Isiah Thomas, who grew up in tough neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side, knows what it's like to go hungry, live in blighted housing, and be cold because there's no heat in winter. But, as the Detroit Pistons guard puts it, ``I managed to sneak through'' the street system. Now, he's out to help ghetto kids walk -- not sneak -- out of crime-infested areas.
The 25-year-old court king is making a plea to the crime-prone in his city. He's hoping for an entire Saturday (tomorrow) without crime in the Motor City.
Back in early September, Mr. Thomas went to Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young with an idea. Together, they set up tomorrow as ``No Crime Day'' for Detroit, a city that in 1985 tallied up 25,904 violent crimes, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. Thomas sees tomorrow's ``No Crime Day'' as the first step in a larger anti-crime campaign that would involve corporations and businesses in a unified effort to offer more job opportunities and education to underprivileged youth. To him, that's their way out.
Thomas talked about his past and his anti-crime plans at his mother's house in Clarendon Hills early in the week. Now that Thomas is well into a six-figure salary, his mom can live in this upper-echelon suburb of Chicago. But Thomas, the youngest of nine children, remembers growing-up days, when his mother was the family's sole supporter; his father left when Thomas was four. ``Our house was kind of like a boarding house,'' he recalls. ``We'd have 16 to 20 people sleeping at our house. And my mother trying to feed 'em.''
Sometimes ``the leaders of the gangs stayed at our house, too,'' Thomas says. ``My mother was just that way. She'd call the police to arrest 'em [gang members]. And then she'd go bond 'em out of jail. And she'd let 'em stay at our house.''
But Mary Thomas wasn't always such a soft touch for gangs. There was the night the Vice Lords, outfitted in their regalia, rapped at the Thomas door. ``They said that Isiah was old enough to join the Vice Lords, and they came to get him,'' Mrs. Thomas remembers. ``I told 'em the only gang at my house was the Thomas gang. They insisted on comin' in and I wouldn't let 'em. I run and got the shotgun and told them if they didn't get off my porch I'd blow 'em across the expressway.'' Then she adds quietly, ``I was always scared for all my children -- because of the gangs.''
She tells this story matter-of-factly, like some suburban mothers might relate a trip to the supermarket. To Mrs. Thomas, the gang showdown was just one more fight to keep her kids straight. When they were young, she worked as a cook at the school all the Thomas children attended. The job helped her keep an eye on her brood -- she made them all stay at school until she was ready to leave. The family went home together.
Thomas was only three when he bounced his first basketball at school. ``I was kind of the half-time entertainment -- trying to dribble, trying to shoot,'' says the guard who has racked up 8,156 points since he signed on with the Pistons in 1981. Known for his steals and smooth moves, Thomas led his team in scoring last season with a 20.9 point average per game, and he started four consecutive National Basketball Association all-star games, the only player in league history to do so.
But before he reached this pinnacle, there was plenty of playing in back alleys. ``We used to get real innovative,'' Thomas says, explaining how he and the guys put up makeshift hoops on telephone poles. These were the pleasant teen days for Thomas. But not every basketball game had a peaceful ending. At one game, the tide turned ugly and a gun came into the argument. One kid fell, bleeding.
In a pool hall, terror came even closer to Thomas.
``My brother and I were shining shoes in the pool hall, and when no one was in there, we'd shoot pool,'' he says. ``This guy comes in, and when he comes in, he grabs me and puts a gun to my head, and his two buddies tell everybody not to move. They were looking for Michael. . . . I don't know what Michael had done, but he got beaten pretty bad with a lead pipe. Nobody did anything [to help] because they had a gun on me,'' he says.
Thomas credits both his mother and brothers for keeping him clean. ``They communicated with me. I wasn't ignorant of the society that we lived in. When I was 8, 9, 10, my brothers took me around. They showed me heroin,'' and he cups a well-manicured hand as if holding something. ``Then they took me to a corner where the junkies were,'' a sight that kept him on track.
As he sits at the dining table, Thomas nods toward his mother, who was known by the gangs as ``Ma Thom,'' and who's known in the family circle for the stories and games she concocted to entertain her children. ``And she worked miracles with $400 a month,'' Thomas says. ``She paid the rent and paid the gas and bought food,'' although he admits that they didn't always eat supper. Lunch was usually skipped, and breakfast was only ``sometimes.'' There wasn't money for three square meals a day for everyone in the house.
Even when Thomas hit the big time at Indiana University, cash was still short on the home front. He recalls a cold winter during his sophomore year. Basketball practice had clipped Christmas vacation down to a few days, but he decided to go home anyway. Since his mother had no phone, the visit would be a surprise.
``When I got home, there was nobody at my house,'' Thomas says. ``We didn't have heat; we didn't have electricity. There was no hot water. I tried to light a fire, and we didn't have wood. I just kept puttin' paper in the fireplace and I never opened the chute.'' It was a grim holiday. Thomas later learned his mother had gone to a relative's to bridge the bad time.
``Here I was, this basketball player,'' says Thomas, looking back. ``I was in newspapers and in magazines and on TV, and my mother didn't have anything to eat.''
Not long after this, Thomas was drafted by the Pistons. When did he move his mother to the suburbs? ``As soon as I signed,'' he says, giving one of those grins that are almost as famous as his assists.
Thomas hopes to finish college some day, but basketball season stretches from October to June. He's also married now (to Lynn Kendall, whom he met at Indiana University), and he's become somewhat of a civic activist. Spare time isn't exactly hanging off the stands.
Thomas recently worked the streets in one of Detroit's worst neighborhoods, soliciting support from the crime prone. Tomorrow's schedule will be packed with a march, a motorcade, a rally, all-night porch lighting, and a fund-raising dinner. The activity-laden day is designed to heighten community consciousness about crime and its prevention. Down the road, Thomas hopes to see a common kettle filling up with contributions from both corporations and citizens. These funds would help create work for idle teens. This is the fast break kids need, he contends. Work to earn cash.
``We have to give them a choice. Some kids have to steal to make a living, to eat,'' says Thomas, who admits to swiping plums and candy and Hostess Twinkies when he was hungry. ``Without hope and without a goal, kids turn to crime.''
What does the Detroit Police Department predict for tomorrow? According to Officer John Leavens of the information unit, ``the department has ways of determining by instinct whether there's more crime or less crime in a day,'' he says. As for tomorrow, he says, ``we'll just have to wait and see.''
And that's exactly what Isiah Thomas will be doing.