Isiah Thomas: Finding Strength through Vulnerability


NBA Legend Isiah Thomas talks with Rob Johnson about race, politics, compassion and the dreadful plantation model of Sports and Entertainment

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Isiah Thomas, former NBA champion, point guard with the Detroit Pistons, very active in the business world. He’s been in the management area of the NBA, working with Toronto, working in Indiana, working with New York, the New York Knicks. He’s also been involved in the Women’s Basketball Association with the New York Liberty, and more recently has been in the champagne business, with Cheurlin champaign and a number of things, including a philanthropic organization called Mary’s Court, and a new cannabis company, CBD Oils, and things that perhaps he can explain to us in the conversation today.

Thanks for joining me, Isiah

Isiah Thomas:

Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Rob Johnson:

I guess we start here on the 19th of May for this conversation in the middle of this lockdown, in the middle of this pandemic. You come from the West Side of Chicago. You spent a lot of years in Detroit, which is my home town. You’re seeing things from business point of view, from the world of sports entertainment, and the world I know of being a very caring individual. What concerns you? What do you see? What would you like to see done in the face of this challenge in the United States and around the world?

Isiah Thomas:

This is a very difficult time for so many people emotionally and also financially. When you have so many people out of work, and the emotions of depression, not being able to support your family the way you’d normally be accustomed to, I think there definitely needs to be more focus on helping the underserved communities or the disadvantaged communities in making sure that not only do they get through the pandemic but when we get out of the pandemic there are enough skills, jobs available for them to get back into the economy.

Those are the things that concern me the most. The virus, I do believe that at some point in time, I’m hopeful that we’ll find a cure, but until we find a cure, I think it’s important that we really look after and take care of the people who are disadvantaged in our society and try to make sure that the underserved communities can really thrive in these times.

Rob Johnson:

Do you see a particular pathway to that? We’ve seen I guess it’s in the neighborhood of three trillion dollars being allocated by the Congress, largely to big financial institutions and large corporate entities, and my concern is while fortifying those institutions may be necessary to keeping the economy safe from really cratering, I’m worried that the dissemination or the diffusion of those resources won’t reach many of the communities that you refer to in the underserved parts of America.

Isiah Thomas:

You know, the name of your podcast is New Economic Thinking, and what the pandemic has brought to us and forced upon us is a way to recognize that we have to think differently about the way that we employ resources, disperse resources, and who has access to resources, and although we flooded the economy with trillions of dollars and we’ve propped up institutions and markets, what we fail and do in my observation is that the human psyche is going to be different coming out of COVID, just like the human psyche was different coming out of 9-11. Things are going to change. They’re going to change drastically, and there are some industries that are not going to come back, but what will be here is people, and the human factor and in terms of investing in the human factor and what he or she is currently and what he or she can become and be from a skill set standpoint, you know, introducing new skills, new ways of learning, to be ready for the next economy …

I don’t know if the old economy, the way it used to be in terms of people traveling, moving around, the things that we took for granted, so to speak … There’s going to be a change, and I think preparing our society for that change that’s going to come and helping influencing that change through economics, through communication and resources, I think that’s the key.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I think I can see just from the standpoint of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the whole mode of strategy for disseminating the works that we sponsor, the research, the kernels of new economic thinking or even the fomenting of critical discourse, not necessarily knowing what the right thing is but opening the conversation to be broadened in light of the unmasking that the pandemic has brought to light, just as you suggest, in some of the human failings.

But I look at even my own staff now, and the work that we do is much more electronically based. I have a group called the Young Scholars Initiative. It’s roughly 11 thousand members around the world. They were planning to do a big conference in Budapest, Hungary, in September. That’s canceled, and now they’re talking about doing a rolling global electronic conference, and watching them assimilate the skills necessary to execute such a plan or even watching my daughter Sara, in fifth grade, and Dylan, in second grade, assimilate the technical skills to go to school via an iPad.

And Isiah, as you know, because you know my wife and family, we’re among the advantaged. We can work with our children, with the school, with the resources, but I’m concerned that with all these changes, and I think they are irreversible changes, as you suggest, we’ve got to provide the tools and support so that many people can, which I call rise to being productive and enthusiastic and hopeful in that context. Otherwise we will have a very I think dangerous and despondent political environment, deriving from a failed economics.

