DePaul basketball was a big deal in the late ’70s.
With coaching legend Ray Meyer in charge, the Blue Demons were regulars in the top ten.
For a Chicago kid that grew up dirt poor on the west side, the chance to play for the local national powerhouse was all that anyone could hope for.
That was certainly what a young Isiah Thomas had planned to do.
“I was supposed to go to DePaul,” Thomas said on a recent podcast with with Quentin Richardson & Darius Miles.
Attending St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, Ill., Thomas would have to venture less than 20 miles away to attend the hometown school near downtown Chicago.
Not only would DePaul be familiar to Thomas, but he knew the players there as well.
Two future NBA stars highlighted those Blue Demon rosters, and both were from Chicago. Mark Aguirre was a year ahead of Thomas, while Terry Cummings was in the same class.
“Mark Aguirre and I literally grew up two blocks from each other,” Thomas said. “Terry Cummings, Teddy Grubbs and myself, we were all going to join Mark Aguirre at DePaul and we were going to have a powerhouse.”
Even without Thomas, DePaul was a powerhouse.
The Blue Demons reached the No. 1 ranking in the country during both Thomas’ freshman and sophomore seasons in college.
With Thomas, it is difficult to imagine how DePaul would not have won multiple national titles.
Everything was set for the Chicago kids to join forces and create the next college basketball dynasty in their own backyard.
That was until Indiana head coach Bob Knight came up to Chicago for a visit.
And Knight knew exactly who to talk to.
“Ray Meyer was recruiting me, and then Coach Knight came to the house. I’ll never forget that visit, Thomas said.
“Coach Knight came to the house, and you know, when you’re getting recruited out of high school, I mean we was dirt poor. All of our visits had to be in the day time because we didn’t have lights. And you couldn’t tell the recruiters that we didn’t have lights.”
Knight had more to overcome than just Thomas’ heavy lean towards DePaul.
With the Thomas family being so poor, some coaches tried to lure the star point guard with money.
“I’ll never forget this one coach came,” Thomas said. “I won’t name the school, but he came in, had a briefcase, opened up the briefcase.
“Now he said it was one hundred thousand dollars. I had never seen one hundred thousand dollars in my life. None of us had ever seen that kind of money. It could have been fifty dollars in there. We were jumping up and down, we were high fiving and everything else.
“And then you look out the corner of your eye, and this one person ain’t moving.
“And that was my mom.”
Raising a family by herself with no lights in the home, it would have been very easy, even understandable, for Mary Thomas to take the money.
Finally her family could have some degree of comfort.
But principles came first in the Thomas household. Especially when it came to one of Mary’s seven children. And especially when it came to her baby boy.
“She was like, now we’ve got no lights, and a jug of water in the refrigerator, and that’s all we had,” Thomas said. “Literally that’s all we had. And I remember my mom getting up, and walking over to the briefcase, and closed it, and ‘my son is not for sale.’
“She kicked them out.”
It wasn’t just money.
Thomas was one of the most sought after recruits in the country, and college coaches were promising him the world.
“Everybody was offering us everything. Playing time, you’re going to start your freshman year, everything else,” Thomas said.
Everyone, that is, except Coach Knight.
“Coach Knight came to the house, and he came in with Wayne Embry and Quinn Buckner.
Bringing Buckner along was no coincidence.
The former Hoosier All-American and NBA player grew up in the Chicago area as well. Buckner’s success at Indiana and beyond served as an illustration of an alternative path for a Chicago kid.
“So that just set the tone there,” Thomas said of Knight’s arrival with Embry and Buckner. “And he had a jacket on, and he sat down, and during the whole time that he was recruiting me, he never talked to me.
“He was talking directly to my mother.”
Knight didn’t have a briefcase that day.
And he wasn’t prepared to make any guarantees when it came to success on the court.
What he did have was a message that resonated with Mary Thomas.
“I’ll never forget, he said I’m going to offer you and your son three things, Thomas said.
“He is going to be a gentlemen. I’ll teach him everything that I know about basketball. And he’ll get a great education.
That was all it took to seal the deal.
Isiah Thomas would not be attending IU. At least that is what he thought.
“Me and my brothers were sitting around looking at each other like ‘we ain’t going to Indiana.'”
But Knight’s message was being received much differently by Mary.
“Before you know it my mom was kind of shaking her head, and nodding and I was like ‘oh this is not good,'” Thomas said.
Isiah Thomas had never even been to Bloomington, Ind.
If he was going to move out of state and pass on playing at DePaul, first he would need to see what IU was all about before making his decision, right?
Thomas wouldn’t be making this decision.
“Most kids during that period you’d have a press conference, I’ve made my decision, I’m going to blank school, Thomas said.
“My mom called the press conference, me and her were sitting there, she said ‘my son has made his decision, he’s going to Indiana University.’
“My mom announced. I wasn’t even smiling.”
Thomas wasn’t smiling that day.
But since then, his smile just might have become his most enduring image.
And he brought countless smiles to Bloomington.
Thomas ended his professional career in the NBA’s top ten all-time in assists.
But it was assist from Mary Thomas that ultimately passed the 1981 title from DePaul to Indiana.
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