Detroit Pistons legend and Chicago native Isiah Thomas is now in the champagne business.
In 2016, Thomas, 58, announced that he was the exclusive United States owner/importer of Cheurlin Champagne, which made its debut at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
The 12-time NBA All-Star point guard has been named one of the “50 Greatest Players in NBA History” and is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He played his college ball at Indiana, leading his Hoosiers to the NCAA Championship as a sophomore in 1981 and then declaring for the NBA draft.
After his playing days, Thomas was an executive with the Toronto Raptors, a television commentator, an executive with the Continental Basketball Association, head coach of the Indiana Pacers, and an executive and head coach for the New York Knicks.
In 2015, Thomas was named president and part owner of the Knicks’ WNBA sister team, the New York Liberty. Under Thomas’ leadership as team president and with his former Pistons teammate Bill Laimbeer as head coach, the Liberty finished first in the Eastern Conference that year.
During his career, Thomas saw business proposals cross his desk all the time. One, from Cheurlin Winery, intrigued him. Cheurlin was seeking a partner to help get its product into the United States. A partnership was formed.
Thomas was in Chicago recently to announce that Think450 – the licensing arm of the National Basketball Players Association comprised of the NBA’s 450 active players – has adopted his champagne as its official drink.
N’DIGO recently sat down with Thomas to discuss his West Side roots, his illustrious NBA career, and his Cheurlin Champagne business venture.
N’DIGO: What was it like growing up on the West Side of Chicago?
Isiah Thomas: It was a turbulent time. Let me give you perspective. I lived on Congress and Homan, where the Chicago riots were after Dr. King’s death. The National Guard came in to lock down Chicago. A tank was pointed at our home, at 3340 West Congress, right off the Eisenhower Expressway.
And then Fred Hampton was murdered on the West Side, three blocks from the Chicago Stadium. I attended Lady of Sorrow and St. Joseph High School. I started playing basketball at Lady of Sorrow and Martin Luther King Boy’s Club at the age of three. I was a shooting guard in 4th grade.
So how did you get into the champagne business?
I have built affordable housing as a real estate developer. Then I had a popcorn company called Indiana Popcorn. I sold it. After selling the popcorn company, I was looking for a new venture. An opportunity came across my desk to bring high-end champagne to the States. I realized a unique opportunity here because there is a scarcity.
Do you actually own the vineyards or are you a distributor?
I own the grapes. An American cannot own the land in Champagne Country in France. So I own the grapes that come off the land in Champagne Country in France. Our goal is to produce one million bottles a year.
We have cracked into the list of the top champagnes. Our champagne is top shelf, top quality. We have the lowest sugar content. No sugar is added to the champagne. We have a 90-plus rated portfolio of champagnes in the United States. All four of our champagnes are rated 90 and above.
You are traveling the world to tout your champagne. What has the reception been?
Incredible and incredible. In the United States, France, Belgium, Portugal and Canada, the reception has been overwhelming. In the United States we are in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and New Hampshire.
Who would you like most to have lunch and a glass of champagne with?
You have been an NBA All-Star 12 times and won the NBA Championship with the Pistons twice in 1989 and 1990. What does it take to be a champion?
First of all, a lot of training, discipline and physical fitness. You have to be extremely fit. Secondly, you have to be able to perform and concentrate under pressure, sometimes extreme pressure. And you have to be of sane mind to execute game playing.
What three things did you learn from your basketball years?
First, preparation is key in terms of practice and study and knowing your opponent. Second, how to connect mind and body is very important. Third, I learned how to be a great teammate, how to work within team settings, and how to work with different personalities to win.
Who is your favorite athlete?
Muhammad Ali. The Champ. He was a great athlete, but he is my favorite because of what he stood for outside of the playing field. He wasn’t always loved by this country. Coming up on the West Side, I was taught that you have to speak for the “voiceless.” No one did it better than him.
Speaking of the West Side, what’s your favorite spot in Chicago?
The streets of Jackson and Homan. The street Homan was named after my mother, Mary Thomas in 2012. It’s now called Mary Thomas Way. I always go there.
So, what is on your playlist?
Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé. I love the new tribute she did to Maze. I am very old school in my listening.