“Forget the career. Forget the Hall of Fame. Forget all of that,” Isiah Thomas tells me from a hotel conference room overlooking the rain-soaked Maple Leaf Square on Sunday. “I’m still a basketball junkie. If it’s hoops then shoot me up!”
I spoke with the Detroit Pistons legend and original part-owner/executive vice-president of the Toronto Raptors on a wide-range of basketball and NBA-related topics.
Click here for part one of the interview, in which Thomas talks about fellow Indiana Hoosier OG Anunoby, the icons of his era, why originality will help the next generation of young stars push the NBA to new heights, the hazards of advanced analytics, and how as an executive, “dumb players will get you beat” on draft night.
In part two, Thomas looks back on one of the most iconic games in Raptors history, explains why he has “much respect” for what Michael Jordan did in Toronto, and why he’s in awe of the level of women’s basketball in Canada.
Dave Zarum: Let’s go down memory lane. March 24, 1996 at the SkyDome. The Chicago Bulls come to town with a 60-8 record. The Raptors are 17-49. Final score: Raptors 109-Bulls 108.
Isiah Thomas: We actually beat them twice that year.
DZ: Which is stunning— they were in the midst of a record-breaking season.
IT: It wasn’t stunning to us [laughs].
DZ: So let’s focus on the game in Toronto, where Michael Jordan hit a would-be game-winner that was waved off because it left his hand milliseconds after the buzzer sounded.
(Editor’s note: to read more about that game click here)
IT: That was one of the most incredible shots that I have ever seen— and I played against him a lot.
[Closes his eyes] So I’m standing in the tunnel, he catches it on the right box and goes through his thing. He turns around and he banks it, and it almost hits the silver part of the top of the backboard. There’s such spin on the ball that it hits the backboard and drops straight down into the net.
Now, if I’m the official, just knowing the moment of the game, I’m saying “Forget the buzzer, that’s good!” It was just an unreal shot.
For us, the Raptors, it was all about Damon [Stoudamire]. I knew from myself when we played Chicago that they always had a difficult time with small, scoring point guards. Damon, like myself, was a hard cover for the Bulls. They didn’t have anybody that could match his speed. Plus, he was a shot-maker. Plus, he was a daredevil.
We had the courage to compete. We had length, we had size. The best thing about us back then was that we were naive. We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to win. For the crowd at the SkyDome, that was one of those magical nights that will go down in Raptors history.
But we understood the hierarchy of the league. And we knew that even though we had won the game, and it was celebratory for all of us here in Toronto— it was a landmark moment— but it wasn’t a braggadocios moment.
DZ: You and Jordan have a history going back to your playing days, and the controversy surrounding the Dream Team and everything. Was there a part of you before that game saying “Man, I really want to get this one”?
IT: For me there was just sheer admiration of Michael Jordan coming to Toronto, the city wanting to see him play, and he actually put on a uniform and didn’t make it a rest day. What he did just by showing up, walking out there, competing against the Raptors … All of our fans got to see him in all of his glory in terms of who he was and what he represented. It was awesome.
Again, for me it was a feeling of great admiration watching him play out there and seeing our fans, the kids in the stands, just go gaga over him. I mean, he could have easily said “You know what, my ankle is hurting, I’m not playing tonight.” But he didn’t. Much respect for Michael Jordan.
DZ: Before we wrap, let’s shift the focus and come back to the present for a moment. There’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately and I’m curious to hear your thoughts given the role you played in helping to establish the Raptors here in Toronto: Why is there no WNBA team in Toronto?
IT: 100 per cent. Bring a WNBA team to Toronto. Look, the level of women’s basketball in this country, and the athleticism they bring to the game….I’m looking at all the young girls now, the way they handle the basketball. If Toronto got a WNBA team to complement the Raptors, wow.
DZ: Why hasn’t it happened yet?
IT: I don’t know, but I want to be part owner of that team!
Have you seen the girls coming out of this country? They’re hooping, man. They’re hooping! The two-ball dribbles, crossing people up, shooting the three. And they’ve got mad attitude, man. Dude, I’m like daaaamn [laughs].
I’m a big supporter of women’s sports. I brought men’s basketball to Toronto, now I want to bring women’s basketball to Toronto.