Sunday Sitdown: NBA legend Isiah Thomas plays Santa on native West Side

SHARE Sunday Sitdown: NBA legend Isiah Thomas plays Santa on native West Side
SHARE Sunday Sitdown: NBA legend Isiah Thomas plays Santa on native West Side

NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas is known by many monikers: the legend who turned the last-place Detroit Pistons into back-to-back NBA champions; 12-time NBA All-Star; one of the 50 greatest players in National Basketball Association history. Underprivileged kids in the West Side neighborhoods where he grew up, however, know him as none of those. They call him Santa. For the fourth year in a row, the 54-year-old one-time professional and collegiate basketball coach and businessman descended on East Garfield Park in December with toys, coats, clothing, bikes and computer tablets for more than 400 kids at Marillac Social Center.

On behalf of the foundation named for his mother, a tough-but-kind social worker on whom a made-for-television movie was based, Thomas played Santa at Marrilac on Dec. 18, with a repeat the next day for hundreds more kids at JLM Life Center. Before that, he and his foundation, Mary’s Court, served Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica. But his passion isn’t just helping the poor in the neighborhoods he calls home court — though he can never forget growing up in abject poverty, one of nine children of his single mother. He also seeks to address the gang violence that holds them hostage, having helped form The Peace League in 2011 with the Rev. Michael Pfleger, which grew into the nationally spotlighted basketball tournament for gang members at St. Sabina church. He sat down with reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika. A condensed transcript follows.

Q: After 13 years with the Pistons, you retired in 1994 to become part owner and executive with the expansion Toronto Raptors; a television commentator; owner of the Continental Basketball Association; head coach of the Indiana Pacers; executive and head coach with the New York Knicks; men’s basketball coach at Florida International University; and this year, team president of the Knicks’ sister WNBA team, the New York Liberty. But you still consider the Garfield Park and Lawndale neighborhoods your home?

A: I never really left. I grew up right here on Jackson and Homan. My family still lives here. I remember all of my addresses: 415 S. Central Park, 3322 W. Congress, 3340 W. Congress, 135 S. Menard, 1145 Latrobe. Those were the spots. I went to Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Catherine for a year, and Resurrection, which is now Christ the King. Then I went to St. Joseph High School, left in ’79 for Indiana University, played there until ’81, then went to the NBA. And even when I got drafted and played in Detroit, I came home every summer and spent all my time on the West Side here.

Q: You’re credited with a shrewd business sense dating back to your dealings as president of the NBA Players Association in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and your business ventures have been successful, like your diverse holding company, Isiah International LLC, through which you’ve built businesses and invested in minority communities, much like Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Your Isiah Real Estate has also been successfully involved in Chicago and regional real estate projects, and in 1999, you became the first African-American to sit on the Board of Governors of the Chicago Stock Exchange, serving until 2002. But the circumstances under which you grew up stay with you?

A. All the time. I was raised mainly by my mom, nine of us, seven boys, two girls. My dad left home when I was six. But you know, I always have to give the qualifier. My Dad was severely depressed, had just lost his job, and couldn’t support the family, and mom was like — you know, we didn’t know about depression then. They didn’t understand its effects, and there was no treatment for it or anything, so they separated.

We got by the same way a lot of people in poverty do. They find a way. And somehow my Mom found a way. There was a lot of people helping, a lot of support. That would be the youth center, recreation center, grade school. Even though there were a lot of days we didn’t eat, and a couple times, we were homeless. We grew up in affordable housing, and got set out on the street a couple of times. So it was like, by the time all of us turned 20, we all had bad credit, because she had used everybody’s name and credit along the way, you know?

Isiah Thomas and his mother, Mary Thomas (seated), are shown in 1989 with actress Alfre Woodard, who portrayed Mary Thomas in a TV movie. | Sun-Times library

Isiah Thomas and his mother, Mary Thomas (seated), are shown in 1989 with actress Alfre Woodard, who portrayed Mary Thomas in a TV movie. | Sun-Times library

Q: Your mother, Mary Thomas, was a neighborhood icon whose compassion for others and courage in trying to protect her nine children from drugs and gangs inspired the 1990 movie “A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story,” starring Alfre Woodard. A West Side street is named for her, as is the foundation you founded to support economically disadvantaged families in the neighborhoods where you grew up. Was she really the larger-than-life character portrayed in the movie?

