Around this time 30 years ago, Isiah Thomas and his “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons were on the brink of figuring out what it took to become NBA champions — a path that would eventually have them reaching pay dirt via back-to-back league titles from 1989-1990.
Today, the NBA Hall of Famer is celebrating for another reason. As the Chairman/CEO of his ISIAH International, LLC, his company recently announced that it has become the exclusive United States importer of the Cheurlin Champagne brand. The first phase of their partnership had the NBA legend’s company partnering with the Democratic National Convention. That helped pave the way for Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Knicks, whom he formerly coached (from 2006-08), to become an official partner with the brand as well.
With NBA All-Star Weekend around the corner, Thomas is set to receive the humanitarian award at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Monday (February 13) for all his anti-violence work in his Chicago hometown and New York City.
Here, BET.com speaks with the hoops legend about his champagne venture, him being honored with the humanitarian award, president Donald Trump’s warning to send “the Feds” into Chicago and yes, that infamous photo of him holding that giant Michael Jordan crying meme in December. Zeke even talks about his longtime rival’s sneakers, making a must-read admission of sorts.
Thomas also weighs in on NBA hot topics such as the LeBron James-Charles Barkley beef, Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks ,and the dynamic play of the Boston Celtics’ All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas (no relation).
What made you want to venture into the champagne business?
I was co-founder of a company called Popcorn Indiana. When you walk through the airport, you see those red bags of kettle corn, white bags of popcorn and the black bags. I had just exited out of the popcorn company and I was actually looking for a new venture to start. I get about maybe 15-20 deals that come across my desk every month and a majority of them, you really don’t look into or they don’t meet the standards that you require for yourself as a company and businessman. This came across my desk and I found it just very interesting.
A) The story of the family who has been making champagne since 1788. Bringing their family together, consolidating them under one umbrella. Bringing the product over to the United States, being able to import it on internationally sounded like an exciting opportunity. It sounded like an opportunity that I could have fun with. Believe it or not, I’ve been having a lot of fun with champagne and introducing people and just making relationships with best-kept secret in France.
I’ve always believed that the best products are sold through word of mouth and this is our first phase of our initial launch. Our first event was the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Our champagne was there and it was a smashing success. Just like the popcorn company that I co-founded, a lot of it has spread through word of mouth. When people taste or see a good product, they tell their friends about it. People have been talking about the champagne, how well it has done in Madison Square Garden, we just debuted in Lush Wine & Spirits — one of Chicago’s largest liquor stores. We just launched in Detroit. Just from word of mouth and the success we had at the Convention, people have been taking our product and have been ordering it. I’m very happy with the initial phase of this launch.
It's Black History Month and you’re set to receive the AT&T "The Humanity of Connection" award at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on February 13. You’ve accomplished a lot in your life on and off the court. On the court, of course, the two NBA championships that you led the Detroit Pistons. But is this right up there as one of the most significant honors in your life?
Without a doubt. To be honored at the museum and be amongst that crowd and to go in for something other than sports … it means more to me because you had to do this with your spirit, your kindness, your generosity, your feeling for others and not with your physicality, your body, your skill.
The impact that we’ve been able to have on young people’s lives in our community really all goes back to my mother (Mary Thomas; died in 2010). She was the pioneer in our family in terms of activism. She marched with Martin Luther King, she worked with Fred Hampton closely in our neighborhood in Chicago. Her spirit of activism was put into all of us — to be servants in the community and to work within the community. And I’ve just tried to continue a lot of her good work. It’s quite an honor and it’s an honor that you’re really deeply humbled to receive because it speaks to you caring about people, not you shooting jump shots.
It feels like more than ever, regardless of one’s profession, talking about politics is inescapable — especially during Donald Trump’s early presidency. With you being from Chicago and representing the city to the fullest, what was your initial reaction to Trump tweeting that he’ll send “the Feds” into Chicago if it “doesn’t fix the horrible carnage going on” in terms of all the shootings?
When I first heard it, I know what that feels like. When I was around 7 or 8 years old in Chicago, the National Guard came in and we were basically an occupied state for 48 hours. We had to be in the house by 6 p.m. The military was walking around with their machine guns out and I remember a tank rolling up the Eisenhower Expressway. I know what that feels like, I know what that looks like and when I first heard him talking about it and saw it, I felt for my community in Chicago.
The problems in Chicago, the first thing that needs to be addressed is poverty. How do you deal with poverty in Chicago and all of our urban cities? We need jobs, access to resources, access to education, access to health services. Until you start dealing with the poverty, drugs and weapons in our community … that’s the answer. Poverty is hard enough in itself, but when you put drugs and weapons on top of poverty, then we basically have no shot.
