In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas sexual harassment case, I’ve been thinking about character issues in sports. I know, I know. It’s a stale topic of discussion. But this particular case has me thinking differently for one simple reason: Thomas isn’t a player anymore — he’s the coach. Plenty of bad guys, Thomas among them, have led teams to championships as players. But how does it affect an organization when the one acting up is the person in charge?
Thomas may have been a great player, but it’s no secret that he’s been a bust as a boss. In 1998, he purchased the Continental Basketball Association and took just two years to run the league into the ground. Since then, he has underachieved with a very talented Indiana Pacers team and turned the New York Knicks into a laughingstock.
So are Thomas’s failures a direct result of his character? Maybe, maybe not. But I would argue that his character definitely limits his potential as a coach.
Just look at a few coaches who have won championships recently. Earlier this year, Gregg Popovich led the San Antonio Spurs to their third NBA Championship in five seasons — the Spurs’ fourth title during his tenure. Although Popovich has quietly built a legacy of greatness, he rarely puts himself out there in the media and never takes much credit for his team’s success. His players call him “Pop” because his last name lends itself well, but also as a sign of respect.
In the NFL, Tony Dungy won his first Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in February. After coming close so many times before, many fans wondered whether Dungy was actually too nice to get the job done. After the victory, the Colts’ players were obviously thrilled not only for themselves, but also for having finally given Dungy the title they felt he deserved.
Both Popovich and Dungy are character guys, coaches who are truly admired by their players. Thomas is a different story. Sure, his team says they have his back. But that’s because he’s one of the boys. His immature priorities are the same as theirs — money and bi…errr, nice young ladies. But, like in the real world, a good friend doesn’t usually make for the best boss.
Maybe one day Thomas will be blessed with a team too talented to lose. But I don’t think he’ll ever get the absolute most out of his players because they aren’t worried about letting him down. He doesn’t set the bar as high as Popovich or Dungy, can’t demand perfection the way they do. His players know he’ll understand if they were out too late at the club the night before. He probably was too.
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