A: My mom was a social worker. She worked for the city, at the community center at 10 S. Kedzie. As poor as we were, she understood the problems that poor people were having. So she was able to sit and talk to people. There was a genius of her. She was just very resourceful, always kept a smile on her face, made sure we kept one on our face.

My Mom always did work at Our Lady of Sorrows, and Marrilac House. So we’re just continuing her work. Before I made it to the pros, my family was dependent on getting those Christmas baskets and Thanksgiving baskets. So every year, once I made it to the pros and we got a little money, mom would give out Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets. And everybody that she had been calling on, her clients, we found a way to help ’em go to school and pay some tuition, and just help the neighborhood grow.

My Mom passed away five years ago, and Homan & Jackson is named after her, Mary Thomas Way. This is our family business. That’s the way I look at it. We feed the homeless every other Sunday at Our Lady of Sorrows, right down the street. We’re all servants of the community. That’s how we were raised. This is what we do. This is what I’ve always done.

So when people say you’re giving back, it’s like ‘No. This is me. This is how you live. This is how you feel good.’

Isiah Thomas won an NCAA championship at Indiana University. | GNS photo

Isiah Thomas won an NCAA championship at Indiana University. | GNS photo

Q: Leaving home to play for Bobby Knight at Indiana University, you took the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA Championship, then passed up your final two years to enter the NBA. You became one of the game’s best all-around point guards and set the Pistons’ all-time record for points, assists, steals and games played. What was it like for your struggling family once you attained that success?

A: That was the most incredible feeling for our family because it was like, you know, you had suffered through generations of poverty, and had I not made it to the pros, I honestly don’t know if we would have made it as a family. Literally, we were hanging by a thread. I don’t know what would have happened to us. I really don’t. Everybody made it out, but you know a lot of them had drug problems. A lot of my money early went to cleaning them up. It was rehab after rehab. . . . One of the proudest moments that I think our family has experienced was my older brother, Lord Henry Thomas, who has passed away, was a heroin addict for 30 years. He finally kicked it, went back to college, got his degree, and then died. So, you know, at his funeral, we had his picture of him holding his diploma.

Now, there’s a generation that came behind us that I was able to pay for their education. They were able to go to school. And that cycle of generational poverty still exists in our family. But at least some of them got a chance to get out. My mom eventually moved out, reluctantly, to Clarendon Hills. But every day, you know, we were still here on the West Side.

Q: You’ve received the King Legacy Award from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys & Girls Club in 2012, and the Lifetime Achievement Award for your commitment to improving the lives of children from the group Children Uniting Nations in 2013. You and Pfleger initiated the Peace League in 2011, and the following year, you co-hosted the Ballin’ for Peace Tournament that brought opposing gang members together to play basketball as a way of reducing gang violence. What are your thoughts on the gangs and gun violence that has gripped Chicago in recent years?

A: Let’s start having a real conversation about how we address poverty. Because if you address poverty, if we deal with poverty, everything else will stop. In poverty, you can educate. In poverty, you can be healthy. In poverty, you can be safe. But once you put drugs and weapons on top of poverty, we don’t have a chance.

There’s always hope. The question that should be asked is how are our youth surviving, and thriving, and getting out, despite what’s happening. How are they remaining positive? How are they smiling? How are they going to school? How are they finding a way to get to college? How are they becoming employed, coming from the kind of poverty that exists in these neighborhoods? That’s what should be studied.

Isiah Thomas is shown in 1979 with his mother, Mary Thomas. | Sun-Times library

Isiah Thomas is shown in 1979 with his mother, Mary Thomas. | Sun-Times library

Former NBA player Isiah Thomas grew up on Chicago’s West Side, and plays Santa to neighborhood children every year. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Former NBA player Isiah Thomas grew up on Chicago’s West Side, and plays Santa to neighborhood children every year. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

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