Isiah Thomas:

I agree with you. The access to resources in terms of capital, technology, education, you know, when we talk about, again, we flooded the economy with trillions of dollars, but the people who need help the most didn’t have access to the banking institutions where you had to apply and be part of the system to actually receive the funds that were needed. So in the second layer of that, okay, we’ll give it to the big businesses who employ all of the workers, and that’s a way that we can actually distribute the funds.

But what that really says is that we don’t have access to the underbelly of our economy and our society, and I look at this pandemic, and this was a perfect time with the resources and the economics of the money that flooded into society, this was a perfect time to really uplift and level the playing field from the bottom, because as the top was coming down, because of the pandemic, this was a good time to really raise the bottom and level the playing field, and now everyone coming out of COVID could have had an equal chance and an equal opportunity to pursue what the new economy is going to be.

When you talk about education, we’re looking at a school system now, we’re looking at a lot of kids that don’t have access to the technology or don’t have access to the skills that’s going to be required for the new world. What do people do? How do you level the playing field? How do you get up to speed?

This would have been a great time for, you know, the Secretary of Education to step in, make sure that all of the underserved communities’ populations, not only should they have enough food, but also partnering with one of the major corporations to make sure that they put technology in the homes so kids can have the opportunity to catch up and stay afloat, so to speak.

Rob Johnson:

I think that process, I find it very interesting, Isiah, because in the months before the pandemic we saw things like the business roundtable saying shareholder maximization, only working for your stockholders, is too narrow. Even the leading business schools were now starting to say, stakeholders are far beyond the narrow gains of those who own equity in a company, and we’re seeing an awareness of what I would call among those large institutions, those powerful institutions, that they have a responsibility of stewardship. But at the other end of the spectrum, what my wife, Alexa, has taught me about the psychology of what she calls other-ness, and her business before she joined Planned Parenthood as the CEO was called Perception.org. I believe your daughter worked with her in some context. And the problem I see is that the depth of other-ness makes it very hard for those who I call well-meaning stewards to reach far enough and be as inclusive as we need in a society. We need a change of consciousness about who belongs as a human in the face of this challenge.

Isiah Thomas:

You touched on the key word, human, and if we start from that standpoint, where we’re all human and we’re all equal, then you can really start to unravel America’s long systemic problem of race, racism, racialized language and criminalization of a certain sector of people, and from a capitalistic standpoint, how does American ideas, values, goals, in terms of the dream of what America was going to be and is growing into, still as a young democracy, how do we not necessarily right the wrongs, but how do we come to the realization that we’re all equal and we’re all human, and how do we level the playing field so everyone has a shot of rising to the top. That’s what the American dream is all about. In this pandemic I do think we had an opportunity to kind of level the playing field and rise the bottom up so everyone can have a chance and have an equal shot at the American dream.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, at some level we’ve got to practice what we preach. I’ve heard some people discussing the nature of governance now. How do I say? Through our founding documents, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, there’s some lofty declarations, and if we all together take those documents as a beacon of what we want to be, then perhaps they serve a constructive purpose that when someone is not treated like those documents suggest our society should aspire to, it creates the basis for corrective action. But if we get to a place where, which you might call one who espouses those principals is considered a romantic fool and is mocked for being too sentimental or idealistic, then our republic ceases to have a direction.

And in my own life, I grew up in Detroit, I can share with the audience and with you, when I was very young, Martin Luther King came and spoke at the school in suburban Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Park, that would be my high school. I was eleven years old at the time, but several years later I’d go there. And that was three weeks to the day before he was killed, and my mother was involved with the school system, and my mother had supported letting him speak, and I had watched neighbors and members of the community attack my mother verbally for supporting letting him speak, and when he was killed, I remember sitting in front of my parents, and they were discussing whether we needed to evacuate and go someplace else, because the unrest, and this was one year of course after the riots that we’d experienced in Detroit.

But there was this … I mean, for me, at eleven years old, I don’t understand, except I understand it’s important. And when I went to college, I minored in creative writing, and I studied the writings of Martin Luther King, and to come back to where I was earlier, Isiah, he was a person who held our principals up to us, and beckoned us to recognize that we were not treating the black community as we were espousing as a country that we would treat humans.

