Continental Basketball Association: How Isiah Thomas Killed The CBA

The Old Continental Basketball Association (CBA) Logo.
The Continental Basketball Association logo was simple and cool. Just like the league — before it was snuffed out by Isiah Thomas.

The Continental Basketball Association was a professional basketball minor league from 1946 to 2009.

It was responsible for several innovative ideas that still exist today.

Possibly the biggest creation was the “10 Day Contract” which allowed the NBA to sign a CBA player for 10 days. And potentially for the remainder of the NBA season.

In 1955, the Hazleton Hawks of the Eastern League (precursor to the CBA) was the first integrated professional league franchise with an all-black starting lineup.

The CBA was the first league to use breakaway rims. After Darryl Dawkins shattered two basketball backboards during his 1979–80 NBA season, the CBA implemented a collapsible hinged rim. The design was chosen from 10 prototypes that were set up in a New York City high school gymnasium in the summer of 1980. Unidentified college basketball players were asked to try to break the rims and the three strongest designs were chosen for a trial run in the CBA.

But even stronger than a dunk by “Chocolate Thunder,” is the inexplicable magnetism of the man known as “Zeke.”

Wherever Isiah Thomas goes, he leaves a swath of destruction in his wake. It’s just amazing that he keeps getting jobs.

Thomas’ impact as a player cannot be disputed – he is one of the best guards to ever play in the NBA.

But for as good as he was on the court, Thomas is a terrible front office member, coach, or executive.

As the Executive VP for the Toronto Raptors upon their inception, the team averaged a mere 22 wins a season in his four years. The year after he quit, the Raptors made the playoffs that season and for three straight.

When he took over as head coach for the Pacers, he took a team that was coming off of a Finals appearance and won 15 less games. The Pacers underachieved for three years under “Zeke”, yet the year after he was replaced by Rick Carlisle, they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

From there it’s well documented how Thomas went to the Knicks and basically sunk the franchise for several years with a series of stupid moves that made almost no sense, other than he was trying to destroy the franchise.

To cap off his time in New York beautifully, Thomas was found guilty of sexual harassment of a former employee which ultimately cost the Knicks $11.6 million dollars. I highly recommend Bill Simmons column covering the proceedings, great stuff you almost can’t believe actually happened.

But between leaving the Raptors and being hired by the Pacers, Thomas committed perhaps his most grievous sin, which says something considering the kind of dirtball he must be. He killed the Continental Basketball Association.

The CBA started in 1946, two months before the NBA was created. It was never meant to be a challenger to the NBA though, and operated in the background as a minor league.

In the mid-1980’s, Continental Basketball Association games were featured on cable channel BET.

Each of the 14 franchises were valued at roughly $500,000 a piece. The cooperation between the NBA and CBA was good for both leagues and strengthened the CBA’s claim as the “NBA’s minor league.”

Then, Thomas bought the CBA for $10 million dollars in 1999 and things went downhill immediately.

Roughly two weeks after becoming owner, he cut player salaries by roughly a third in an effort to purportedly make the “CBA a younger league” which would appeal more to the NBA as its feeder system.

The players hate “Zeke”.

The following March, six months after his purchase, the NBA offers “Zeke” $11 million dollars and a percentage of profits to buy the CBA and take over the league. Thomas says no, initially.

Three months later, Thomas is offered the head coaching position for the Indiana Pacers. But there is a catch — NBA rules forbid a coach from owning his own league and coaching since that would give him an unfair advantage in terms of player acquisition. So, Thomas signs a letter of intent to sell the CBA to the NBA Players Union.

The owners hate “Zeke”.

Amazingly, the NBA announces a month later that, after 20 years, it does not plan on retaining the CBA as its official minor league after the 2001 season because it will start its own minor league, the NBADL. Almost immediately due to no NBA affiliation, the league becomes nearly worthless and impossible to sell.

The owners really hate “Zeke”.

But Thomas doesn’t care. In October, he signs the league into a “Blind Trust”, essentially crippling the CBA because it can’t pay for anything because no one has any way of seeing the books or knowing about the financial status of the league. That same month, Thomas accepts the Pacers head coaching job.

Three months later the CBA folds and declares bankruptcy.

In less than a year and a half, Isiah Thomas killed a professional basketball league that had been around since 1946. And, blew roughly $10 million dollars in the process.

How the Knicks could ever hire him as VP of Basketball Operations after this is beyond explanation. But they did on December 22, 2003.

By the end of the 2005–06 season, the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league and the second-worst record.

In 2008 after a 59 loss season, he was fired after accumulating a winning percentage of .341 in NYC.

Somehow after that, he got hired as the head coach at Florida International University. FIU fired Thomas after he went 26–65 in three seasons.

Even though it may feel like it, this isn’t an article about how terrible Thomas was after his playing career ended.

But, it is an article about how his lack of success (and ineptitude) at every basketball level, every outpost, every role, ultimately led to the death of the Continental Basketball Association.

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