Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

This post is about Isiah Thomas: once an icon, now fallen. It is also about me and my evolution as a basketball fan. It is equally about the utility of technology in facilitating nostalgia. Finally, it is about the centrality of heroes to the resilience of communities.

1989 was a grand time to be a young boy in suburban Detroit. Driven by bustling sales of the four-year-old Ford Taurus and the six-year-old Dodge Caravan, the automakers boomed, the local economy bustled, and all my friendsparents had cool cars; with a looming recession in Japan, talk of a new era of foreign automotive dominance seemed silly. Mayor Coleman Young was re-elected in Detroit; the papers bragged of a renewed attention to city-suburban relations. The weather was gorgeous that year and the Tigers (though, admittedly, they played like crap) still fielded several of the stars from their 1984 championship team: Jack Morris, Willie Hernandez, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Chet Lemon.

In pop culture, “The Little Mermaid” was a hit and our third-grade choir teacher had us singing “Under the Sea” all the time. Steve Urkel made his first appearance on network television. Hulk Hogan fought Randy Savage at WrestleMania V (“The Megapowers Explode”) in Atlantic City, and with an atomic legdrop, the Hulk was back on top of the wrestling world after a year-long interregnum (caused primarily by his time away to film the odious “No Holds Barred” in ’88). The carefully plotted Hogan-Savage divorce storyline was far better than anything the NBA ever came up with in relation to Kobe and Shaq. Sure, Kobes telling the Colorado police about Shaqs dealings with his mistresses was just as juicy as Hogan stealing away Miss Elizabeth. However, after 2004, Kobe was never on a contending team at the same time Shaq was, and vice-versa; their manufactured Christmas day battles held little meaning and never felt like a “main event”. Sometimes fake sports are more interesting.

Something was in the water that turned ordinary basketball players into gladiators that spring. The head men’s basketball coach at the University of Michigan resigned just prior to the NCAA tournament to take a job elsewhere, and a rookie coach with no expectations was appointed to guide them. Shockingly, Michigan ended up winning the national championship, beating a field that included Duke with Laettner and Ferry, Georgetown with Mourning, UNLV with Larry Johnson, Syracuse with Derrick Coleman, Illinois with Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill, Arizona with Sean Elliott.

The Wolverines were only a third seed, but in retrospect, Michigan had a hell of a team with six future NBAers (Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, Sean Higgins, Mark Hughes, Glen Rice and Rumeal Robinson); their championship opponent Seton Hall (Seton Hall?) had just Andrew Gaze. Perhaps Coach Fisher got lucky to step into such an embarrassing wealth of talent (and, on the strength of this success, he lucked out again two years later when he convinced the Fab Five to sign up). Hello, Malcolm Gladwell.

But most dazzlingly for young 9-year-old boys like me in Detroit (and certainly plenty of young girls as well), the Detroit Pistons reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the third consecutive year, and, by knocking both Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson out of the playoffs, delivered the city's first NBA title. The team was led by star point guard Isiah Thomas, who had patiently been steering the team towards greatness for eight years. As I outlined in an earlier post in my Vinnie Johnson spotlight, building the Pistons entailed a slow and careful workstream. It was certainly worth it when the clock ticked down on Detroit's sweep of the Lakers and the town Of Three rejoiced. Looking back, that may have been the citys apogee.

Like many kids in town, I looked up to Isiah Thomas as a hero. I never met him, but I felt that I knew him: his face was everywhere across the city. People even said repeatedly that my mom resembled his wife. Here are two photos taken in the current decade, about 15 years after the Bad Boys reigned. What do you think?

When our local electric utility decided to put its name on some television public service announcements, there was no other man or woman in town whose words were combed and whose oracular view was revered more than Isiah. The choice of the Pistons leader to front the Say No To Drugs campaign was indisputable. Not even Rosa Parks, who made her home in Detroit after she achieved fame in Alabama, had his spiritual oomph.

(Note, all the YouTube videos in this post originate in the personal VHS collection of Jordan Pushed Off. We recently uploaded all of these online. To our knowledge, these December 2008 uploads are the first time that any of these videos have seen light on the internet. We hope we are not violating any copyright.)