I don’t know who carries that banner today, but I do recall in looking at the decline of Detroit in the economic sense, but in the aftermath of the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts that Lyndon Johnson passed, Southern Democrats were not willing to come to the assistance of a black governed, in the days of Coleman Young, and a black majority population city. It was as if Detroit was demonized. It was as if Detroit was blamed as a victim, and the violence and the velocity of the decline of Detroit was almost like a scar on the American dream. It was terrifying, and the public relations was used to, how would I describe, to reassure the rest of America that Detroit was to blame for their own problems, and that everyone else’s American dream was intact.

I think that false consciousness is what turned me into what I’ll call a rebel economist and someone who seeks different or alternative or new economic thinking, because it was in such tension with the sense of humanity in the community in which I lived.

Isiah Thomas:

Two things that you touched on when you talk about the American dream and the other is how do you govern now? How do you govern a society? What the classified negro, black, African American, Indian, those who became classified as the other, so to speak, the resistance in the fight to become a part of the United States of America in terms of law, in terms of voting, in terms of rights, in terms of membership, you know, that’s what the fight was all about, not to be classified.

And I think America is coming to the point or has come to the point or one day hopefully it will come to the point that you cannot govern by race. I just don’t see that as a long-lasting way to govern without having oppression in your governance, because if you got race and you got black man, white man, blue man, red man, yellow, purple, green, and they’re classified in different classifications with different rights and privileges, then the fight for equality will always be tearing at the fabric at what we’re trying to build. So the day that we can all get to the point where we’re human, as opposed to classified in these racial categories, and these racial categories, the stereotype is stamped on top of that racial category, in that box that you’re put in, you know, it’s going to continue to be a problem that tears at the fabric of what America is trying to be.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Isiah, I don’t know this from personal experience, but I’ve known a number of executives that worked in and around the National Basketball Association, and my network of people, even before you and I had met, suggested that you have been very intensely involved in mentoring young players as they relate what you might call the pressures of celebrity, wealth, in the context of race, in the context of the challenge of almost being the star and being an other at the same time. How do you see that challenge for a black athlete with extraordinary talent, just as you once were, in the modern context?

Isiah Thomas:

You know, sports and entertainment are two interesting places. You know, at one point in time the classified negro and now the classified black or classified African American, and what goes into sports and entertainment in terms of what I counsel is just understanding and recognizing the language that we use in these two spaces, and the language of the business model that we have to operate in in sports and entertainment. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it is what it is. It basically is a plantation business model applied to sport, and the language around sport and entertainment are basically slave plantation language.

Now, when we talk about slave plantation language, let’s not forget that while the classified blacks were slaves, there were also classified Irish, classified Poles, so everyone has had their bad, but however, the people of color have been oppressed the longest in this country.

But that language rises to the top in sports and entertainment. When you talk about being free or being drafted, being a free agent, the language in the years of free agency, you know, you’re getting drafted, you’re under contract, all these things in sports and entertainment, this language, this racialized language has meaning and it definitely carries outside of sport.

So your wife, who started Perception Institute, so those perceptions and that language, that racialized language, it just doesn’t stay in the arena. Now it moves outside of the playing field, and when you talk about the stereotypes in the words and the usage of words that goes on in sports and entertainment, and then you move that into society, well, that becomes very, very problematic in terms of self-identity, self-awareness and how you are perceived and looked at in society. So the words that are labeled and defined inside the arena, they do travel, and I think we have to be extremely conscious of that now, because sports and entertainment, for the classified African American, black person in terms of culture, now all culture is represented to the world mainly now through these two vehicles of sports and entertainment, combined with pictures. So we’re in a very tricky place.

In terms of mentoring, I do try to educate in this space, too, just to make sure that the players that I’m talking to about perception, the reality of the situation, and also their financial well-being, I try to touch on all of those things, to make sure that they have a clear view of what they’re walking into and how to navigate in this system that we find ourselves in.

Rob Johnson:

I think that’s a tremendous service that you provide, because just in the context, say, of the NBA, in addition to performing in the sport, all the endorsements and all the commercial dimensions which can enhance your personal financial well-being often are marketed in the context of these unconscious biases, in these norms that are quite unhealthy, and at the same time, these athletes become role models for young African Americans, and what they say and how they act has a tremendous amount of influence in what you might call the perpetuation of evil norms or the evolution of those norms.

But I would conjecture that that come into some tension with the vitality of the endorsements that one can attract and sustain. But at least you’re putting on the table the trade-offs and the consciousness that these people will have to grapple with in order to have a meaningful and successful life in the sense of when they look in the mirror. You probably help a lot of people avoid doing things that they would later be ashamed of.

