June 22, 2020 – The news of NBA superstar Isiah Thomas’ alleged mob ties came to light 30 years ago this week when the CBS television affiliate in Detroit broke a story about the Detroit Pistons Hall of Fame point guard being called to testify in front of a federal grand jury investigating a mafia gambling business in Southeast Michigan. The story ran on June 15, 1990, on the day the Pistons returned home to Detroit from the west coast where they had beaten the Portland Trailblazers to repeat as NBA champions and Thomas had been named MVP of the NBA Finals.
Sport Illustrated booted the Pistons off the cover of the following week’s issue in favor of PGA U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin and the story inside was titled “Thorns In The Roses,” a reference to the allegations of Thomas’ gambling and the small-scale rioting that erupted on the streets of Detroit in celebration of the Pistons championship the night they won the crown. Thomas and CBS television sports reporter Virg Jacques got into a physical altercation outside the Pistons’ practice facility when Jacques attempted to ask the superstar hoopster about his connections to the federal gambling probe.
Prior to the 1990 television report and grand jury appearance, Isiah’s image and reputation had been squeaky clean, his pretty boy good looks, glowing smile and natural charm making him the perfect pitch man and role model. Behind the scenes, per more than one retired NBA vet, Thomas was known as a smiling assassin, feared for his cunning and locker room politicking.
Per FBI and court records, Thomas was introduced to members of the Detroit mob family from his best friend and neighbor Emmet Denha, an Iraqi Christian grocery store mogul. Denha helped the family’s Giacalone crew launder money through his Shopper’s Market grocery chain. Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone and his younger brother Vito (Billy Jack) Giacalone were the street bosses of the Tocco-Zerilli crime family and prime suspects in the famous 1975 unsolved murder and disappearance of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa.
When the FBI scanned Denha’s financial records, agents noticed Thomas was cashing hundreds of thousands of dollars of checks through a number of Shopper’s Markets around Metro Detroit. Informants told the FBI, Denha got Thomas to host mob-backed “Las Vegas nights” at his posh Bloomfield Hills, Michigan mansion on multiple occasions throughout the late 1980s, where heavy-rollers from around Detroit would gather to play high-stakes dice and blackjack. Jack (Jackie the Kid) Giacalone, Billy Jack’s son, and gambling chief Allen (The General) Hilf, were in charge of the games, which acted as a floating casino, moving from spot to spot depending on the week.
Thomas told prosecutors the checks he cashed where his wife’s allowance and he cashed them at Denha’s stores to avoid the fanfare of going into a bank. The U.S. Attorneys Office stated clearly it was not investigating Thomas at the time the story broke in the summer of 1990. Hilf, the biggest bookie in the state of Michigan for decades, sat courtside at virtually every Pistons home game.
Billy Jack, Jackie the Kid, Allen Hilf, Emmett Denha and several others were indicted in a federal gambling and racketeering conspiracy in March 1991. They were all convicted in the case and did prison time.
According to federal documents, the FBI fielded tips that Thomas shaved points in three games in the 1988-1989 season on behalf of Hilf and Giacalone. The FBI never uncovered enough evidence to support the accusation per the documents. One FBI report from the spring of 1989 recounts a meeting between two FBI agents and Detroit Pistons starting small forward, Mark Aguirre, Thomas’ childhood friend and closest teammate, where Aguirre requested assistance in steering Thomas away from his gambling habits and loose mob affiliations.
The 59-year old Thomas retired in 1994, as beloved of a pro athlete as the city of Detroit had ever had. The mob taint never stuck to him. A 12-time NBA All-Star, he was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.
The storied Giacalone Brothers both passed peacefully in 2001 and 2012, respectively. Hilf died of kidney failure in 2014. Jackie Giacalone, who just turned 70 years old this month, is reputed to be the boss of the Detroit mob today. Denha, 70, recently put his Bloomfield Township mansion up on the market for $3.2 million bucks.
Thomas’ name has been back in the headlines lately with all the buzz surrounding the ESPN Michael Jordan 30-for-30 documentary The Last Dance, chronicling Jordan’s career and final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Considered the best basketball player in history , Jordan achieved his status as GOAT by finally slaying Isiah and the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals to take the Bulls to their first of six NBA crowns and end the Piston’s “Bad Boys” era.
The Pistons-Bulls rivalry was so intense, Thomas led a walk-off during the closing moments of the ’91 series, refusing to shake hands with Jordan and wish him luck in the NBA Finals. Most reports say Jordan retaliated by blocking Isiah from joining the Dream Team in the 1992 U.S Olympics, but Jordan denied doing so in the interviews he did for The Last Dance.
Jordan’s own gambling habits almost got him in trouble back in the 1990s. Instead of attending a White House honoring of his Bulls ’91 title with his teammates, Jordan hit the golf course with noted North Carolina drug lord and driving range hustler James (Slim) Bouler and in Hilton Head, South Carolina and racked up $57,000 in debt. Jordan was called to testify at Bouler’s 1992 trial drug and racketeering.
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