Isiah Thomas was hired by the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, and like the man he replaced, he starts his first NBA head coaching job with no bench experience.
Just as Larry Bird did in 1997, Thomas takes over the Pacers as a Hall of Famer, former Indiana college star and rookie coach.
"We chose Isiah by the qualities that he has a person, and as a player," Pacers president Donnie Walsh said. "I feel he's got the leadership, intelligence and determination to be successful as an NBA coach."
Thomas reportedly signed a four-year, $20 million contract, but he and Walsh declined to discuss terms.
There had been speculation that Thomas had the job since the season ended with Indiana losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. But Walsh and Thomas insisted the decision was not final until early Thursday evening.
"Like Larry Bird, this is not a spur-of-the-moment decision by Isiah to pursue a role like this," Walsh said. "He's been preparing for coaching for a long time and he comes in with a full idea of what he would like to do."
The Pacers were unable to persuade Bird to stay beyond his original three-year commitment, even though they reached the NBA Finals this season for the first time.
Thomas brings instant recognition earned through his 13 years as a player in the NBA, 12 as an All-Star. Four years ago, he was selected as one of the league's 50 greatest players.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge, looking forward to the opportunity and looking forward to the continued success of Indiana basketball. Let's go," Thomas said.
Thomas, 39, was told by NBA officials that he had to sell his ownership of the Phoenix-based CBA, a nine-team developmental league, to accept any NBA coaching job.
Earlier this week, Thomas paid off at least part of the $750,000 he owed CBA team owners reported to be the last obstacle before he could coach the Pacers.
Thomas bought the CBA in October for $10 million, but has worked out an agreement which will allow him to quickly divest himself and begin coaching duties with Indiana immediately.
Thomas has signed a letter of intent to sell the league to the NBA Players Association.
Pacers general manager David Kahn said a procedure had been worked out allowing Thomas to divest himself from the CBA before the team opens training camp in October, even if the deal with the Players Association fell through.
"The combination of Isiah Thomas and his willingness to divest himself from the CBA, and David Kahn's working it out ... has basically allowed this moment to take place," Walsh said.
Kahn declined to be specific about the specifics of the divestment, but said he was satisfied tha there is a procedure in place.
"It's a real surprise to me that they did it this quickly. I'm extraordinarily surprised," said Jay Frye, a former owner of the CBA's Fort Wayne Fury.
"We have no idea what the (divesiture) agreement is," Frye said. "He (Thomas) still owes us a lot of money, so we're interested to find out."
Thomas, Pacers assistant Rick Carlisle and former Pacer Byron Scott, then an assistant at Sacramento, were considered for the coaching job when Bird left. Scott eventually accepted the head coaching job at New Jersey, leaving Thomas or Carlisle to follow the franchise's best three-year run in its 24-year NBA history.
Thomas's link to the state goes back more than 20 years, to when he was recruited out of his hometown of Westchester, Ill., to play for Bob Knight at Indiana.
"I understand how special a place Indiana is with its basketball tradition in terms of its basketball heritage," Thomas said.
Thomas will begin working immediately, heading to Boston where the franchise's summer league team is competing. He also plans to quickly contact players, including the six who became free agents this month: starters Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, Mark Jackson and Rik Smits, along with reserves Austin Croshere and Sam Perkins.
"My job is to continue to develop our young players, to get the most and best out of our veterans and to lead this team and organization to a level that it has not reached," Thomas said.
The 6-foot-1, baby-faced point guard was so good with the Hoosiers he was given or took almost free rein, a rarity in Knight's controlled style of play. After playing on the Knight-coached Pan American Games championship team in 1979, he averaged 14.6 points as a freshman and 16.0 as a sophomore, when he was a first-team All-America and led the Hoosiers to the NCAA title.
Then he decided to pass up his final two years of college eligibility and was the second pick in the first round of the 1981 draft - behind hometown friend Mark Aguirre. He signed with the Detroit Pistons for a reported $1.7 million for four years. He had 31 points and 11 assists in his NBA debut against the Milwaukee Bucks.
He eventually completed work at Indiana for a degree in criminal justice in 1988, and retired as a player after the 1994 season with 18,822 points, 9,061 assists and 1,861 steals - all Pistons records - along with NBA championship rings in 1989 and 1990.
He averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 assists over his 979-game NBA career.
Thomas became vice president and part-owner of the Toronto Raptors and more recently worked as an NBC analyst on NBA games.
He was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in May and will be inducted in October.
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