Oh, Isiah.

I submitted a piece here recently about the dual aspects of local sports heroes; weighing their status as on-field stars versus their apparent characters in private life.  And I held up former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson as the kind of man who defies the old “never meet your heroes” warning, indicating how he — from my experiences around him — had proved to be a guy well worthy of hero status.

This time I’d like to talk about a local sports legend that I encountered but once; yet that meeting and interplay left me with an experience that — like many with Sparky — I will never forget. 

I worked at a Detroit TV station in the 1980s, and had been charged once with writing and producing a series of Olympic Moments to be locally taped and run during that station’s telecast of the 1988 Olympics.  Oddly, the stars of those “Moments” were Sparky and Piston star Isiah Thomas — an odd pairing that I had been ordered to “make work” as they appeared together in a series of taped spots.  The station specifically had a big interest in seeing Isiah bloom on-camera; they had recently signed him to a big contract to do special projects work.  I had “handled” a variety of non-TV types in the past for the station (Dick Purtan of radio fame; Sparky himself; Count Scary, a vampire) and was instructed by the station Boss to make a TV star of Isiah.  The execs felt he had great broadcast potential, and Isiah had indicated a terrific wish, an “athlete’s desire” to succeed on camera.  My job, as hammered home by the Boss, was to take him under my wing, and coach him to stardom.

“Believe me,” I was told repeatedly, “he wants to learn.  He wants someone to teach him the trade, and evaluate his performances on camera.  He WANTS you to be critical, and show him what he did right, or did wrong.  You’ve got to reach out to him … and help him.  He knows it’s the only way to improve.”

That sounded find with me.  I knew how facile Sparky could be on camera, and Thomas — from everything I’d seen of him – seemed to have great TV potential. 

So I prepared a series of 60-second Olympic informational vignettes, with Sparky and Isiah seated next to each other, under an Olympic logo, swapping clever lines I’d written on a teleprompter.  When the day came for our taping, we had well-wishers and station execs — including the big Boss — all over the studio.  “Have you talked with him about his performance?” the Boss asked me.  “Not yet,” I said, “since we haven’t started.”  The taping went pretty well.  Sparky was in a great mood — I thought he was helping Isiah feel at ease — and Isiah responded with quite a good performance as we shot about ten vignettes in an hour. 

Before the Boss left the studio — after an extended and pounding back-slapping farewell with Isiah — he again ordered me to “…be SURE to take him aside and evaluate his performance when you finish.  He wants to KNOW how he did, good or bad.  We have a big investment here, and he needs you to coach him in this.” 

So we called it an afternoon; Sparky made a quick exit, the crew finally dispersed, and Isiah stood off to one side, filling a gym bag with some clothing.  Just the two of us were left in the studio, as I had intended for privacy’s sake.  I had been directing the taping all day, and felt comfortable enough by then to approach him casually and say … “Isiah, I thought you did really well today.  You were a little nervous at the beginning, but that’s normal.  You played off Sparky real well … and if you work on keeping your eyes on-camera — I had to cut a couple times when you looked down — you should be really successful at TV work.  You have a lot of natural qualities.”

With that, there was a long and strange silence as he quietly continued to fill his bag.  Swinging it over his shoulder, he now looked up and leveled a stare right at me.  It was a blank, kind of malevolent, look … startling actually.  I felt like his stare was saying “Who are YOU to talk with ME?”  With that unchanging but challenging look on his face, he began to briskly walk right AT me.  I was shocked, and fell back as he brushed closely by … so fast and aggressively that if I hadn’t moved he would have hit me, maybe knocking me down.  Swear to God.  Never changing expression, or saying a word, he continued his determined pace across the floor, and marched out of the studio.

So much for my coaching and advice.  As the door swung open behind him, I actually let out a laugh … a big laugh, probably one of shock, but also surprise and relief.  To this day, I have never been treated SO coldly, so menacingly, or so … one hesitates to say it … hatefully in my life.  By anybody, much less an NBA star.  His behavior was so bizarre, and so aggressive, so nasty … that it was actually entertaining. (And as a writer, it’s my job to collect “entertaining.”)  And I still have no idea why he did that, though I’ve heard stories from others of similar behavior and treatment by him. 

The big Boss asked me the next day if I’d had my talk with Isiah.  Yeah, I said … although it was kind of one-sided.  “Well, he WANTS to learn!  Did you help him learn?” he demanded.  Yeah, I said.  I didn’t know if HE had learned anything … but man, I sure did.

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About Tom DeLisle

Tom DeLisle is a native Detroiter. The east side resident was a city desk reporter for the Detroit Free Press from 1967 to '71, and a member of the Free Press staff that won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Detroit Riot. After serving as an Executive Assistant and speechwriter to Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs from 1971-74, he worked as a television writer and producer in New York and Los Angeles, including a variety of bad sitcoms and comedy specials. He wrote monologues for guest host Richard Dawson for "The Tonight Show" from 1978 to '81. Returning to Detroit, he worked in television and radio with Dick Purtan and Tom Ryan, winning five Emmy Awards for local documentaries and comedies, including the 1981 primetime "Dick Purtan Comedy Special" and 1990's "Sparky Anderson Special" (with guest Pres. Richard Nixon) for WDIV-TV. He wrote for a variety of Tigers and Red Wings specials for Channel 50 in the 1990s and 2000s, including the "Stanley Celebrations," while appearing as "The Nervous Person" for three years on the '"Ray (Lane) and Mickey (Redmond) On Ice" specials at WKBD. He is currently completing a novel, and generally slowing down, because he's fairly tired.