Isiah Thomas is a basketball legend. A member of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team, Thomas was a 12-time NBA All-Star, an NBA champion with the Pistons, and is widely regarded as one of the best point guards of all time. But Isiah Thomas' recruitment to Indiana could have ended in disaster.
Before Thomas even stepped foot on a college court, the 6-foot-1 point guard was a highly sought after talent. College coaches from across the country flocked to Chicago to wine and dine Thomas and his family, hoping "Zeke" would play for their school.
In Thomas's own words, his family was "poorer than poor." Many coaches and programs offered the Thomas family a number of promises - cash, cars, homes - in exchange for his basketball talent. Thomas even recalls one coach showing up with an alleged $50,000 in cash in a briefcase, in a scene that could be in Goodfellas. The world of college recruiting has been dirty for decades.
Knight's Recruiting Style: Brutal Honesty
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Thomas goes on to recall Bobby Knight's visit to his family's home. According to Thomas, Knight promised three things: A. a good education, B. that he would teach the young guard everything he knew about basketball, C. that he would be a gentleman. Compared to cash, cars, glitz, and glamour, this was an underwhelming proffer to Thomas and his siblings.
But something in Knight's spartan presentation piqued Isiah's mother's interest. Thinking about her son's potential life in Indiana, she asked the Hoosier coach about the Ku Klux Klan presence in nearby Martinsville, Indiana, wondering who would protect Isiah if he had any issues with racist pointy head types.
You may expect any reasonable coach to offer a standard list of platitudes about the safe environment of their college's campus, and the culture the team breeds to keep its players safe. Or perhaps even a little information about campus security, or the athletic department's policy on safety.
Not Bobby Knight. His response to questions about who will protect a young black man from the Ku Klux Klan? "Well, if we're winning, Mrs. Thomas, the Klan will protect him."
Well this may have been a joke, Isiah's brother did not take it as one. Perhaps taking issue with the lack of thoughtfulness in Knight's answer, he challenged the coach to a fight, saying they could take things outside.
Did Knight back off or apologize for perhaps going too far? Offer a mea culpa and assure the Thomas family he had Isiah's best interests in mind?
No. According to Thomas, Knight got up, took his jacket off, rolled up his sleeves, and said, "Yeah, we can go outside if you want."
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Thomas's mother's reaction to this? According to Isiah it became clear by the look on her face that she liked the legendary coach. Isiah Thomas' recruitment to Bloomington was over.
Mom's approval may have been the decision-making factor for Isiah. He went on to enroll at Bloomington and had two of the best seasons in Indiana basketball history, leading the Hoosiers to a National Championship in 1981.
It's unclear if Bobby Knight tried to fight other family members while out on the recruiting trail, but there was something about the way he presented his true and authentic self that drew a tremendous amount of talent to Bloomington for decades.
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