Isiah Thomas Breaks Down Education, Leadership and Business with Baron Davis
CHICAGO -- When it comes to Windy City success stories, Isiah Thomas might be the greatest not named Barack Obama. The youngest of nine siblings on Chicago’s West Side, “Zeke” grew up to be an NCAA champion at Indiana University and a two-time NBA champion with the Detroit Pistons, before going into coaching and management with multiple franchises.
But the Hall of Famer’s greatest successes arguably came off the court. He started investing money in businesses during his playing career, became the first African-American with an ownership stake in an NBA team when the Toronto Raptors came into the league, and has since gone on to prominence in everything from real estate and broadcasting to popcorn, champagne and cannabis.
During NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago, Isiah stopped by Baron Davis’ Business Inside the Game (BIG) summit at the Ace Hotel to talk about his upbringing, his leadership of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), what he learned from basketball that’s helped him in business and more.
(The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.)
Baron Davis: A lot of people may not know this, but you were actually the first African American to become an owner of an NBA franchise, with the Toronto Raptors. How did that come about?
Isiah Thomas: There were two international expansion franchises. One was in Vancouver, one was in Toronto. And right now there's only currently one international franchise outside the United States, and I'm proud to say that's still the Toronto Raptors that won the NBA championship last year. The Grizzlies did not make it; they're in Memphis right now. But from a business standpoint, it was always important for our generation that was coming up—Magic [Johnson], [Larry] Bird, [Michael] Jordan—we always had the thought and the process of mind that not only do we want to be in business, but we also want to be in ownership. And why not own the business that, you know, that you've worked hard in, that you've learned from grade school to high school? And that was my mindset. When I got out of the NBA, I had the opportunity to either go start my own team or go to Toronto, and I went to Toronto.
BD: That's incredible. When did it click for you? Because you played in the NBA in the '80s and the '90s. You're a basketball player. When did you decide that, Hold up, dude, this is something else that's going on?
IT: My family is originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Mom and dad migrated from Mississippi here to Chicago with the idea that this is the place where you will find freedom and also education. My foundation was really rooted in terms of education and ownership. My dad was all about, Look, we have to own something, we have to own property. My mom was a political animal in terms of activism. And so, my family was always about just trying to get something, own something and be something in terms of elevating our community, elevating our family out of poverty. And the best way to do that was through education and also business. So that was preached daily in the household.
And when we talk about education, it was, like, “Junior, you've got to learn two educational systems. You've got to learn our history as Moorish-Americans and then you've got to learn the European-Caucasian history that they're teaching in terms of U.S. history.” So my father was, like, “Yeah, you gotta get an A on the test when they say Christopher Columbus discovered America, but then I'ma show you this other book that says that he didn't [laughs]. And by the way, you've got to know both histories.” So it was interesting because we learned American history and then world history and, consequently, that was my education in terms of understanding ownership, business and everything else.
Isiah Thomas stopped by Baron Davis' Business Inside the Game (BIG) summit while visiting his hometown of Chicago over NBA All-Star Weekend. (Griffin Harrington)
BD: That's dope. You also were president of the NBPA during your career. What made you want to do that? What made you want to be the president at that time?
IT: So, Dave Bing and Archie Clark approached me during my rookie season and said, “Hey, you've got to get involved in the union.” And I was, like, “Man, I just got some money, you know? I don't want to be in the union.” And Archie was, like, “No, you have to be involved.” So they made me become a player rep. Once I became a player rep, then everybody else—even the Chicago Bulls—they all voted for me to be president of the union. They were, like, “You got to be the president.” And fortunately enough for me, accepting the responsibility—not only accepting responsibility but fighting for our individual rights, fighting for our benefits, fighting for salaries, fighting for better hotel rooms ...
BD: Can you dive into that? Chris Paul is now the president and all this great stuff is happening. What were the things you were fighting for as the president that are now starting to catch the wave that you envisioned?
IT: Our Detroit Pistons teams, which were known as the "Bad Boys," we actually were the rebels of the NBA not necessarily on the court, but what we were talking about off the court. And then being the president of the union, the first thing you always want, you want better jobs, you want higher salaries, you want benefits and then you want your living conditions raised. So we were the first team to get our own plane, we started chartering our own plane. We stopped staying at the airport Marriott. Remember airport Marriotts? Short beds, everything else. And we upgraded the living standards.
Now, at that time, the NBA and everyone else thought I was crazy because I look out at this room right now and it's a very diverse room. When I got into the NBA, basically, if this was a media-related room, it was white male Caucasians. That was all that was in the room that was covering the sport. There were no females. Females hadn't come into the NBA in terms of covering the sport. And all we were saying was, “Hey, we want everybody to be a part of this fabric.” So we started talking about diversity. We started talking about inclusion. We started talking about race, okay? We started talking about all the hard things. And by the way, we were winning. So they couldn't kick us off the stage, so they had to deal with us.
Consequently, in dealing with us, everything got better, we moved along. The first collective bargaining agreement that came along with the salary cap, the Detroit Pistons were the first team that voted “no” against it. And then they had to redo it. And then we finally voted “yes” and we came along, but the reason why we voted “no” is because, when you talk about free agency and you talk about being free and you talk about, at that time, how the contracts were structured, a lot of them were really based on indentured service contracts.
And the reason why I say that, and people don't like to hear that language, but I'ma hit you with some hard language, right? When you get drafted and then you become a free agent, think about the labels and the terms that we're using. So we were critiquing all of that and we were saying, “Now, wait a minute, so what do you mean free, free agent?” And then you go back in the history books and you just see what all that language means. So we started critiquing the language. We wanted to have real conversations about the language. And all of those things suddenly started changing, and that led to race and how do we have conversations about race?
