Indianapolis Isiah Thomas was hired Thursday to coach the Indiana Pacers, and like the man he replaced, he starts his first NBA head coaching job with no bench experience.
Just as Larry Bird did in 1997, Thomas takes over the Pacers as a Hall of Famer, former Indiana college star and rookie coach.
"We chose Isiah by the qualities that he has a person, and as a player," Pacers president Donnie Walsh said. "I feel he's got the leadership, intelligence and determination to be successful as an NBA coach."
Thomas reportedly signed a four-year, $20 million contract, but he and Walsh declined to discuss terms.
There had been speculation that the job would be given to Thomas ever since the Pacers' season ended with Indiana losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. But Walsh and Thomas insisted the decision was not final until early Thursday evening.
"Like Larry Bird, this is not a spur-of-the-moment decision by Isiah to pursue a role like this," Walsh said. "He's been preparing for coaching for a long time and he comes in with a full idea of what he would like to do."
The Pacers were unable to persuade Bird to stay beyond his original three-year commitment, even though they reached the NBA Finals this season for the first time. Thomas brings instant recognition earned through his 13 years as an NBA player, 12 as an All-Star. Four years ago, he was selected as one of the league's 50 greatest players.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge, looking forward to the opportunity and looking forward to the continued success of Indiana basketball. Let's go," Thomas said.
Thomas, 39, was told by NBA officials that he had to sell his ownership of the Phoenix-based CBA, a nine-team developmental league, to accept any NBA coaching job.
Earlier this week, Thomas paid off part of the $750,000 he owed former team owners -- one of the last obstacles before he could coach the Pacers.
Thomas, who bought the CBA in October for $10 million, has worked out a plan which will allow him to quickly divest himself and begin coaching duties with Indiana immediately.
An NBA spokesman could not immediately say whether the league office had approved the agreement.
Thomas has reportedly signed a letter of intent to sell the league to the NBA Players Association.
Pacers general manager David Kahn said a procedure had been worked out allowing Thomas to divest himself from the CBA before the team opens training camp in October, even if the deal with the Players Association fell through.
"The combination of Isiah Thomas and his willingness to divest himself from the CBA, and David Kahn's working it out ... has basically allowed this moment to take place," Walsh said.
Kahn declined to be specific about the specifics of the divestment, but said he was satisfied that there is a procedure in place.
"It's a real surprise to me that they did it this quickly. I'm extraordinarily surprised," said Jay Frye, a former owner of the CBA's Fort Wayne Fury.
"We have no idea what the (divesiture) agreement is," Frye said. "He (Thomas) still owes us a lot of money, so we're interested to find out."
Thomas, Pacers assistant Rick Carlisle and former Pacer Byron Scott, then an assistant at Sacramento, were considered for the coaching job when Bird left. Scott eventually accepted the head coaching job at New Jersey, leaving Thomas or Carlisle to follow the franchise's best three-year run in its 24-year NBA history.
Thomas' link to the state goes back more than 20 years, to when he was recruited out of his hometown of Westchester, Ill., to play for Bob Knight at Indiana.
"I understand how special a place Indiana is with its basketball tradition in terms of its basketball heritage," Thomas said.
Thomas will begin working immediately, heading to Boston where the franchise's summer league team is competing. He also plans to quickly contact players, including the six who became free agents this month.