The Detroit Pistons have had a complicated history with allegations of point shaving and player ties to the Mafia.
The Detroit Pistons have faced allegations of point shaving a handful of times in their franchise’s history, one coming in 1955 when they were known as the Fort Wayne Pistons.
Not much is known about that series, one where the Pistons lost in the Finals in seven games to the Syracuse Nationals. Finding any information on the accusation is a bit difficult. However, the Pistons had jumped out to a 41-24 lead in game seven, but the Nationals came back and tied it up at 74 heading into the fourth quarter.
George King wound up sealing the championship for the Nationals with just 12 seconds left on a made free throw and subsequent steal on the other end, but what occurred up to that point is what started gathering attention.
A Pistons player, George Yardley, believed that the aforementioned steal to end the game was intentional on the part of the ball handler, and that a few other Pistons blunders and missed or incorrect calls during Syracuse’s comeback was tied to organized crime.
This was nothing but pure speculation and it was never formally investigated. By now, most people don’t even know that it happened.
Moving down the timeline, we arrive at the “Bad Boys” era of Pistons basketball.
Disclaimer: Everything you’re about to read has been vehemently denied by the players involved and no one has been convicted of any wrongdoing.
A book titled “Money Players: Inside the New NBA” (written by Armen Keteyian, Harvey Araton, and Martin F. Dardis) was published in 1997. There was a quote given by an anonymous former Piston who claimed that teammates had expressed their concern over the conduct of Isiah Thomas and James Edwards.
They explained that there may have been point shaving in order to pay back large debts that they owed to the Mafia. Money that Thomas reportedly lost over high-stakes dice games he’d hold in his home and at casinos.
While both Thomas and Edwards denied the allegations, the authors of the book claimed the following:
“Our sources are real – they live and breathe, the lawyers know who they are, and they are prepared to stand up and be counted if they have to.” – Armen Keteyian
When the FBI learned of the alleged crime, they looked into it but never found any evidence to substantiate the claims. They were aware of the people that Thomas associated himself with, and they were more interested in going after those people rather than Thomas.
In June of 1990, just days after the Pistons won their second consecutive NBA championship and he was named the Finals MVP, Isiah was put in front of a grand jury as he had become the subject of a federal gambling investigation.
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He expressed his frustration with the situation and, as it was previously mentioned, denied the accusations that faced him. Thomas claimed he only gambled casually, and his lawyers added that he’d taken place in a few impromptu dice games, but none that were considered high-stakes.
He and a few other unnamed Pistons were alleged to have participated in numerous backdoor gambling parlors that were reserved for “high rollers”. This is where it was believed Thomas began piling up his debt.
Isiah was put on the FBI’s radar after longtime friend and teammate in Detroit, Mark Aguirre, met with an agent to express his concerns over Thomas’ association with alleged members of organized crime families.
The meeting occurred just a few weeks prior to Isiah’s day in court. Aguirre met with agents when Detroit was playing the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The two instances of alleged point shaving both occurred in 1989. The first came on December 17th against the Golden State Warriors, when Thomas removed himself from the starting lineup just before tip-off. A game where Detroit was favored by three points, but lost 104-92.
What you have to realize is that in 1989, word got out a lot slower than it does in 2020. Isiah’s absence in the lineup wasn’t able to be properly reflected in an updated point spread, so bookmakers were left in the dark.
This means that if you were in the know, taking the Warriors at +3 more or less became a lock. At the very least, the odds were in your favor now.
Sounds a bit odd, but to Thomas’ credit, he had received a blow to the head the previous night against the Utah Jazz and had reportedly been dealing with dizziness. The simple truth could be that he waited until the last minute to see if he could play, but couldn’t.
The second instance came against the Milwaukee Bucks just a few weeks later on December 29th when Detroit was a 10 point favorite, but lost by 14.
The Pistons collapsed in the fourth quarter, scoring only 13 points. The story of the game was Thomas’ performance, or lack there of, scoring just 2 points on 12 percent shooting, and recording 2 assists.
It was deemed as one of the worst on-court showings he had in his career.
Informants alleged that these were just two instances of Thomas’ role in point shaving, but there was never enough evidence to substantiate the claims. There may have been smoke, but there was no fire.
To this day, all these claims turned out to be are just that, claims. Isiah nor James were ever convicted of any wrongdoing during their time in Detroit.