Amazingly, you would think that Isiah would plug the local auto industry as a champion of the Detroit machine, no? Yet Isiah actually decided to shill for Toyota. This ad is cute, but only Isiah and his baby-faced smile could get away with endorsing the competition:

In 1990, basking in his second consecutive title (a feat that Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings never could muster once, at least not until they loaded the team up with Russians), Isiah was invited to produce a Christmas special for one of the local TV stations. He and his writing team came up with "Never Lose Your Hope", a kind of "A Christmas Carol" for urban youth. Re-watching it now, it really was cute, and Isiahs charm is undeniable.

Putting myself in the position of my 10-year-old self 18 Decembers ago, it is not hard to imagine that the image of Isiah-as-guardian-angel could seem quite non-preposterous. He certainly saved the city from its decade-long funk as the Japanese seemed to ascend to greater industrial heights.

I like the conceit, shown below, that under Isiahs patronage, the young boy can fly several feet in the air. (though the suspension of disbelief is ruined by the cameras failure to hide the adult holding up the kid!) I think something similar was advanced in the 2002 film "Like Mike", only with a more palatable angel.

Finally, it is hard not to feel kind of toasty at the sight of Isiah and his crew singing along to an originally jazzy Christmas song cooked up by the Winans:

I also remember to this day that the local classic rock radio station (WCSX 94.7 FM) played a jingle to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down On The Corner”:

Early in the morning
Just about playoff time
Isiah and the Pistons
Are starting to unwind

Down at the Palace
Dancin’ in the seats
Isiah and the Bad Boys are playin’
And the Pistons can’t be beat!

Of course, unless youre the Spurs, who have enjoyed twenty years of excellence, every great team eventually hits the top of its arc and returns to mediocrity. The beginning of the end for Detroit came when the Bulls, newly fierce with Phil Jackson's triangle offense fully roaring, swept the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. For reasons I never quite understood, Isiah led the team's stars to walk off the court and into the locker room with 10 seconds left in the final game, not bothering to shake the hands of Jordan and Pippen. Surprisingly, the local papers had Isiah's back the next day, for what was, I'm sorry, a total dick move. I was only in fifth grade so I did little more than appreciate their hagiography. I made a habit of reading the Detroit News religiously (my dad found the Free Press too liberal, so our subscription was to the News). Here is what writer Drew Sharp of the Freep had to say on May 28, 1991, the day after the Bulls' triumph. If the liberal Free Press supported Isiah, imagine what the jingoistic News would say. Recall that the Detroit News employed the late White House press secretary and Fox News personality Tony Snow for many years as editorial page editor. (I couldn't find the Bulls-Pistons story in their archives.)

As the Bulls joyously cherished their new seat on the throne, the Pistons refused to acquiesce. Why should they show respect to a team that showed them none in the last week?
When in the closing minutes the Palace crowd erupted with a chant of "Go LA! Go LA!" -- the Bulls' likely opponent in the NBA Finals -- Isiah Thomas thrust his fists in the air to share the sentiment.
The Pistons didn't stick around to watch the Bulls' on- court celebration. The entire bench filed to the dressing room with 7.9 seconds left on the clock. John Salley was the only Piston to congratulate the Bulls following the game. The rest of the Pistons wanted no part of the gaiety.

And with that, the Pistons as we knew them were done. (Frightfully, the next few years included Olden Polynice and Orlando Woolridge as alleged low-post threats.) Isiah retired in 94, after an odd final season including a brawl between him and Laimbeer that broke Thomas's hand, and rumors of Isiah signing a "Piston for life" post-playing contract that never quite came to fruition. Soon after, Isiah signed on to run the not-yet-existent Toronto Raptors, and he was gone.

I will not recapitulate Isiah's sorry post-playing career and all the scandals he created; that job has been done elsewhere. It is sad, though, that a man who once ruled the city has brought himself so low. What happened to that cute man who gave Lester a magical sweater and restored his hope? He was real to me. Detroit, too, was once a town full of promise. Sure, we had crime and fear, but the 90s were a new age, and we all thought the tag team of Governor Engler and Mayor Archer could bring Detroit back. But then the Germans bought Chrysler and treated the company as an ugly stepchild before flipping it to a private equity fund. Today, thanks to President Bush and Hank Paulson, GM and Chrysler will live a few more months, but they may not last much longer. The public schools have lost tens of thousands of students in recent years. Derrick Coleman and Chris Webber are continuing to try making a difference in Detroit, but where is Isiah? Allegedly he has a foundation that promotes literacy, but according to this site, the foundation had zero assets as of December 2006. It is sad that a man whom I thought legendary turned out to be just a dumb jock. But thanks to those charming videos, I can always return to a moment when I was yet innocent and our city still had a champion, in every sense of the word.