Isiah Thomas:

The champion historically, in sport and entertainment, you know, for the race category that we’ve been put in, that champion or entertainer that has been fortunate enough to get the mic and have voice where he or she can speak to the masses. It was always important to the community that he or she who had the mic could speak for the voiceless, because the champion who had voice and was given the opportunity to voice what he or she was feeling or seeing, you were more or less obligated, and that was your responsibility to speak for the voiceless. When the champion has the mic, and a person of influence has the mic, and he or she elects not to speak for the voiceless, then bad things happen in terms of health, education and so forth and so on. That’s what the history in this country has shown, that when you don’t have voice and the champion in all particular field of sport and entertainment elects not to use his or her voice, then there have been serious consequences for that.

So we love Muhammad Ali, because he spoke for the voiceless, and we call Muhammad Ali the Greatest, not because he was the greatest fighter. He could have been the greatest fighter. You know, who knows? But we say he’s the greatest because of what he did in the ring and outside of the ring. That’s what has given Muhammad Ali the long-lasting stature in our community, because he spoke for the voiceless.

Rob Johnson:

Yes, yes, he’s a very profound influence. In my life, I happened to meet him when I worked for Senator William Proxmire, of Wisconsin, on the US Senate Banking Committee, and about once a quarter Ali would come in for lunch with Proxmire. And one day my oldest daughter, Natalie, was with me. Her mother was in Japan, and Natalie was ill, and our nanny was ill, and I brought her to the office, and she was in my office, and she started to cry a little bit. She was about two at the time, and all of a sudden this man appears around the corner, and he says, “Where’s that baby? Where’s that baby?” And then he looks, and I recognize, I had known Muhammad Ali was going to see Bill Proxmire, but I never expected to see him right there at the door. When he picked her up and kissed her and held her for a while, and he said, “Well, I hope you’re free for lunch, because I’m going to ask Senator Proxmire to add you and this girl. I want you to be in the room with us at lunch.” I just was spellbound.

And I don’t want to prolong the story, but about a year and a half later I was in a grocery store in Mclean, Virginia, with Natalie in a cart, and Muhammad Ali had a cookie called Champs, and I guess he was doing a promotion, but all of a sudden these lights were flashing, and this guy reached in and picked my daughter up, and then he looked at me and recognized, in a superficial way, like we had encountered one another before, and he said, “I just had to come to pick up my girl.”

Isiah Thomas:

Wow, that is awesome.

Rob Johnson:

Everybody cheered. What a vital, vital, radiant human being.

Isiah Thomas:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And a deep example. And you know, the great man who studies mythologies and story, Joseph Campbell, he wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and it’s really about what historically constitutes a hero, he’s known to have said, “Heroism isn’t born of calculation. It’s born of doing something bigger than yourself, of risk-taking and self-sacrifice.” And when Muhammad Ali gave up his title and stood up to the Vietnam War, among other things, but he went to a place where my father used to say, “That will be the most remembered person in a hundred years from our era.” Just an extraordinary being.

Isiah Thomas:

Yeah, the sacrifices that he made to bring attention to the oppression that was happening in all communities, and he did risk it all in giving up the prime, the prime, of his career, those two and a half, three years, those were the prime of his career that he gave up, and we as a community are forever grateful that stood for something bigger than money and stood for something bigger than winning a boxing match. He stood for uplifting humanity and trying to make sure that we were all seen as equal in the eyes of the law and equal in this country.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. There’s a famous story that’s accounted for in the Guinness Book of World Records, where they claim that the shortest poem ever in history was created by Muhammad Ali when he was at Harvard University giving a speech, and when he got off the stage, someone from the audience said, “Ali, what about a poem?” And he stepped back up to the microphone, and he looked at them, and he said, “Me, we.” And that was the poem which conveys that broader awareness, that tension between the individual and the collective …

Isiah Thomas:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

… sensitivity. I’ve always been fascinated that that is what emanated from him at that moment, and that kind of humility from someone who’s been idolized. He wrote a book late in his life. He had one child, a daughter, who he had not been close to in raising her and nurturing her, who was a writer, and he wrote a book called The Soul of a Butterfly, and one of the things that I was so touched by was he in the book, and he knew he was nearing the end of life, but in the book he wanted to apologize or acknowledge things that he had done wrong, and the two things that he cited was that when Malcolm X had split from the Nation of Islam, he didn’t stand with Malcolm X. He distanced from him. And the second was the way he thought in the context of boxing and entertainment, he had teased Joe Frazier, and realized subsequently that he had hurt Joe Frazier, and he was very apologetic about that. Just the depth of that humility I found very, very striking.

