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Commentary: Thomas gets blindsided

By RON COLBERT, UPI Sports Managing Editor   |   Sept. 1, 2003 at 6:53 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (UPI) -- I have never been a fan of Isiah Thomas (it's personal), but his firing as head coach of the NBA's Indiana Pacers is beneath disgusting.

For the life of me, I wish I could avoid calling the race card in this instance, but too many factors point to it.

For those who are unaware, Thomas was fired last Wednesday. He had been called in for a meeting with team president of basketball operations Larry Bird and president Donnie Walsh while in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he was watching an Olympic qualifying tournament.

Bird and Walsh dropped the bomb to a stunned group of reporters shortly after the deed was done.

At the news conference, nobody really said anything incendiary, nor did Thomas when asked for a comment about his blindsiding. And that's the point.

The ouster of Thomas by Bird was a forgone conclusion. It was no secret that they didn't, and don't, like each other. Bird, one of the best shooters in the universe when he was a player, was a catalyst behind Thomas not being named to the original Dream Team Olympic basketball team in 1992. Thomas had said that if Bird were a black player, he would not get as much attention.

I'm not sure if I ever agreed with that, and the fact that Bird and the great Magic Johnson were close did not make it any easier. Also, Thomas had such a bad attitude, which the equally detestable Bob Knight, his coach in college, didn't try to eliminate or curb.

I don't know about other scribes, but the Isiah Thomas I knew wasn't too cooperative (I would have used some other word like "endearing," but that would have been too non-objective).

Bird said at the news conference that, based on how the team finished last season (48-34 after winning 35 of its first 49 games, then losing to Boston in the first round of the playoffs) and the fact that, to him, the Pacers were "not playing as a team" at season's end, were factors in the decision. He knew that, he said, based on watching all of TWO games.

That alone makes the contention that he did not know how long Thomas' tenure would last is ludicrous. What's even more preposterous is that, allegedly, it took him SEVEN weeks to make up his mind after watching a handful of game tapes and some "soul searching."

I mean really. How stupid do we look?

Based on history, Thomas never had a chance. In his three seasons as coach, the Pacers never finished first in the weak NBA East, lost in the first round of the playoffs all three years, and never really had any appreciable fan support, certainly nowhere near what Bird has had, based on his days as a player at Indiana State and coach of the Pacers.

If this decision wasn't an afterthought the day Bird was hired, then both Bird AND Walsh are as dumb as they're trying to make the public look. They already have a successor in mind, Rick Carlisle, who was the object of a power play himself earlier this summer when he was fired by Detroit and replaced in less than 24 hours by Larry Brown, who had a job as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

However, their biggest nightmare may lie ahead. Star forward Jermaine O'Neal, who is black and one of the NBA's rising superstars, already has said, "If I had known that Isiah Thomas was going to be history, I would not have re-signed with the Indiana Pacers."

The Pacers spent a lot of time and energy trying to re-sign O'Neal (seven years, $126 million) this summer when everyone knew that he was headed to San Antonio. Now, with O'Neal re-signed, Thomas fired, and the days of noted malcontent Ron Artest clearly numbered, how can the Pacers change the anti-black perception their personnel moves suggest?

I can't wait for the answer (spin) to that one!

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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