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Isiah Thomas: These Are The 10 Best Basketball Cities

What are the 10 best basketball cities in the country? We asked NBA legend Isiah Thomas.

Ian Douglass

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Isiah Thomas: These Are The 10 Best Basketball Cities

Source: Isiah Thomas


Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas shared his memories from what he considers to be the ten best basketball cities in the country. In the process, he told hilarious stories about the time he thought he was going to have to fight Michael Jordan, why he almost never dunked, and how it felt to have Tim Hardaway use all of his own moves against him. He also talks about his relationship with Jordan today, how relieved he was to be facing Jordan and the Bulls in 1989 as opposed to another team, and how he and the Pistons learned from the off-the-court tricks of Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.

1. Detriot

Isiah Thomas in Detroit, MI

Source: Flickr user Kevin Ward

My fondest memory of Detroit is walking out of the Silverdome and seeing crowds of 55,000 and 60,000 people there to watch us play. It was a love fest. I’ll never forget the way the community embraced us, and the love affair that we had with the city. When everybody was struggling to get 13,000 people, we were getting 50,000 and 60,000. During that period of time, people want to say the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls were the teams, and that’s not how I remember it. We were the first team to put 50,000 and 60,000 people in the house, and when you look at the highest rated games from the 1980s, they’re Celtics-Pistons, Pistons-Bulls and Lakers-Pistons. Those were the highest rated games in the ’80s.

The game winner against the Hawks was my favorite game moment in Detroit. Even though it may not be a big moment in other people’s minds, in my mind that was the start of our ascension. The year before, the Hawks beat us, and I remember Patti Labelle came out with the song, “I’m on my own… why’d it have to end this way… this isn’t the way it was supposed to be…” And I was playing that song the whole summer crying.

Then we got the Hawks again, and that was Mother’s Day when we won the game. I was also graduating from Indiana that day. My mother walked across the stage and got my degree from Indiana, and I hit the game winning shot. And then I did the dance! (laughs) I did my little tribal dance. It was entirely impromptu. I haven’t done that dance before and haven’t done it since. I don’t know where that came from! (laughs)

2. Chicago

Isiah Thomas in Chicago, IL

Source: Flickr user sealfur

As a kid, I grew up dreaming about playing in the Chicago Stadium. I used to stand outside asking for autographs from the players, asking for their gym shoes, sneaking in at halftime and just being in awe of the Chicago Stadium. Some of my favorite childhood memories are watching Bob Love and Chet Walker and Dick Motta coaching, and knowing all the Bulls teams, their stats their numbers. Just being a typical kid. It would get so loud that you really couldn’t hear yourself talk, but I loved every minute of it.

The thing I really liked was coming back home and winning. We all grew up Bulls fans. But my mom and my brothers… sometimes I would look up in the stands and see them clapping for the Bulls, and I’d be like, “What the hell? I gave y’all them tickets!” (laughs) Your friends would tell you after you got them tickets, “I’m coming to the game, but you know we’re gonna beat y’all tonight.” And I’d say, “I’m part of ‘y’all’, right?” and they’d say, “No, we’re with the Bulls.” It was nice to go home and just light it up because you knew after the game, if you lost, they were going to give it to you. I think we beat Chicago something like 22 straight times because I was afraid to lose because I didn’t want to hear that nonsense. (laughs)

You knew Chicago was coming, and in 1989 we were trying to get back to the Finals. We had just beaten Bird, we were playing Jordan, and we were about to face Magic again. And I told myself I wanted to be able to say that I’d beaten Bird, Jordan and Magic all in one year. When the last game was over, we celebrated in the Chicago Bulls’ locker room, and I loved that. I loved winning on the road.

