Isiah Thomas Named Pacers Coach

Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — 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.

Thomas reportedly signed a four-year, $20 million contract.

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 and credibility 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 feel he's got the leadership, intelligence and determination to be successful as an NBA coach,'' Pacers president Donnie Walsh said.

``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, arrived in Indianapolis on Wednesday and told pledged not to speak to the media about the coaching position until it was filled.

He 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 in the 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 last year for $10 million and still has managerial control of it. He signed a letter of intent to sell the league to the Players Association, but negotiations and finalizing a deal could drag on indefinitely.

Thomas, Pacers assistant Rick Carlisle and former Pacer Byron Scott, then an assistant at Sacramento, were considered for the coaching job when Bird left after Indiana loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Scott accepted the head coaching job at New Jersey, leaving Thomas or Carlisle to follow Bird after the Pacers had the best three-year run in their 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.

The 6-foot-1, baby-faced point guard, whose goal was to become a lawyer, 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.

He was the second pick in the first round of the 1981 draft — behind hometown friend Mark Aguirre — and 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.