I want to say one more thing about Isiahs management strategy as head of the Knicks. In a way, during his 4.5-year tenure as Knicks president and coach, Thomas ran a Ponzi scheme not dissimilar to the Bernie Madoff scenario. Madoff, it is alleged, paid returns to yesterday’s investors using new principal invested by today’s investors, rather than earning an honest return in the market. From the outside, investors were happy with their results, and the scheme works as long as new money keeps flowing in. However, the crisis of 2008 resulted in a lot of big-money investors freaking out on general principles and trying to pull out their money, presumably to put it in safer vehicles. This capital outflow resulted in the collapse of Madoff’s scheme, because, of course, the old money was gone. (As a side note, doesn’t this quite resemble the U.S. Social Security system?)

Thomass approach to roster management and fan satisfaction was not unlike Madoff’s investment “strategy”. Let’s acquire Stephon Marbury. Wait, he’s a non-performing asset? A prudent investor would get out of that vehicle, but Isiah says, we’ve gotta make this work! Our stakeholders who have put financial or emotional investment into this asset -- i.e., James Dolan and our fans and sponsors -- want some return on Starbury. Lets use the promise of Marburys potential to sell our fans on Tim Thomas as a star. We just acquired Nazr Mohammed as our new center? Hmmm, forget about him, now we need Vin Baker. Our first three glamour guards (Allan Houston, Penny Hardaway, Marbury) aren’t making an impact? That’s okay, let’s acquire Jamal Crawford. Baker is a drunk? Well, instead of letting his contract expire and getting cap relief, let’s trade him for Maurice Taylor, who sucks. Mohammed is not a superstar? That’s okay – instead of letting his contract expire in ’06, let’s trade him for Malik Rose, who has a contract that lasts until ’09 … and who sucks. Tim Thomas (lazy) and Michael Sweetney don’t seem to be working out? Let’s trade them for Eddy Curry, who’s even lazier and fatter! Antonio Davis isn't packing much punch in the middle? Fine, instead of letting that contract run its course, let's acquire Jalen Rose, who's owed much more. Penny Hardaway is washed up? Let's dump him (and one of our lone performing assets, Trevor Ariza) for Steve Francis, who at least used to be a regular All-Star Game starter. Wait, Francis cant play anymore? Let’s trade Francis (and another good asset, Channing Frye) for Zach Randolph.

Interestingly, the "returns" Thomas delivered to his stakeholders year after year were not wins on the hardwood, but rather the shiny potential of future wins from a roster that might finally aggrandize with the very next tweak. He kept feeding possibility to Dolan and the fans, and they kept coming back for more, as evidenced by Thomas's tenure, Dolan's willingness to pay the big salaries, and the uninterrupted corporate sponsorships and sellout crowds at MSG. When you're in a city founded on aspiration, perhaps possibility is enough. I know that sure wouldn't work in Detroit.

That is all I can say about Mr. Thomas. Maybe I dont know him well enough; maybe I have been too fanciful in trying to interpret him as a "text" rather than just taking him as the incarnate man he is. I've always felt a little connected to Isiah, and I have to say that he's let me down.

Here is what the Associated Press had to say about Detroit yesterday:

Detroit's downtown abounds with symbols of past dreams — the still-gleaming round towers of the Renaissance Center of the '70s, Super Bowl XL venue Ford Field, the three hotel-casino resorts with their gaudy exterior lights and cavernous gaming rooms.

Yet less than two miles from downtown stands the decaying, 18-story Michigan Central railroad station, built in 1913 and unoccupied for 20 years while developers shied way from the cost of restoring its Beaux-Arts grandeur. Along Grand River Avenue, a six-lane thoroughfare leading from downtown to the northwest, liquor stores and check-cashing outlets alternate with scores of abandoned commercial buildings, some boarded up, others just gutted shells.

To the west, in the modest residential neighborhood of Brightmoor, there were five burnt-out houses on a single short block. The facade of one was daubed in red and blue graffiti — some obscene, some gang-related; the charred rubble inside included a battered toy truck.

The scene brought to mind the city's motto, crafted by a Roman Catholic priest after a devastating fire in 1805: "We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes".

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