3. Indianapolis

Isiah Thomas in Indianapolis, IN

Source: Flickr user chengphoto

If you didn’t know where basketball was invented, you would think that it was invented in Indiana. It truly is a cultural experience from the way they talk about it to the way they play the game. It’s a spiritual experience having to learn and play basketball there. It’s a religion. There’s a way they pass, there’s a way you have to shoot. You have to be a good foul shooter, you have to be a good jump shooter. You have to block out. The fundamentals are really emphasized there. From grandma to baby John, everybody has a book of knowledge on the way the Indiana game should be played. For me, it was a wonderful experience playing there and coaching there.

What I remember about Coach [Bobby Knight] is how he was yelling at me just like my mother. Every swear word that my mother used, he was using, and I was like, “Have they been talking about me?” (laughs) Coach made you think the game. He didn’t believe in patterns and calling plays. Everything was about you thinking and understanding, reading and reacting to your opponent. Understanding how your opponent was going to attack and how you were going to attack him.

Very rarely did he use a clipboard to draw up a play or call a play. It was thinking man’s game, and he emphasized thinking and not making mistakes. I have a very good relationship with him to this day.

4. Boston

Isiah Thomas in Boston, MA

Source: Flickr user Lorianne DiSabato

Growing up we were always Boston fans inside my house. My mom and dad and my brothers, we always rooted for the Celtics and they made sure that we were a Celtic family. The Celtics were the first team to integrate. They had Bill Russell and all the black players playing in Boston. At a time when the rest of the country was segregated, the Celtics were the first team to really take hold of integration. So going to the Garden and playing in Boston, I had major respect and I also understood their history and what they were about. And now you’re going up against the Goliath.

Just walking out on the floor in the Boston Garden and seeing the leprechaun in the middle of the floor, and all the horror stories that you had heard about – the floor not being solid in one place; they make the showers cold. All those things you had read about, now you were experiencing, and they were all true. (laughs) Staying at the Mariott, they’d pull the fire alarm at 3:00 in the morning, and make everybody wake up. You’d have to walk outside. There were seven shower heads and only one of them worked, and it had cold water. (laughs) So you would start the game and it would be freezing cold in your locker room, and you would come in at halftime and the temperature was 115 degrees like a sauna.

So overcoming the elements and playing against the great players that they had – Bird, Parish, McHale, Ainge, Johnson – trying to beat them, those were some of the best games ever in terms of competition. And their fans were always hostile, so it was good.

5. Los Angeles

Isiah Thomas in Los Angeles, CA

Source: Flickr user Prayitno

I have two fondest memories. One is the 1983 All Star Game; Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem. I remember all of us standing there trying not to move, because when somebody’s singing the national anthem, you’re not supposed to move. But he was singing it so good, everybody was just rocking. (laughs) And he had the whole arena rocking and moving but it was the national anthem. And you felt kind if disrespectful, but you really couldn’t stop your body from moving! And of course sweeping the Lakers – that was nice. Beating them on their home floor and celebrating in their locker room and celebrating in front of their fans, that was a highlight for me.

I think we should’ve won three in a row. We should’ve been the first team to three-peat in that era. Had I not gotten injured, I’m sure we would’ve won in ’88. Coming back and really leaving no doubt in ’89 when we swept them and they didn’t win one game, celebrated on their floor and drank champagne in their locker room… that was alright. (laughs) I liked that.

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6. New York

Isiah Thomas in New York City, NY

Source: Flickr user Richard James Trosh

I remember going to Madison Square Garden and they had this theme song, and now that I’m listening to myself talk, I guess I was always into the warm-up music because I took warming up very seriously. (laughs) But they had this song, and it started off “We are New York, and we love basketball and we’ll be standin’ tall cuz we’re the New York Knicks. Ain’t no team like the New York team. Ain’t no fans like the New York fans…” and then they had this saxophone part… and I’d be in the layup line in my own world just listening to the song and couldn’t believe I was in Madison Square Garden playing!

My fondest memory playing against the Knicks at that time was always anticipating listening to that song, and then the game would start and Bernard King and I would have our battles, and those battles were legendary.