The question that should be asked is how are these parents consistently, every day, graduating their kids from high school, sending them to college? Doctors, lawyers, policemen, firemen. How are all these type of individuals coming out of these communities? We only look at the negative side. But there are more positive things that are happening in these communities in these situations under these conditions than there are negative things.
What should be studied and replicated is how the hell are they doing it? I came from that community. I don’t know how my mother did it. But I know the education that we received, the way we were brought up, the way we were raised in that community, those parents every single day are getting it done. They should be applauded.
All-Star Weekend is just around the corner. Players' votes accounted for 25 percent of the vote for the All-Star Game this year. [Fans had 50 percent and sportswriters 25 percent.] What are your thoughts about that?
Just like in society, inclusiveness and diversity works. So, when the players are included along with the fans and the media and everyone just expresses their opinions, that’s always good for the game. That’s always good for everyone. But when we only get to hear or learn about a certain segment of any population, that’s not good. The more people that are involved, the more that the players have a voice along with the fans and the media, I think that works.
You played against Charles Barkley. The whole back-and-forth exchange between Chuck and LeBron James, is somebody clearly in the wrong here?
Well, first of all, I love LeBron and I love Charles. I like and get along well with both of them. I think they’re definitely speaking from two perspectives. LeBron is in the heat of the battle and he’s speaking from the perspective of participation right now in the sport. He’s seen from a participation standpoint that when you’re trying to win back-to-back championships — and I’ve won and a few others have won — coming back the second year, your team has got to be better than they were last year. You have to have better personnel than you did the previous year because everyone gets better and the No. 1 thing you’re competing against the Golden State Warriors — who you beat last year — is they got better. They got Kevin Durant. You lost two players — [Matthew] Dellavedova and [Timofey] Mozgov.
LeBron’s not asking to be a good team. He’s asking to win the championship again and to do that, he’s saying you need better personnel. Where Charles is coming from is not recognizing that fact and attacking LeBron for asking for better personnel in the way that he asked for it and on the public stage.
You coached the New York Knicks. In your opinion is it time for Carmelo Anthony to lift that no-trade clause and move on with his career?
The thing that I admire about Carmelo Anthony — and I emphasize admire and I know how difficult it is to try to succeed in New York — is his commitment and loyalty to the Knicks and the city of New York has been unwavering from day one. Every single night, regardless of what the situation is, No. 7 puts on a jersey. Carmelo Anthony walks out on the court and he competes. He’s not slacking it, he’s not coming in with an attitude. He’s giving you his all every night regardless of the situation, regardless of the circumstances. That’s something to be admired and I admire that about him. Now, what he decides to do, that’s totally up to him. But from the time he had been in New York, I’ve admired the way he’s handled himself, conducted himself and has played.
There seems to be an unwritten respect and love between small point guards. We saw the way you and Allen Iverson gave props to each other before his Hall of Fame induction last year.
From Isiah Thomas to another Isaiah Thomas, the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas is balling out of his mind right now. How do you feel about him as a player?
Put it in capital letters — I LOVE HIM. I love what I’m seeing with the small players, in particular the guys who score the ball and also assist. When I first came into the NBA, I got labeled everything negative under the sun because I scored and assisted. Back then, they only wanted the point guard to assist. I fought all the labels, fought all the so-called purists of the sport, who traditionally wanted me to play a certain way. I’m very pleased with this particular crop of point guards because they all score and they all assist.
No [point guard] right now is scoring at a higher clip than Isaiah Thomas. Last time I looked he was averaging like 29 points (29.9 as of Wednesday morning) per night. I’m loving what he’s doing in Boston because Boston is one of our pillar franchises in the NBA. To have him take that franchise and uplift it, put it on his shoulders and do it in Boston, watching him do it has been spectacular for all of us to watch.
We saw you this past December hilariously holding up the Michael Jordan crying meme during your alum Indiana’s upset of his alum North Carolina. The moment took on a life of its own on social media. How funny was that moment for you and can you believe that Jordan has become an internet sensation in this unpredictable way?
I love when all of us could be fans. When you could just sit in the stands, eat some popcorn and cheer for your team. Indiana-North Carolina, we have such a rivalry. And then, I’ve had such a rivalry with Jordan over the years that it was a great moment for all of us as fans. Nothing personal, but just a good moment for fans and people who love the game. And yes, I enjoyed it because my team was winning [Laughs]. My team was winning, we were in Indiana … it was a great night.
The only thing I wish I could do and I’m going to say this publicly … the Jordan shoes are so sleek. I wish I could just put them on, but the Piston inside of me won’t let me do it [Laughs]. But I can’t hate on the gear, I can’t hate on the shoes because they’re flat out sweet. But the Piston inside of me … I just can’t put it on.
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