Isiah Thomas:

To me, I find that the champion, like an athlete who understands that strength truly comes from being vulnerable and sometimes weak or perceived as weak, you know, understanding and knowing when to be forceful and when to be compassionate, that’s the sign of ascending spiritually, and as they would say, becoming Christlike, in terms of that ascension and that movement in terms of mind and understanding the world that you live in and the human spirit is truly all about. And Ali was able to capture that in so many ways in so many different times.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I’m going to turn the lens onto another famous athlete who I found inspiring, and it’s the gentleman I’m speaking with right now. When I watched the Pistons in the finals against Portland, I saw a point guard who was the star and the leader of the team driving towards the basket in the deciding game, but when you drew all the attention, you threw the ball to Vinnie Johnson, and he scored the basket. It was almost Zen-like to me. You used your leadership and what you might call the magnet of ego to draw them away to provide the shot to somebody else when people probably would have thought that you as the star wanted to finish the job yourself. And I thought that was one of the most beautiful moments I ever saw in professional sports.

Isiah Thomas:

Well, I’m glad you felt that way, because when Vinnie Johnson made that shot, I thought it was a beautiful moment, too.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, but it was like you used all the energies, and obviously he was a great shooter, and you trusted him, but you didn’t force it. You used that as a leader, as a play maker, and it was like a beautiful revelation of a dimension of your greatness, and Isiah, I’m not going to dwell on this ESPN program today that’s showing right now on the Bulls, and the Bulls and Pistons’ rivalry is at the center, but I really admired when they talked about the Pistons walking off and then subsequent interviews you’ve done in recent days, how you explained the context. It was not necessary to apologize, but you did say that you wished you had done things differently.

And I’m going to make a joke out of this, but I admired that vulnerability and that openness and that strength in the context of the floodlight, and what I wanted to do as a Detroiter, is call up Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, because they had played the Red Wings, and when they beat the Red Wings, and in hockey that was very formal. They had a lineup and shook hands, and he didn’t do it, and the Red Wings were, having lost at home in game 7, left the ice, and I wanted to call Sydney Crosby and show him that interview with you, to see what he has to say about that time. And he may be apologetic. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. But you just set a great tone in your response, and it’s consistent ….

Isiah Thomas:

Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

… with Ali, and it’s consistent with the man who gave the ball to Vinnie Johnson, and it’s consistent with the gentle, strong man that I’ve gotten to know through my wife.

Isiah Thomas:

Thank you for that. Again, in sport, what sport really teaches you is how to connect mind and body and have a certain control of emotions, and experiencing those emotions, those highs and lows of a game, of a contest, sport actually teaches you how to deal and handle your emotions in extreme situations, and what we love about sport is the passion that it elicits and that it brings out of the individual and also the observer, but at the same time we always ask that the individual who’s exuding all of that passion and emotion, that we’re all observing and watching and enjoying, then we say, “Okay, now control yourself.”

And sometimes you just don’t get it right, but instead of looking at that as a moment … It definitely was a moment of lapse in judgment and not having full control of our emotions, and reacting to a comment that Jordan had made the day before, calling us undeserving champions, and that really stung. Now, 30 years later, looking back on it, should we have been bigger in that moment? Absolutely we should have. But we wasn’t, and that’s part of the growth process now that hopefully becomes a teachable moment.

Rob Johnson:

But how would I say, when confronted by a media like that documentary, and when asked, you didn’t harden down. You didn’t avoid it. You went right to things like you just said to me, and that’s growth.

I want to also share with our guests that you played a very, very helpful and constructive role in my life when I was a producer of the film Amazing Grace, about Aretha Franklin making the album of that name in 1972, February, in Los Angeles, and for all kinds of reasons, that we don’t have to go into, that film had been delayed for many years, and there were negotiations going on with Aretha, but we hadn’t released the film, and then she unfortunately passed away, and her family, her estate, her niece Sabrina Owens …

I learned that you had very, very warm relations with the Franklin family, and you were very helpful to me in realizing that film, which every time I see the credits, I know there’s a thanks to you in there, but I see my wife and my daughters credited, and I just love so much what Aretha Franklin represented. How did you come to know her? How did you get acquainted, and what did she mean to your life?

