NBA draft, proved to be oft-injured.
Then came the epitome of bad moves: the firing of Brendan Malone. Malone had been hired as coach in June 1995. The press credited the 27-year coaching veteran with guiding the Raptors to an impressive debut record of 21 wins-one of the best in NBA history for an expansion team. There was excitement in the stands; record numbers of fans were attending games. But by mid-season, Thomas had begun a campaign through the media to get rid of Malone. Neil Campbell, now the Globe‘s sports editor, has this theory: “Brendan Malone’s popularity spooked him. Isiah likes to be the centre of attention.”
First, in February of last year, on the popular all-sports radio station The Fan 590, Thomas publicly chastised Malone. He said Malone was giving too much floor time to proven players and not enough time to the team’s rookies. On March 26, according to a story that appeared in the Globe several weeks later, Thomas coached John Lashway, the Raptors executive director of communications, to question him during a media scrum following a Raptor game on the importance of the team getting a high draft choice. (Lashway denied the charge.) Under Malone, the theory went, the team was doing so well that its chances of a high draft pick for the following season were threatened.
On April 1, Daniels suggested in his column that Malone had challenged the GM by taking his direction to play more rookies so literally in a game against Orlando that the Raptors had lost by 40 points. Daniels also wrote that if the team wanted a good chance for selecting young star players in the draft, “Malone must be removed now.” Two days later, Daniels predicted: “Reading between the lines, short of God dropping everything else, Malone won’t be back as head coach next season. The coach has publicly defied the GM and he has lost the respect of the players in the process.” Then, on April 19, following the Raptors’s last game of the season, Malone was terminated. At the subsequent press conference Thomas announced that Malone had “stepped down” as coach, citing “philosophical differences.”
In a city whose competitive sports press is often hypercritical of the way the Blue Jays and the Maple Leafs are managed, Thomas hardly received any criticism for firing a winning coach. Instead, the majority of the local writers supported him, aside from Young, the Globe sportswriters and Steve Simmons, sports columnist for the Sun-all of whom were the most critical of Thomas from beginning to end. In the Sun, Bill Lankhof suggested “the problem with Malone is that he was stubborn. He kept cutting the strings whenever his boss, GM Isiah Thomas, tried to orchestrate the puppet show.” Both Ormsby and Daniels referred to the canning of Malone as a “mercy killing.” Ormsby went on to say that “Malone picked a fight with an unbeatable foe,” and wrote of Malone “breaking the first commandment of coaching: Thou shalt not diss thy GM.”
In retrospect, Ormsby sees things differently: “Brendan Malone came out looking like the bad guy and Isiah wiggled off the hook big time. Had that happened five years later, I don’t think Isiah would have gotten off as lightly as he did.”
However, in April, Thomas wiggled off the hook again. That was when Money Players, the controversial book detailing off-court crises and scandals within the NBA, was released. Written by three respected journalists-award-winning ABC News correspondent Armen Keteyian and Sports Illustrated‘s investigative reporter Martin Dardis, along with Harvey Araton, sports columnist for The New York Times-Money Players alleged in one chapter that as a player Thomas had been involved in an elaborate game-fixing scheme with the mob-once, in 1989, faking a concussion to throw a game.
But on April 8, at a press conference that lasted only 15 minutes, Thomas dismissed the book’s charges as “lies, rumours and innuendos.” When one reporter asked if there was ever a reason for him to throw a game, Thomas angrily responded, “My record speaks for itself and it’s insulting that I even have to answer that question. Can you imagine me doing that?” Apparently, no one could, particularly Daniels and Ormsby. Daniels wrote that “any open-minded person” was inclined to believe Thomas and questioned the authors’ use of unnamed sources. Ormsby claimed to have “blown apart” the book’s charge of Thomas feigning a head injury by acquiring Thomas’s medical records, which, she said, proved he had a cerebral concussion. It’s noteworthy, however, that to date Thomas has not sued the book’s authors for libel.
THROUGHOUT HIS DAYS IN THE NBA, Thomas was known for his toughness and intimidation on court and off. Known as the “Little Big Man,” Thomas was the baddest of the Bad Boys. But he was also skilled at turning potential critics into allies. Terry Foster, a sports reporter for The Detroit News who covered Thomas in his playing days, recalls how in the spring of 1990 he wrote several articles criticizing Thomas’s performance. Thomas hated the coverage and told Foster so. But later that season, during an off day in the Pistons’s playoff schedule in Chicago against the Bulls, Thomas invited Foster to his hotel room at the Ritz-Carleton. The meeting was a turning point in their relationship. The two men discussed their experiences growing up as black Americans; Thomas even admitted to fearing the media. Foster remembers Thomas saying they have the power to shape him in any image they decide.