Corporate America at that time was saying, “We will not come watch African-Americans play.” A room like this will never come and watch African-Americans play basketball. So corporate America had divested and took all of their money out of the NBA. David Stern, Charlie Grantham, Alex English, Junior Bridgeman, Bob Lanier, myself, we all were around the table and we said, “We think that America will come back if you let us have the mic, tell our stories, who we really are—not who y'all wrote about who we were, but let us talk.”
Because back then, it wasn't a room like today. You had to sit and do an interview, and then a guy who was just as biased or, you know, had his own agendas—remember, there were no females—so they had to interpret what you said and then go back and tell America what you were saying. And at that time, we in the NBA were saying, “No, I'm not like that.” I was saying, “I'm not like that.” But that was a hard hurdle to get over. Now, we're here today, and corporate America loves the NBA and the NBA loves corporate America.
BD: You did it all. As far as me looking at somebody and saying, “Alright, I want to be an owner. Damn, he did that. Oh, I want to be the president of the union. Damn, he did that. Be the GM of the Knicks. He did that. Popcorn." So we sit in the back on TNT and he's, like, “Yeah, man, I just exited my popcorn business.” Why are you so driven still, as an entrepreneur and as a businessman?
IT: First off, I'm driven because of the opportunity that we have and the example that I try to set. But that was passed on to me from the generation before. So I didn't come up with all these ideas. Somebody said, “Hey, this is how it should be.” We're all coachable, so we listen. In terms of my popcorn company, I was co-founder of a popcorn company that all of you have seen and experienced and probably didn't know it was mine, called Indiana Popcorn. The red bag of kettle corn that you walk through in the airport, that you see everywhere, that was my creation, so to speak. Now, why did we change the colors on the bag? If you remember how popcorn used to be, popcorn came in a clear plastic bag. And like all of us, we wanted a little flavor, right? So I said, “Let's put some colors on the bag.” So in putting colors on the bag, now you see popcorn, potato chips, everybody's got colored bags. Exit out of my popcorn company.
Then now, I'm in champagne. We've got 200 acres over in the old region of Champagne [in France], and we're the largest first press of the grape champagne that's in the United States, and that's what we give you. Most of the champagnes that you've been drinking in the United States are second and third press of the grapes. And sister, that's why when you drink it, you get a headache after two glasses, and brother, when you drink it, if you drink too much, you're gonna throw up. You will physically throw up. Now, why is that? The second and the third press, particularly the third press of champagne, it is used to make perfume and vinegar. What they have done here is they've loaded up with sugar, so consequently, the sugar in the third press is what's getting you sick, but they've got a great marketing campaign behind it. And Baron always told me, “You don't know nothing about marketing. Let me do this.” So what we give you is the first press. The first press is the best press.
And what I want all of you to start doing is just becoming educated about what it is that you're drinking, instead of going in there and just asking for a glass of champagne. You have no idea what the guy's pouring behind the bar. He just gives you a glass of champagne and you go, “Okay.” I want you to start asking questions, like a lot of you here. Some of you are millennials, some of you are my age. But that millennial group started asking questions about food. They said, “You know what? Where's this hamburger come from? Where does this tomato come from? What's in this?” And they made the whole food industry change. It made Burger King say, “I'm gonna give you an Impossible burger and I'm not gonna sell you meat no more.”
Think about that 10 years ago. You wouldn't have thought Burger King not selling meat. And so, what we want you to just start doing is asking, “Is it the first press?” If it's not the first press, then ask for Cheurlin Champagne because it's the only first press of the grapes here in the United States. And if it ain't the first press, you don't want it. Sister, you don't want that headache, do you? You don't want that. What we're trying to do is just give you the best of the best, and you deserve the best. Zero sugar, low sugar. So that's my Cheurlin Champagne.
And Joshua, my son back there, we just acquired this company called VESL Oils. It's a cannabis, CBD, THC company based out of Denver, Colorado. We also have land in Oklahoma where we grow in Oklahoma. So we like to control it from the dirt, control the product to the consumer, so we can give you the highest quality. Joshua is the CMO of the company. Of course, he's got the red hair, so you know he's always thinking. And the bad thing about being in the cannabis space is, I'm finding out things about my son and my daughter with cannabis that I didn't know. My son came to me and was, like, “Dad, it's a lot of things I don't know, but this I do know.” I'm, like, “What do you mean you know this?” He said, “Trust me, dad. I know about this.” So it was a party the other night and he was, like, “I'ma go to this party and blah blah blah.” And it was for Weedmaps, right? And he goes, “Dad, you probably shouldn't come to this party.”
BD: This ain't a part of your brand [laughs]. Last question: we always say Business Inside the Game is how you transition from one thing to the next. Your insight, your instincts. What in basketball has actually helped you translate throughout these different jobs or verticals? And then also, what can we impart on our audience that can take that along with them?
IT: Learning how to be a good teammate. Being on a team, learning how to work with others, learning how to accept when you don't get your way, when you can't shoot it 25 times because somebody else wanna shoot it 10, so you have to share. And from a friendship, communication standpoint, being able to be open and honest with your teammates has helped me in business because management is all about acquiring talent, assessing talent. And then being able to be honest with the talent, and seeing if you can set a vision for the company and have 10, 15, 20, 30 people commit to one vision, and try to work together as a team to accomplish winning a championship. That's the biggest thing that I learned from sports and being on a team is—being a good teammate. And how do you be a good captain? Be honest.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.