Isiah Thomas Has Traveled From Business to Basketball and Back Again
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because for one of the greatest NBA players ever, it paid to have a sweet tooth.
By Matt Foley
“My economics teacher at St. Joseph’s [High School in Chicago] always said to invest in what you like. Back then, I liked candy, popcorn and ice cream,” says Isiah Thomas, the legendary Detroit Pistons player. “Today’s athletes better understand themselves and their brands.”
Across a 13-year playing career, Thomas established himself as arguably the greatest point guard ever. The 6-foot-1 floor general’s prolific scoring and playmaking abilities were well ahead of his time, combining an exuberant style of play fit for the modern NBA with a level of toughness found in back-alley brawls. By the time he retired in 1994, the 12-time All-Star had won two NBA championships and produced countless iconic showdowns with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, inspiring a generation of basketball fandom in southeast Michigan. According to former NBA star and current ESPN personality Jalen Rose, a Detroit native, Thomas and the “Bad Boy” Pistons “made it cool to be a basketball player from Detroit again.”
But the so-called Smiling Assassin’s career hasn’t all been a slam dunk. Between the end of the Pistons’ dominance and being blackballed from the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, Thomas’ on-court success was cut short by the presence of Jordan, and his time as an NBA head coach and executive can hardly be characterized a success. But driving the many successes and failures of Thomas’ career is an entrepreneurial spirit and motivation to always be pushing for the next big win. Somehow, that spark turned a Chicago-bred kid into a venture capitalist, a front man for both a chocolate company and a Champagne importer and — for a time — Michael Jordan’s biggest enemy.
I still have an Isiah Bar in my freezer.
Thomas’ well-known and icy relationship with Jordan and other members of the Dream Team led to his being left off the greatest basketball group ever assembled. The root of incivility? Thomas was the “Bad Boy” Pistons’ perceived shot caller, directing his more physically imposing teammates to employ aggressive physical defensive tactics against His Airness, according to Jack McCallum’s 2012 book Dream Team. Eventually, though, Jordan still broke through. By 1992, the Bulls had taken control of the Eastern Conference, and the mania surrounding Nike’s Air Jordan footwear brand was in full effect. Jordan was clearly the gold standard for NBA marketability, but opportunities for Thomas, and many others, had also become more readily available.
Now, back to that sweet tooth. The early 1990s gave way to an influx of athlete-sponsored candy bars. At every turn, the tiny smiling faces of athletes from every major sport lined the shelves. The trend began with the Ken Griffey Jr. Bar in 1989; three years later, Michigan-based confectioner Morley Candy Makers wanted in. “That was my first business venture,” Thomas tells OZY, referring to the Isiah Bar. “I created the recipe with Morley’s in Detroit, and we had some success working with local merchants.”
Detroit’s love for Isiah led to $2.5 million in sales, but the bar was discontinued after two years. Still, Thomas realized that though his playing days were nearing an end, he had a mean business game too. Chocolate just wouldn’t be the answer. “I still have an Isiah Bar in my freezer,” he says. “But I dare not open that up.”
In 1993, Thomas and his business partner Rick Inatome acquired a copying company for $4 million and “took it out of bankruptcy.” Thomas developed a passion for researching opportunities and captaining boardroom deals via his maiden holdings company, Isiah International LLC. Of course, his celebrity didn’t hurt his chances of winning over a room of investors. “It’s all about team building,” says Thomas. “And inspiring others to work toward your vision.”
Following his NBA retirement in 1994, Thomas went back to work in basketball as part owner and executive vice president of Toronto’s new expansion franchise, the Raptors. He lasted only four years in Toronto, parting ways with management and moving on to several other ventures, including a sports marketing company, an online gift certificate service and full ownership of the now defunct Continental Basketball Association.
Anthony Pompliano, managing partner at venture capital firm Full Tilt Capital, says that a successful entrepreneur’s constant pursuit of success rivals that of any athlete, so it makes sense that Thomas appears constantly in pursuit. Still, “people will always dismiss things that they don’t understand,” Pompliano adds. Perhaps that’s why Thomas’ troubles as a coach (for the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Florida Atlantic University) and an NBA executive (Knicks; WNBA’s New York Liberty) are oft-cited with regard to his business acumen. To be sure, Thomas’ coaching and executive tenure was highly volatile, with his well-documented intensity not always received well by others in the game. “To me, it’s win or die,” he famously told reporters during his final season as the Knicks’ head coach. “And I literally mean death. I don’t mean walk away. I mean death.” But that intensity made him an All-Century player and could pay dividends as the front man for some new venture.
Which leads up to that liquid that Thomas twice sprayed around after championships. Never much of a Champagne drinker, Thomas was “a Champagne pourer during championship moments,” to hear him say it. But now, through a subsidiary of Isiah International, Thomas has become the exclusive U.S. importer of Cheurlin Champagne. And apparently, he believes that a bubbly renaissance is imminent. The Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the Pistons, stocks Cheurlin, and Thomas hopes the beverage will soon become a more integral aspect of all sports and entertainment experiences.
“Millennials and Generation Z want a story and an experience behind their drink, just as much as they want taste,” says Thomas, who’s betting that the Champagne market will soon see increased interest in products with no additives, as was the case with the recent push toward clean eating. “The more you understand what you’re consuming, the better the experience.”
From the court at St. Joe’s to a vineyard in Aube, France, the first step always comes down to understanding Isiah.