“Everyone has a vet.” That statement from Kevin Garnett has stuck with me. Sam Mitchell was his. He was Rajon Rondo’s. It’s the circle of NBA life. You would be hard-pressed to find a player whose career was not set on its course by a veteran in his first locker room. Those who become vets themselves pass those lessons along. These are their stories.
Isiah Thomas enjoyed a Hall of Fame playing career, making 12 All-Star appearances in his 13 NBA seasons and leading the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. He took the time out of his schedule as an NBA TV analyst during the playoffs to share his My Vet story.
Who is your vet, and how did that relationship develop?
Thomas: I had two guys, Phil Hubbard and Greg Kelser. Those were my two vets who really took me under their wings. They made sure I got to practice on time, knew where I was going, showed me around the city, showed me how to take care of my body, take care of myself. Those guys were invaluable to my foundation starting in the NBA.
I had played in the summer with Greg a lot, because he was a teammate of Magic Johnson’s, so I got to know him pretty well before the season started. Coincidentally, I ended up living around the corner from him. I also met Phil in the summer before I was drafted, so luckily for me I knew both of those guys coming in. They more or less took me under their wing and helped me literally with everything. From waking up in the morning to going to bed at night, I was with one of them or both of them my entire rookie season.
What on-court lessons did you learn from them?
Thomas: Fortunately for myself, the three of us had come from winning programs — Greg at Michigan State, Phil at Michigan and myself at Indiana. We all played in the Big Ten, so showing up being ready to compete for a game and knowing how to prepare yourself to compete was something that we all knew, because we all played for great coaches. It was probably a relief to them that they never had to worry about if I was going to show up and be ready to play. I was always ready to do that.
[Thomas played two seasons under Bobby Knight at Indiana, winning the 1981 NCAA title.]
Were you hazed as a rookie?
Thomas: My job was I had to clean the locker room before and after practice. I had to make sure that all the towels were put away, make sure I had vacuumed the floor, and out on the road, I had to make sure Phil and Greg had the newspaper in the morning to read and their coffee or doughnuts. At that time, I had to carry the VCR for our trainer, whose name was Mike Abdenour. Those were my rookie duties for the year.
What was your ‘Welcome to the NBA’ moment?
Thomas: I would say opening night when I walked out on the floor. We were playing against the Milwaukee Bucks. Quinn Buckner was one of my idols at the time. He was undefeated at Thornridge and won a state championship in Illinois, and then was undefeated at Indiana and won a national championship in college. He had an incredible basketball career. So, my first game was against him and the Milwaukee Bucks, and I was thinking, “Oh, man, this is a little bit too much.” We ended up doing OK that night and winning the game. That was my first aha moment. I walked out on the floor, Quinn Buckner was standing there, and it felt like I was stepping into a movie.
[Thomas had 31 points and 11 assists to Buckner’s 17 and eight in a 118-113 victory.]
What was your ‘I’m here to stay’ moment?
Thomas: I never looked at myself individually like that. I came in with the mindset of, “How can you build this team and this franchise to win a championship?” That was my only goal. That was my only thought. From high school to college, we always won, so my thought was not about myself individually, but how can we collectively go and challenge and beat the best.
Did you take players under your wing as a veteran? Who?
Thomas: I had every rookie and everyone who came in, and then I had some other rookies on other teams who I would mentor and help along the way. Whether it be John Salley, Dennis Rodman, Micheal Williams, Fennis Dembo, Joe Dumars. Those were my guys. I made sure I passed on the heritage of what I was taught to do. You spend a lot of time with people at dinners, practice, talking, mentoring, showing.
Why was it important to you to mentor players from around the league?
Thomas: It was important because that was the way I was taught. That’s the way I’d seen it done years before I got to the league, whether it be Bill Russell inviting Wilt Chamberlain to his house for dinner before they competed and played for the championship, Magic Johnson and I being friends growing up. That’s just who we were as people at the time, and that’s what we did. I was brought up to accept knowledge, but also to pass on knowledge and give it to as many people as you possibly can. That was my role, and that’s probably why I was elected president of the players’ association for so many years. That’s what we did.
[Thomas served as president of the National Basketball Players Association from 1988-94.]
How did your experience as a mentor translate to later becoming a coach?
Thomas: You can communicate with a player, but from a teaching standpoint, you have to meet that player at his level at that particular time in his skill level and also his communication level. Having participated in the sport, you knew exactly the emotional state that a player may or may not be in, and you knew the words to use at that particular time, because the best way to learn is total immersion. Having been immersed in the sport, and then turning around and coaching the sport, from a communication standpoint, I was always able to find the correct place to meet the player at to deliver him the message in terms of what needs to be done at that time.
Is there one lesson from your vets that has stayed with you beyond basketball?
Thomas: I would just say their kindness and their generosity with their time was invaluable to me. They didn’t have to be so generous with their time, and they were extremely generous with their time, but not only were they generous with their time, they were also kind as they were dealing with me. I tried to pay that forward — to give them the time, but also give them the kindness with my time — because of what those guys did for me.
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