After a short hiatus, the NBA All Alphabet League returns!
Today we get to take a look at the T Team. This is undoubtedly a supremely talented side, with All Stars at every position including one of the greatest defensive centres ever to play the game, and a back court with talent to burn.
This team also contains some of the more interesting personalities to appear in the Alphabet League, from a tragic early career burnout to one of the most polarising players of his era, all the way through to a universally loved figure that overcame a near death experience, and a man who undoubtedly the gold standard for a teammate.
Point Guard – Isiah Thomas
Isiah Lord Thomas III (yes, there were two other men on this planet that shared that delightfully pompous moniker) is, despite Michael Jordan’s assumed protests, an all-time great NBA player. Thomas was an All Star on 12 occasions, starting the All Star game as a rookie and appearing in the mid-season show case through each and every season up to his last, where a torn achillies forced his retirement from the sport.
Thomas could perhaps best be described as Kyrie Irving, before there was Kyrie Irving. The diminutive guard was a masterful ball handler, who used his low centre of gravity and exceptional footwork to tie defenders in knots. His repeated dribbles through the legs, and especially his yo-yo dribble were a nightmare for defenders to read. Despite his 6’1” frame and slight build, Thomas was a wonderful finisher at the rim. If he got past you on his right hand, it was over: Thomas had an array of flips and runners at his disposal, as well as a deadly pull up jumper.
Thomas famously led his Pistons to back to back titles in 1989 and 1990, picking up a Finals MVP for his troubles. He put up 19.2 points, 9.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game over his 13 year career. Five All NBA berths – including 3 first teams – whilst playing in an era that featured Magic Johnson and John Stockton are testament to his standing in the game as a player.
Post playing career however, Thomas’s record is somewhat less accomplished.
As a coach, Thomas led the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks with varying degrees of success. With the Pacers, he made the playoffs in each of his 3 seasons. He also successfully managed the transition away from the veteran team of Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin and the Davis’ towards younger talents like Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Jamaal Tinsley and Brad Miller – a highly talented team that was derailed by The Malice in the Palace.
As Knicks coach, Thomas’ teams missed the playoffs in both of his seasons, with a squad largely of his own making. Thomas served as President of Basketball Operations in New York for 5 seasons: it didn’t go well. Thomas’ penchant for trading 1st round picks for (at best) middling veterans hamstrung the franchise for years, although more recent evidence suggests that the Knicks issue may start with the lead singer of a certain blues ensemble.
Thomas bought the old CBA in 1998, with the league going bankrupt less than 24 months later. He’s also endured his selection of legal difficulties, which we won’t delve into in this forum. As a broadcaster, Thomas has perhaps found his post career niche. His deep understanding of the game, his charismatic nature and his megawatt smile lend themselves perfectly to that forum.
Shooting Guard – David Thompson
Whilst this spot will more than likely be reserved for his namesake Klay at some point in the future, right now, David Thompson will lineup as the 2-guard for the T Team.
The original Skywalker, Thompson’s impact on the game was somewhat curtailed by injuries and drug addiction from his mid 20’s, which is a shame – he was on course to be an all time great of the game early in his career.
As a collegiate star at North Carolina State, Thompson and teammate Monte Towe were credited with introducing the alley-oop into the sport, although due to the Alcindor Rule, Thompson was not permitted to slam down those lobs. In fact, Thompson’s only collegiate dunk came in his final home game; it was promptly followed by a technical foul.
Thompson was drafted 1st overall in both the NBA and ABA, Thompson chose to play ABA ball, although at the end of his rookie season, the Nuggets were absorbed into the NBA. His first four seasons of professional basketball were simply electric. Thompson averaged 26.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks, as well as an innumerable amount of highlight plays.
One of the greatest single day’s in NBA history occurred on April 9, 1978 when, on the final day of the regular season, Thompson and George Gervin were battling it out for the scoring title. Thompson hung a career high 73 – including 32 in the 1st quarter alone - on the Pistons to take the clubhouse lead, before Gervin scored 63 – with 33 in the 2nd quarter – against the Jazz. Gervin ended up winning the battle by a measly .07 of a point per game.
A foot injury in 1980 was the beginning of the end for the high flying star. Whilst rehabilitating, Thompson’s loneliness and isolation saw him succumb to the lure of drugs. His cocaine addiction derailed his career. Despite making his 5th and final All Star game in 1983 as member of the Seattle Sonics, Thompson was a spent force.
He retired from the NBA at the conclusion of the 1984 season, aged a mere 29 years old.
As well as his 5 All Star appearances, Thompson was named All NBA/ABA on 3 occasions. He averaged 22.7 points, 4.1 boards, 3.3 assists and a steal through his career.