7. Oakland

Isiah Thomas in Oaklandm, CA

Source: Flickr user The Digital Story

They used to always have the old school music. They would have the Dells on. They were playing the old Motown stuff. There was a lot of ’70s music that they warmed-up to, and it just reminded me of when I was growing up, so when they played a song when I was warming-up it reminded me of the songs my mother used to play or that my sister used to sing around the house, or that my brothers used to dance to. So, there was always a nice vibe in the arena. I don’t know if they still play the old ’70s music, but that’s what they warmed-up to and I loved it.

Playing against Tim Hardaway was the closest thing to competing against myself in terms of my dribble moves, and he was killing me with my moves, and I was saying to myself, “Man, I can’t believe I’m falling for this!” (laughs) I was a little older at that time, and in Chicago, Detroit and Indiana, you don’t give anyone any breaks, so it’s like, “If you’re young enough to be out here, my job is to kill you.” And Tim made me feel like when Muhammad Ali was fighting Larry Holmes. Larry Holmes had to fight Muhammad Ali, and he was so conflicted about it. He was like, “This man raised me; he trained me, and now I have to fight him and beat him.” And I felt like Tim was looking at me like, “I don’t want to do this to you, but I have to give you this one.” (laughs)

His [“killer crossover”] move was the exact same move as mine, and he would tell you he got it from me. That was our move in Chicago. That’s what we did. That’s why I said, he was killing me with my move. As the games started to progress, and more people started to watch NBA games, a lot of the dribble moves I was doing back in the ’80s, some of the younger announcers hadn’t seen it and they coined the phrase and gave it to him. But he was always nice and acknowledged that it was a move we both used and that basically he got it from me.

8. Dallas

Isiah Thomas in Dallas, TX

Source: Flickr user Yelp.com

In Dallas, my favorite moment was the 1986 All Star Game. I won MVP of the game, and Spud Webb won the dunk contest. Magic, Mark [Aguirre] and I, we all married our college sweethearts, and the night before, instead of going to the party, we all went to the movies, and we all went to see Revenge of the Nerds. (laughs) And I’ll never forget thinking, “I’m sure everyone thinks we’re out partying and tearing up the town, and we were at the theater eating popcorn with our girls and getting ready for the game tomorrow.”

9. Salt Lake City

Isiah Thomas in Salt Lake City, UT

Source: Flickr user Jazz Spain

One of the fondest memories I have would just be playing against Stockton. Just the competitive rivalry we had all the way from high school. He and I were always very friendly; always very respectable with one another. I just always enjoyed competing against him and taking the challenge, and the Utah crowd was always into the game.

They may say I ate him up in high school, but over the course of our careers, I’m sure we both ate each other up. There were nights I’m sure he got the best of me, and there were nights I got the best of him. When we played against each other, we both played at a very, very high level.

10. Philadelphia

Isiah Thomas in Philadelphia, PA

Source: Flickr user YayAdrian

In Philadelphia, I loved the announcer and the way he used to announce the game. The way Julius Erving used to be introduced. The way the Sixers took the floor, when they had Dr. J, Mo Cheeks, Andrew Toney… they were a great team. I remember how the announcer used to say “wearing number ten… from West Texas State… Mo Cheeks!” (laughs) And then he would say, “Wearing number six… Julius Errrrrrving!” and the crowd would go crazy, so it was always fun to be a part of that. I remember that the most from playing in The Spectrum. And of course I enjoyed watching Dr. J dunk.

Would he hang out with Michael Jordan today?

Absolutely, I would. Jordan did one of the best things ever for me. When I was coaching the Indiana Pacers, I was his coach for his last All Star Game, and my son was a huge Michael Jordan fan. He had Michael Jordan posters. Think about that! (laughs) He had Michael Jordan posters in his bedroom hanging over his bed. He’s Jordan crazy. He wanted a pair of Jordans. I’m breaking down in every way; I got him the posters and I got him the shoes. So we go to the All Star Game, and my son says, “Dad, I want to meet Michael Jordan, and can you ask him if I can have a pair of his shoes?” And I’m like, “Oh, shit… this is going to be really hard!” (laughs) Because that’s my son! So I’m praying that I don’t have to fight this dude, because if he says “no” to my son, then we’re going to be rolling around on the floor.