Isiah Thomas:

When I first got to Detroit, and as you know, Detroit, Chicago, being sister cities in the music space, I-94, and my mom being an activist early in life and bringing us into activism and politics as a family, as the Staple Singers and Aretha and everyone was going back and forth from Detroit to Chicago, my mom was a huge Aretha Franklin fan, and fortunately enough for myself, my mom had also developed a relationship unbeknownst to me, with Mayor Coleman Young. And so when I got to Detroit, the mayor Coleman Young and I, we bonded, spent a lot of time together, and then I met Aretha. When I met Aretha, again, I was 19. I had just turned 20 in Detroit and really didn’t know much of anything. I’d never had a checkbook in my life. I didn’t know how to pay bills.

And fortunately enough for me, Aretha and her family adopted me as kind of their own, helping me just navigate through my first couple of years in Detroit, and we became extremely close. We’d talk politics and activism more than anything, and I remember I organized my first No Crime Day in Detroit in 1986, and we marched down Woodward, and we asked for everyone in the city to have a day of peace. Aretha was very instrumental in helping me put that together. The mayor was there. We had a No Crime Day dinner, and I’ll never forget. I have a picture of me, her and my mom, and it was the picture that we always wanted, and Tommy Hearns photo-bombed us.

So it’s a picture of Tommy, my mom and Aretha and myself, and we had been waiting, because you know, it wasn’t like we all had camera phones back then, so you couldn’t do a retake. So we didn’t know that he had photo-bombed us until we actually got the picture, and it was like “Ah, man.” But it’s one of those pictures that I’ll remember forever, that we have framed. Aretha, she was everything to us at that time.

Then she introduced me to Clyde Davis, and introducing me to Clyde, I’ll never forget, she said, “This is someone that you can trust, and I want you to meet and know Clyde,” and here we are today.

Rob Johnson:

Wow. Well, you certainly, how would I say … Connecting with Aretha doesn’t surprise me, in light of what I learned about her politics. And you probably remember. I can’t remember the lady’s name, but Aretha had a woman who worked with her kind of on a quiet basis for all of her philanthropic giving, and I was sitting with Carlton Pearson at the funeral, a funeral at which you gave a beautiful eulogy, and I know the family was very effusive about that. They spoke to me about it just afterwards.

But Carlton and I were sitting there, and he said this lady is the person who Aretha had give out all the philanthropic money, because she’s so political and she’s so generous, and the Reverend William Barber, who’s a good friend of mine … I’ve done many things with him. When I did a conference in Detroit, he was my keynote speaker. Reverend Barber said to me afterwards, “That lady got the biggest cheer of the entire day.” And I can’t remember her name, but I’ll go back. I have a video of the entire ceremony that was given to me.

But there was so much depth. I don’t know if it’s mysterious or surprising or anything, because when you feel Aretha and that musical career, you know it’s going from some deep place. It just can’t be disembodied. That spirit is very powerful.

But Aretha was so politically conscious. I remember once meeting Elton John. He was just reverent about how much she had supported him in a lot of his endeavors, particularly related to AIDS.

So that, how would I say, you’re a very talented man, but you were very fortunate to cross paths with her and energize one another. Tell me a little bit about your mother. I know you named a philanthropic organization, Mary’s Court, about her. I was not aware that she was an activist. Could you share with us a little bit more about her and her legacy.

Isiah Thomas:

My mom, Mary Thomas, they actually made a movie after her, called A Mother’s Courage, where Alfre Woodard won an Emmy for it, and actually the actor Leon played my big brother in it, Lord Henry.

There’s a street named after my mom in Chicago, on Holman and Jackson, called Mary Thomas Way, and my mom, she worked with Fred Hampton in the neighborhood. She was one of the people who helped serve the free breakfast. I received free breakfast. She also worked with, believe it or not, the gang members, as we still do work today with the gang members, in terms of moving them out of criminal activity and moving them into business and community work.

And my mom marched with Martin Luther King in Chicago, and actually when Martin Luther King moved to Chicago on the West Side, he actually moved in three blocks from my house. I loved on Congress and Holman, and he moved in on Hamlin. My mom just always made sure that we were there. We had no babysitters, so every time she went to march, she took her boys and her girls with her.