Small Forward – Jack Twyman
As well as being a great player, Jack Twyman was one of the true humanitarians of the league.
In one of the most heart wrenching/heart warming tales in NBA folklore, at the age of 23 Twyman became the legal guardian for his All Star teammate Maurice Stokes in 1958, after Stokes had suffered severe head trauma from a hard in game fall, causing total paralysis. Twyman organized charity basketball games – which later evolved into a pro/am golf event - to raise money for Stokes medical expenses. He cared for his friend until Stokes death in 1970. The NBA’s Twyman-Stokes teammate of the Year award is named in honor of the pair.
On the floor, Twyman was a star in his own right. The 6’6” swingman spent 11 years in the NBA, all as a member of the Royals, moving with them from Rochester to Cincinnati. His career averages of 19.2 points and 6.6 boards per game don’t do the high scoring forward justice. Through a 4 year prime, Twyman put up a nightly 26 points per game. In the 1960 season he, alongside Wilt Chamberlain, became the first NBA players to average 30 points per game in a season.
The 6 time All Star and 2 time All NBA selection went on to be a respected broadcaster through the 1970’s and 80’s, calling many NBA Finals series as the colour commentator on ABC.
Power Forward – Rudy Tomjanovich
Rockets great Rudy Tomjanovich has led a long a varied life in NBA circles.
Rudy T spent his entire 11 seasons as a player with the Rockets, starting in San Diego in the 1971 season and moving with the team to Houston. The 6’8” combo forward was a consistently high producer for the Rockets, averaging 17.4 points and 8.4 rebounds, on his way to earning 5 All Star berths.
Tomjanovich’s game was stereotypical of a combo forward of the era. He was too big for small forwards to handle on the low block but switch a bigger player onto him and he would step outside to shoot his excellent jump shot or blow by the lumbering power forward.
The unfortunate side to Tomjanovich’s playing career, is that he is perhaps best remembered as the unlucky man to headbutt Kermit Washington’s fist in late 1977. Stepping in to play peace keeper in a scuffle between the Lakers Washington and Rockets centre Kevin Kunnert (the careers of Washington and Kunnert would intertwine an incredible number of times post fight), Tomjanovich was caught unawares by Washington’s right fist, leaving him with head and spinal injuries – Rudy later said he could literally taste his own spinal fluid. He would spend 5 months in and out of hospital before finally stepping back onto the court – he picked up where he left off, playing his final All Star the next season.
Post retirement, Tomjanovich spent time as a scout for the Rockets before becoming an assistant coach. When reigning NBA Coach of the Year Don Chaney resigned midway through the 1992 season, Tomjanovich, in one of the most inspired internal promotions in NBA history, stepped into the big chair.
Tomjanovich, of course, led the Rockets to back to back titles during Michael Jordan’s sabbatical. The 1995 team – who won from the 6th seed - remain the lowest ever seed to win a title under the 16 team playoff format. They are also the only team to defeat the 4 best regular season teams in a single playoff run. As Rudy himself said:
Centre – Nate Thurmond
Despite being a Hall of Famer, Nate the Great remains one of the most underrated big men ever to play NBA basketball.
Thurmond played the bulk of his 14 season career in the Bay area for the Warriors, where he was named to the All Star team on 7 occasions, as well as earning 5 All Defensive awards – he undoubtedly would have earned more had the award existed before his 6th professional season.
Thurmond averaged 17.4 points in his 11 seasons as a Warrior, but it was defense where he made his name. As a rookie, he averaged double figure rebounds whilst playing as the backup to Wilt Chamberlain. With Wilt traded at the conclusion of the 1964 season, Thurmond took centre stage, averaging 16.5 points and 18.1 boards to win his first All Star nod.
A ferocious rebounder, Thurmond pulled down 16.9 rebounds in his Warriors career, and despite a fairly long tail to his career, still averaged 15 boards per game over the course of his playing days. His career high of 42 rebounds has been bettered by only Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
Blocked shots were not recorded until the 1974 season – Thurmond’s age 32 campaign. He blocked 2.9 shots per contest that season. It’s said that Thurmond would have averaged about 4 blocks per game, if they were recorded through his prime. Standing 6’11”, Thurmond wasn’t a particularly great leaper, but he possessed a fast jump, which combined with his speed and elite anticipation, made him a fearsome rim protector. No lesser an adversary that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Thurmond the toughest defender he’d ever faced.
Thurmond’s post Warriors career with the Bulls and Cavaliers wasn’t as prosperous, as age started to take its toll. He did have one trick left up his sleeve. In his first game as a Chicago Bull, Thurmond stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists and 12 blocks: the NBA’s first quadruple-double.