Isiah Thomas: Education, health, safety may not get you to NBA


isiah-thomas-fistFormer NBA player, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas is looking forward to the upcoming Peace League Basketball Tournament. Thomas, a Chicago native, has remained involved the NBA, and has been trying, along with other former and current NBA players, to help turn some lives around.

According to Chicago Bulls writer Sam Smith, Thomas, along with Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and former Bulls guar Jannero Pargo will take part in the upcoming Peace League Basketball Tournament.

The tournament was created in conjunction with Father Michael Pfleger of Saint Sabina Church, near West 78th Street and South Racine Avenue in the Auburn Gresham area. The third annual community basketball game will be 1 p.m. Saturday at the Ark of Saint Sabina, 7800 South Racine.

“You never know who you’re touching, who that little kid is going to grow up to be,” Thomas said. “When I was growing up on the West Side of Chicago, I didn’t think nor did anyone around me think that I would end up leading the life I’ve led thus far. But people help you along the way. What we are trying to do is put some proper resources in play to make sure these kids get some help.”

This is the third annual tournament, which was the combined proposal by Thomas and Father Pfleger after Thomas participated in Father Pfleger’s regular peace walk three years ago. He proposed to youngsters they met along the way a basketball event that’s developed into a program to help kids with life skills and classes for equivalency diplomas, employment training and internships.

“If you have access to quality education, if you have access to the park districts and recreation, and you have access to a healthy, safe environment you can grow in, you may not be able to be an NBA player,” Thomas said. “But you definitely can grow up without being in the situation you find yourself in. But you need help.”

The Peace League Basketball Tournament really is one of the great initiatives to help kids in the troubled South Side of Chicago, where the cycles of violence have proven deadly and deadened the hopes of so many young children.

As Smith writes, the gang violence and gun culture that has made many areas of Chicago virtual war zones remains the city’s biggest embarrassment and a daily nightmare for residents of these neighborhoods.

Smith says Thomas has remained active in Chicago issues and helps support the Peace League through his foundation. Thomas also is involved the Mayor Emanuel’s Windy City Hoops program.

“People like Thomas do more than give money, which is important. He has sneakers on the ground with a panel discussion session Thursday, Mary Thomas scholarship award winners Friday and the tournament Saturday,” Smith said.

The tournament grew out of Thomas’ continued commitment to help provide alternatives for Chicago youth, the sort of mentoring through sports he had growing up in an equally treacherous West Side neighborhood.

isiah-thomas-gameplayThomas often talks about meeting through sports mentors like Sonny Parker, Jabari’s father, and veteran NBA referee Danny Crawford, among those who counseled Thomas and helped him begin a climb out of the cave of despair that darkens the hopes of so many South Side and West Side youth.

“Through play, through sport, I got to meet different people, I got to travel outside the four block radius or the three block radius I was confined to in my neighborhood,” Thomas said in an interview earlier this week.

“By meeting other people, by experiencing different cultures and seeing other people who have had success you start expanding your dreams; you start expanding the vision of who you can become and what you want to be. Those things constantly change. The things you only saw in that three-block radius, once you start seeing things outside that radius, you start thinking, ‘I’m not limited to this. I can go to college. If I go to college because I’ve gotten a chance to travel on a sports team and go to another city maybe I want to go back to that city,” Thomas said.

Former Pistons leader said the best example to use is the experience the Jackie Robinson West kids had when they left Chicago and went to play baseball in Pennsylvania.

“They got to meet kids from all over the world, different cultures, different languages, and those kids lives have been changed forever because of that experience,” said Thomas. “Like Joakim Noah walks into a gym and meets one of those kids, those kids lives will be changed forever just by Joakim Noah shaking their hand and being there on that one day. They’ll remember that day for the rest of their lives.”

“Not only do you look at it that way when you are young, but you keep learning the rest of your life,” said Thomas. “Not only do you learn how to compete on the playing field, you start learning how to compete in the classroom. You start learning how to compete for jobs, you start learning how to compete in life, you start learning that when I do go to a job interview there is competition. I may have to dress a certain way, I may have to speak a certain way, I may have to sell myself a certain way. You start learning all those different skills that sport and everything else brings to the table. A lot of our kids have done that.”

“Close to 50 kids come in and we break them up into teams and they’ll compete against one another for the day,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, we take them downstairs and talk to them about the importance of being good people, helping get jobs, helping them connect with corporate citizens who have volunteered to employ some of these kids, and trying to get them acclimated back onto the school system.”

“We have challenges in our community, socially, economically,” said Thomas. “Even if you are a smaller player like myself athletically, it doesn’t mean you cannot overcome the obstacles with the right help. We’re trying to be there for some of that.”

Thomas, a Hall of Famer, has accomplished a lot in the NBA, becoming a 12-time NBA All-Star, and leading the Detroit Pistons team to 2 NBA championships in 1989 and 1990.

He played in 979 NBA games (971 started) – all for the Detroit Pistons, averaging double figures in scoring in all of his seasons in the NBA. He averaged double figures (scoring and assists) in 4 straight seasons.

Thomas averaged career high 22.9 ppg for the Pistons in 1982-1983. He also led the NBA with an average of 13.9 assists per game (also career high) in 1984-85.

From 1994, when he retired as a player, through 2008, Thomas stayed attached to the NBA as either a team executive, a coach or a television commentator, with a two-year break to run the Continental Basketball Association from 1998 to 2000.


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