My mom was very popular in Chicago for her activism, and again, they made a movie about her, and when I got to Detroit, that’s how it all came together. Most people think that people knew me for basketball, but at that time I was more well-known for being Mary Thomas’s son than Isiah Thomas the basketball player.

Rob Johnson:

Wow, that’s fantastic. Let me ask you about my home city of Detroit, the place where you’ve been very active. When you pray at night at Detroit now and going forward, what would you like to see happen to invigorate and fortify and strengthen that community.

Isiah Thomas:

My whole life’s work and mission has been to uplift the poor. I grew up in extreme poverty. There’s the poverty line, and then there’s that line below poverty, and that was the line that the census bureau didn’t count. That’s where I was. I know how difficult that can be. I know how compromised people in that situation are, so I always pray for the poor and the underserved communities and pray that they get access to mainstream where they can be productive. That’s my biggest hope.

Rob Johnson:

We’ve been talking about a portrait, Muhammad Ali, Fred Hampton, Aretha Franklin, your mother, yourself. I’m starting to understand the power that you have been in your life. When you said earlier to me in this conversation about that emotion and what you might call channeling or controlling that emotion when we were talking about time on the basketball floor, I’m understanding more about your gifts but more about where your intensity comes from.

And I remember, it was very awkward for me, I was obviously a Caucasian in Detroit, which was the numerical minority but the power majority, and then I was in Boston, when I think you and the Celtics, it would probably have been around 1987, when they won the game, and I remembered that you characterized what you might call the stereotyping or othering of how white basketball players, and there were many in the starting five of the Boston Celtics at that time, were viewed as hard working and earnest, like they had deserved their skill, whereas the phrase something to the effect of black people just dribbled out of the womb and were talented. And when you challenged that, I remember, because of all the tensions. I’d been in Boston going back to the mid-70s, with the Garrity busing decisions, and my little brother in the Big Brother program was African American, and I just felt like you made the clouds and made the NBA and the world look at a consciousness that was foul, and I wondered where you got the strength to do that, and through this discussion I’m understanding better where that came from.

Isiah Thomas:

It definitely came from my mom, and also my dad. And I’ll never forget, you bring up busing. 1974, I’ll never forget this day, imprinted on my brain like it was yesterday. I’m walking out of the door trying to get to school, and I don’t want to be late for school, and my mom literally grabs me by the collar, by the back of my neck, by the collar, and pulls me back, and goes, “Sit down. You need to watch this.” And I’m like, “Mom, I’m going to be late for school,” and she’s like, “You need to watch this.”

On the news they’re talking about busing in Boston, in 1974, and a Caucasian woman gets on, and she is just really going off about how she doesn’t want her kids going to school, being on a bus or around, and she used the n-word, and she used the n-word several times in the interview. And then right after that my mom said this. “This is why we root for Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. Have a good day at school.”

Rob Johnson:

Wow. I’ll share with you my experience in Boston, where I got to volunteer for the Big Brother program, and the gentleman, his name was Marcel, that ran it, says to me, “You’re from Detroit. We have a lot of young people who are black, but it’s very hard, given the tensions around the busing. Would you be amenable to becoming a Big Brother for an African American child?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” Like I’d go to these gyms and I’d meet the kids, and if you connect with somebody, they kind of then have you meet the parents, and it gets paired up.

His name is Lazar Franklin, and my Little Brother, we’re still very close contact. But the episode that looked like to my eyes on a day what you saw from Boston on television, was when I took my Little Brother to Fenway Park for the first time, and there was Jim Rice, who was African American, left field, George Scott, the Boomer, was on first base, and Luis Tiant, pitcher, was a person of color. The rest of the team was white.

We were sitting in right center field, and a bunch of other fans started throwing ice at us, like they would take the ice out of their drink and they’d throw the cubes at us. Lazar was a fourth grader at the time, and so I went up to the usher, and I said, “Are you going to let this go on?” And he looked at me, and he said, “What do you want me to do, man?” And I just kind of picked up, and Lazar and I went and found other seats somewhere else and weren’t similarly harassed.

But after the game, Lazar wanted to get autographs, and we went down where the players come out, and we’re standing there, and George Scott was the first person to come out, black first baseman, and Lazar runs up with his little paper and pen, and a little girl ran up to George Scott, a black man, and the little girl said, “Sign mine before” and uses the n-word.