He was so nice and gracious and generous to my son that I’ll never forget that moment. He grabbed Joshua, hugged him, and took a picture with him. Then, he, Jordan and I took a picture together. He spent time talking to my son, signed his autograph, and gave him his shoes. And at the end, I looked at him and said, “Man, you just made a dad really happy. Thank you, thank you, thank you!” (laughs) So, whatever the media writes, I know that when I see him, I know how he has always been to me and with me, and that’s all I can really go by. And that’s all I can really go by, and that’s what I do go by.

Did he consciously try to make Jordan look good in All Star Games?

I absolutely tried to make him look good. The All Star Game is about entertainment. I thought I had great chemistry with Bird and with Jordan. We just seemed to always be able to find each other out on the floor. At that time, everyone wanted to see Jordan dunk and they wanted to see him do spectacular things. Part of the whole NBA show and trying to get our fans attracted to the game was basically Magic and I trying to entertain the crowd, and we did it to the best of our ability in terms of getting other players involved and making sure that everybody had a good time.

So if you go back and look at some of those games, I think the assist totals that Magic and I were racking up during those games, we were setting a record every time we played in an All Star Game. We were constantly trying to break the assist record or [team] scoring record or just trying to entertain. I thought we did a good job of doing that. And I did look for Jordan, particularly when we were in Chicago. Just like when we were in Indianapolis, Bird was from Indiana State and I was from Indiana. You try to play to the home crowd in terms of who that crowd wants. It’s like how in Seattle, Tom Chambers was the MVP.

I remember when Jordan came off a baseline screen, and he couldn’t get the shot, and when he cut to the basket – I couldn’t throw Michael the lob, so I threw a bounce pass right between [teammate] Ewing’s legs and he dunked it. To be honest, at the time, I don’t even think Patrick realized the ball went through his legs. (laughs)

Why did he dunk so rarely?

I used to dunk all the time, and then I saw Dominique Wilkins dunk and Jordan dunk and I was like, “My little dunks ain’t nothing!” (laughs) Because they were jumping up and shaking and turning and doing crazy stuff in the air, and I was like, “Well, let me just lay the ball up because no one is going to scream at this little dunk.” Because the way they were dunking, it was amazing what they were doing in the air with the ball! I really would’ve felt embarrassed doing just a regular little simple dunk. I wanted to dunk like them! (laughs) The way those guys were dunking, no one was going to clap for the little dunks [Joe Dumars and I] do.

Was the Silverdome as uncomfortable for visiting players as Larry Bird claims?

The Silverdome in the snow

Source: Flickr user Dave Hogg

We learned every trick in the book from the Boston Celtics. We tried to mirror them from the way they took the court to the way they played. We tried to do everything they did. They were adversaries, but they were also our mentors. And we wanted to make their Silverdome experience extremely uncomfortable, and we did. (laughs)

Why was he so happy Chicago beat Cleveland in 1989?

That’s why we made the trade of [Adrian] Dantley for Aguirre. When we made the trade, we were five games behind Cleveland in the Central at the time. They were better than us and better than Chicago. So when we made the trade, I think we went 37 and 6 the rest of the way, and we didn’t lose at home. But when Chicago upset Cleveland, we were happy too, because we definitely wanted to play Chicago more than Cleveland. If people go back and look, they were the best team. We ended up winning the Central Division in the last week because we had to come from five games back to catch them. We had tough matchups with them. I had a tough time with Mark Price. Dumars had a tough time with Ron Harper. And then they were 7-feet tall all across the backline with Larry Nance, John Williams and Brad Daugherty. It’s a good thing they traded Kevin Johnson, right? (laughs)

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posted on: February 7, 2014
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