Unsung Knick History – That Time Isiah Thomas Nearly Joined the Knicks…as a PLAYER!

This is the latest in a series of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.

A fear every Knick fan has is that someday the Knicks owner might try to bring former Knick President Isiah Thomas back to the organization in some capacity, as James Dolan clearly still appreciates the insights of Thomas (he is very publicly still a fan of Thomas). However, what’s interesting is that the Knicks nearly acquired Thomas years earlier…as a player!

The 1993-94 Knicks had a very big problem. Their only reliable veteran point guard, Doc Rivers, was injured in the team’s 19th game of the season. Rivers would miss the rest of the season. The Knicks tried not to panic and instead stuck with their backup point guard, Greg Anthony, and while Anthony wasn’t awful, nor did he particularly stand out as a starter. Moreover, his presence in the starting lineup meant that the Knicks did not have a traditional backup point guard, using Hubert Davis and John Starks instead as the backup point. So all season long, the Knicks were investigating alternate avenues for the point guard position. Ultimately, they traded for Dallas Mavericks veteran point guard Derek Harper (dealing a 1997 first rounder, the rights to Tim McCormick and small forward Tony Campbell – in an interesting twist of fate, Dallas then traded the pick to Toronto who then traded the pick in 1996 to…the Knicks. They selected John Thomas with the pick).

But in the weeks right after the injury, the Knicks wanted to quickly replace Rivers, so they went all over the league. One proposed deal that would have changed the Knicks’ future dramatically was a three-way deal with Milwaukee and Orlando in January 1994 where the Knicks would have sent Anthony Mason to Milwaukee who would have sent Frank Brickowski to Orlando who would have sent Scott Skiles to the Knicks. Yikes! Luckily, that trade did not work out (the Magic were also willing to deal Skiles to the Knicks straight up for Charles Oakley. As you might imagine, those talks did not go very far).

But earlier in the month, the Knicks were very close on a deal that would have brought Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas (Two-Time NBA Champion) to the Knicks. Isiah Thomas was obviously in the decline in 1993-94, dealing with a few nagging injuries (knee issues that kept him out of games in the preseason and a broken bone in his hand from punching his teammate, Bill Laimbeer, in practice, in November). In his thirteenth season, Thomas missed the All-Star Game in 1993-94 for the first time in his career (that All-Star Game sort of exemplified the debate over who should be in the All-Star Game, players having a good year that year or “stars,” as BJ Armstrong and Kenny Anderson were both selected by the fans over Thomas. Yes, BJ Armstrong was once voted into the All-Star Game).

Thomas had a no-trade clause in his contract, which ended after the 1993-94 season. Thomas wanted an extension of some sort (even a one-year deal) and thought that he had an unofficial deal in place with the Pistons owner, William Davidson, but as the season went on it seemed less and less clear that Davidson would honor his unofficial deal. The Knicks offered Tony Campbell, the rights to Tim McCormick and a 1994 first round pick for Thomas. The Knicks’ #1 choice was always Derek Harper, but the Mavericks were not willing to move him originally (plus, the Bulls kept flirting with trading for him, as well, possibly offering up a 1994 #1 draft pick, as well, but without requiring the Mavericks to take on any salary, since the Bulls had Michael Jordan’s salary slot available), so the Knicks were prepared to move forward with Thomas. Everything seemed to be set.

But then Thomas nixed the deal. The rumor is that Davidson reconfirmed not only an extra year on the deal, but that Thomas would have a role in the organization after he retired. An anonymous Pistons source noted, “He isn’t going anywhere. He got what he wanted.” Thomas remarked at the time, “I want to finish my career with the Pistons. This is my new home. I plan to live here after my career is finished. But I wouldn’t stand in the way if the Pistons wanted to progress.”

Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. As the season went on, Thomas’ various injuries slowed him down so much that he even received a DNP-CD in a March game. And then, on April 19th, with just five days left in the season, his career ended when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in a blowout loss against Orlando. Thomas said after the game:

The thing I am most proud of is that I can honestly say that I’m a man. I know that sounds trite [Yes, Isiah, it really does – BC]. But I don’t meant it to be macho. This is the entertainment business. I always tried to make it entertaining for me and for people who watched it. I have come through it with my family, with my morals and my principles intact. I didn’t settle for what so many people in entertainment do, people who went the wrong way.”

and later:

If I do decide to leave basketball, I left it all on the court. My guts, my heart and my soul. You cannot write the script, and I have never been one to dictate fate and destiny. I was not about to mess with God’s master plan for me.

Thomas officially retired at the end of the season. With his career now over, Thomas’ time in Detroit was soon ending, as well. Just a little over a month after his injury (while the NBA Playoffs were still in full swing), Thomas announced that he was purchasing a 10% ownership stake in the NBA’s then-new expansion team, the Toronto Raptors. He would also become their vice-president of basketball operations. Thomas said at the time:

This is a business decision but my identity as a player will always be tied to the Pistons and I am very proud of that. I’m not leaving Detroit with any bitter feelings….It’s like Stevie Wonder going from Motown to L.A. He still loved Detroit, and I feel the same way about Detroit.

And thus, Isiah Thomas, basketball executive, was born! A birth that would someday pay off in a very bad way for the Knicks. Note that it also paved the way for Thomas’ former teammate, Joe Dumars, to get the role that Thomas likely thought was destined to be his – the head of basketball operations for the Pistons. So this changed the destiny of the Pistons a good deal, as well, as Dumars (for all his faults) was a much better executive than Thomas, including leading the Pistons to an NBA title just ten years after Thomas retired in 2004.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at bcronin@legendsrevealed.com!

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