And George Scott looks down, and he says, “Okay, wait a minute. I need to know, who are the parents with these two children?” And I raise my hand, and he starts talking to me like I’m with the white girl, because I’m Caucasian. And I said, “No, no, I’m with Lazar.” He says, “Oh, oh, okay.” The other parents started coming up and attacking George Scott for objecting, and the n-word was flying around. I thought I was on Mars. I couldn’t believe it, but I was getting acquainted with those tensions, but I couldn’t believe that. You know, I come from a family in Detroit, and my dad had a medical practice that was largely black and most of his employees of his medical practice were black, and he was involved in the music scene in Detroit as a jazz pianist. But Isiah, Boston blew my circuits. It was just so far off.

Isiah Thomas:

You know what I find interesting is that as I’ve gotten older and had an opportunity to travel outside of America and in other countries, I’m sure you’ve had this experience also, when we travel outside of America, we never, never identify as black, white, brown, people of color. I mean, when you go to another country, you’re an American. That’s it. But if you went to another country and they say, “Hey, where you from?” and you go, “Hey, I’m white …” I mean, they’d laugh at you. But I find it interesting that the only place that we really play this black, white, red, yellow, brown color game is in this country, and that should tell us something.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. One of the scholars that work with me on my Detroit conference is the emeritus professor Peter Temin, who wrote a book coming out of that conference of which I’ll get you a copy of. It’s called The Vanishing Middle Class. Peter Temin said that what has happened is that we have this economy that’s increasing a service economy, and the people who are well paid understand knowledge intensive service value added, but they’ve taken the rungs out of the education ladder, and what’s interesting is only about 20% of the population in that high-end services. 80% is caught in the lower areas.

What Temin’s book is about is how by creating black-white rivalry and hostility, when of that 80%, only about 8 of that 80% that’s in the lower rung are people who are African American. So you would think that 80% would all vote to put rungs in the ladder and all climb up to that higher, more thoroughly compensated part of the professional spectrum, but when the polarization takes place, these people vote against their economic self-interest in order to be different from the black people, and the entire system becomes dysfunctional. That’s Peter Temin’s premise, is that we are destroying ourselves with this false rivalry, and that our nation has withered in terms of its capacity to rise to the challenges of globalization and technology and what have you.

So I think that that poison that you described, that it’s unmasked when you travel abroad, or that poison which creates very, very severe disorientation … We’ve had child care professional from the Caribbean, and she came to work with us, and how she’s treated here is not anything like how she’s treated in Saint Lucia, where she came from. So I don’t know, Isiah. We’ve identified the dysfunction, the hideousness, the inhumanity, but how do we heal it? What is your vision there?

Isiah Thomas:

You heal it just by being honest, and the constructed box of race, class, stereotypes, America has to rid itself of these constructed boxes. We asked the question earlier, can you govern a society preaching equality but having race, the constructed boxes of race, as your foundation of peace. And if you’re not willing to change and adapt, that foundation of peace is starting to crumble, because I like to say we all live on the hyphen right now. We’re all mixed with something. There’s no pure anything anymore. Everyone’s on the hyphen, and there’s some truths that this country has to recognize and deal with, and then you can move forward, but these are realistic and hard truths, and I think the international community that looks at America understands that there are some truths that America needs to deal with.

Rob Johnson:

Yes, without question, and hopefully that continues to be a significant part of the agenda that you referred to as new economic thinking, new human thinking, new societal thinking. We’ve got to transcend this rut, this hideous mindset.

Isiah, I want to say I felt an exhilaration when I saw you pass that ball to Vinnie Johnson, and I felt gratitude when I encountered your help with The Amazing Grace Project, but none of those beautiful moments compares in my heart with this conversation today. You’re a really great man, and I want to thank you for being here with me.

Isiah Thomas:

Thank you, brother, and I’m honored to be here with you walking this journey.

Rob Johnson:

Let’s come back before too long, when the world gives us some more stimulus, and keep walking this journey together, but we can come back and share with this audience more of your insights in the not too distant future. Thank you again.

Isiah Thomas:

You’re welcome, and thank you.

Rob Johnson:

Bye bye.

Isiah Thomas:

Bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

ISIAH THOMAS is a former basketball player and coach, considered one of the best point guards in the history of the game. He led the NBA’s Detroit Pistons to consecutive world championships in 1989 and 1990. He was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996.

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