Michael Grange, sports reporter for the Globe, recalls Thomas using a similar approach with him. The day after the story of Thomas’s departure broke, Grange telephoned Thomas. Thomas said he wanted to go off the record and Grange agreed, expecting some sort of important revelation. Thomas said he needed to ask Grange something important. The big question: “What do you think of me?”
“I felt like I was talking to a girlfriend or something,” Grange recalls. “It’s tough when you get close to someone like that and you want to be liked by them,” he says. “[But] if that person, in turn, wants you to actively like them, you really have to put your guard up.” Later that week, Grange put his thoughts on Thomas’s breach of their business relationship into print: “Rather than keeping relationships at a professional distance, he tries to go beyond them for his advantage.”
Not everyone in Toronto remained immune to the Thomas charm. Take the case of the buyout plan. In December 1996, Thomas announced he wanted to gain majority ownership of the Toronto Raptors, buying out broadcast mogul Allan Slaight, who had acquired 81 percent of the team from Bitove in November. The success of the scheme turned on the Maple Leafs hockey team becoming the Raptors’s roommates at the $207-million Air Canada Centre, then under construction.
By late April 1997, shortly after the release of Money Players, Thomas signed a letter of intent to purchase the Raptors. Everyone assumed that Thomas had the money to gain control. The press immediately awarded Thomas the status of majority owner-in-waiting. Star columnist Rosie DiManno called Thomas the “great black hope,” contrasting him with Slaight as the unhip old white businessman who “wouldn’t recognize a basketball if it hit him in the head.” Star sports columnist Dave Perkins described Thomas as the “owner of promise” and the “Raptors’ guiding light.”
The idea of Thomas becoming the first black majority owner of a sports franchise was a regular theme in the stories that appeared at this time. In July, Grange wrote: “Thomas’s pending purchase of the Toronto Raptors gives wonderful symmetry to the 50th anniversary of baseball player Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the colour barrier.”
Two days prior to the signing of the letter of intent to purchase, rumours that Thomas would leave town if he failed to acquire majority ownership had conveniently begun to surface. On April 19, Daniels wrote: “There are strong indications Raptors vice-president Isiah Thomas is readying to give up his job and leave the franchise. It turns out that Thomas’s deal to buy the team from Allan Slaight is stuck.” (The Globe‘s Neil Campbell says Thomas is skilled at leaking information. “Reporters in a very competitive market like Toronto are looking to get any edge they can,” he adds. If Isiah wanted to plant a story with a reporter, he’d certainly “find an audience.”)
It took a political columnist to point out the obvious. In an August column, the Sun‘s Peter Worthington described Thomas’s overall plan as “perilously close to a legal form of blackmail….If he’d been a white guy, I suspect there’d be a hullabaloo about the ethics. But the media are dazzled by the possibility of Thomas making history as the first black owner-an entrepreneurial Jackie Robinson, to stretch a metaphor.”
From April to November, Thomas’s media friends attributed Thomas’s inability to close the deal to Slaight’s raising the price. The real problem was that Thomas’s bid failed to provide a hint of solid financing. When the deal with the Leafs fell through, Thomas and his investors assumed Slaight’s selling price would drop.
Instead, on August 2, Thomas and Slaight held a joint press conference at which they announced Thomas’s failure to acquire majority ownership of the Raptors (Slaight would eventually sell in February 1998 to the Toronto Maple Leafs for an estimated sum of $500 million). At the time, Thomas vowed, “I’m firmly committed to staying here, I’m firmly committed to taking this team to a championship.”
Three months later, that firm commitment had vanished. On November 18, Doug Smith’s story about Thomas leaving the Raptors for NBC appeared on the front page of the Star. Slaight’s camp is believed to have leaked the story to Smith to force Thomas’s hand, although Smith won’t confirm this. After three years of breaking Raptor stories for the Sun, Daniels had missed out on the scoop of scoops. “This was A-1 front page, end of the world stuff…and the Sun didn’t have a word,” says one source. “When the big story comes, the guy burned him. It’s the perfect cautionary tale.” If Daniels feels singed, he’s not letting on. About his relationship with Thomas, he says rather opaquely: “The pleasantness of the relationship depends on what’s happened, the stories, the events, the way that person feels he’s been treated by you.”
And how did Thomas treat Daniels? “He’s good at making other people feel good,” Daniels responds.
Is it possible to be a fan of Isiah Thomas and still cover the man objectively? “You can’t let it not affect you,” he says. “As you get to like people, it changes the way you cover them. And to say that we’re immune from that is to suggest that journalists aren’t human beings.”
Try explaining that to the readers who expect objectivity from journalists, regardless of their beat. While being on a first-name basis with subjects may be accepted in sports writing, being a cheerleader is not. Or so I thought.