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This week in IU sports history: Isiah Thomas captures NBA championship



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The Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas advances the ball during a game in the 1988-1989 NBA season. Thomas played for IU under head coach Bob Knight from 1979-1981. Tribune News Service

The Indiana Daily Student sports desk is releasing a series of articles over the summer to relive past moments in Hoosier sports.

The party started when Isiah Thomas flung the ball into the rafters.

Thomas snaked across the court at the Forum in Los Angeles and slowed as he approached the left wing of the 3-point arc.

It was game four of the 1989 NBA finals and Thomas’ Detroit Pistons held a 3-0 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers. Just a year before, the Pistons had been defeated in game seven of the finals by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the “Showtime Lakers.”

With the Pistons holding a 105-97 advantage as the clock wound down, Thomas palmed the ball in his right hand. The metaphorical brooms would be brought out for Detroit's four-game sweep.

On June, 12, 1989, as the orange sphere plunged back toward the hardwood, former IU basketball star Thomas collected his first NBA Championship.

The celebration raged on as the horn sounded. Thomas held his pointer finger toward the sky as teammates swarmed him in a blur of white sweat bands and red and blue jerseys.

In the locker room, players endured burning eyes as a shower of champagne misted down.

NBA commissioner David Stern held the gleaming gold trophy next to Pistons owner Bill Davidson. Thomas stood adjacent to Davidson, flashing a wide grin on his face.

A chant of “Bad Boys,” the nickname given to the team because of their intense defense, echoed around the room.

The trophy was handed to Thomas, who proceeded to pepper it with an abundance of kisses.

“You know how they always tell you to strive to be the best that you can be and try to get everything out of yourself that you can as a basketball player, your potential,” Thomas said in a post game interview. “This is what it means. It means that I got the best out of myself as a small guy in this league, and that's all I can ask for.”

Thomas helped lead the Pistons to a 63-19 record during the regular season and was imperative to the team’s success throughout the year. He averaged 18.2 points and 8.3 assists per game during the regular season as a 6-foot, 1-inch point guard. 

In the first two rounds of the playoffs, Detroit waltzed past the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks with a combined 7-0 record. 

Then, Detroit frustrated Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the third round with a 4-2 series win.

Finally, a rematch against the Lakers in the finals was set. Thomas racked up more than 21 points and seven assists per game in the four contests. Along with the help of eventual finals MVP Joe Dumars, Thomas was able to secure the franchise’s first championship.

By the time Thomas’ illustrious Hall of Fame professional career came to an end, he had been selected as an All-Star 12 times, added another championship in 1990 and brought home Rookie of the Year.

Flashback eight years and Thomas was, again, hoisting the ball into the air. This time, it was for the Hoosiers.

Thomas was a catalyst on IU’s 1981 National Championship team coached by Bob Knight.

In his two years in Bloomington, Thomas notched 15.4 points, 5.7 assists and 2.2 steals per game. In 1981, he was a consensus first team All-American while guiding the team to a 26-9 mark and a Big Ten regular season crown.

At the time, only 48 teams made the March Madness cut, in contrast with the 68 (including the two play-in games) that are currently part of the annual festivity. 

The Hoosiers entered as the No. 3 seed in the Mideast region. After a bye in the first round, IU took down Maryland, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Saint Joseph’s University by a total tally of 264-182.

In the Final Four, IU knocked out Louisiana State University 67-49 to advance to the championship game against the University of North Carolina.

The Hoosiers, behind a 23-point performance from Thomas, defeated the Tar Heels 63-50 to secure Knight’s second national title. Thomas was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player.

As time ticked down against North Carolina, Thomas bent his knees with two hands clasped on the ball and heaved it into the air.

Then, the party started.

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