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Isiah International: Talking Business from A to Zeke

Last Updated: February 3, 2022
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas has his hands in every type of business, from hemp to insurance.

One man, over one Zoom call on a Saturday afternoon, made each of the following statements:

  • “Hemp is the new plastic.”
  • “If the power fails in New Orleans because of a hurricane, my company will fix the power lines and the energy grid.”
  • “Cavs-Grizzlies is not the worst NBA Finals matchup prop bet.”
  • “If you do not know the difference between first-press champagne and second- or third-press champagne, you do not know how not a sommelier you are.”
  • “David Stern screwed the Pistons because Rick Mahorn got taken by the Timberwolves in the expansion draft.”

An avid NBA fan might know who that is. The rest can figure it out by reading the above headline.

Over two hours, Isiah Thomas sat with Kevin Durant and the Boardroom podcast team, and the topics of discussion were, to say the least, expansive.

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Thomas is a guy from Chicago who once had a popcorn factory in Memphis and thinks the Grizzlies are sneaky good this season. He’s a guy who grows hemp in Colombia that can be shipped around the world without breaking any laws because its THC count is so low. He’s a guy who can tell you, chapter and verse, about the different benefits of CBD, CBG, CBN, and THC.

The next time you see Zeke on NBA TV, you will know how diversified his life after basketball has become as he continues to build a global business empire that every current NBA player should want to emulate eventually.

Thomas has been a polarizing person throughout his post-playing career, and folks in New York, Toronto and Indiana still have mixed emotions about what he did when he was running the Knicks, Raptors, and Pacers. He also coached at Florida International, was a part-owner of the New York Liberty, was one of the few people that Knicks owner James Dolan trusted, and now, at age 60, he continues to find new ways to keep his life interesting and his portfolio diverse.

On the Grind

Thomas has a hemp farm in Colombia, a champagne company that gets its grapes from Aube, France, and a utilities and pipeline company that can be called in to restore power and cut down trees after a hurricane. He is also working on developing affordable housing in his hometown Chicago, and has a charitable foundation named after his mother, Mary, that runs academic enrichment programs and recreational sports leagues in the city.

“When I was young and hustled bottles, I didn’t realize I was in the recycling game. When I was mowing lawns, I did not know I was in the vegetation management industry,” Thomas said. “The vision has always been: ‘How do I uplift my family out of poverty.'”

It is safe to say that Thomas does not just sit back and live off his NBA pension. He still lives in suburban New York, where he moved when he ran the Knicks as both president of basketball operations and head coach from 2003-08. Now, more than a decade removed from that phase of his career, Thomas is head of Isiah International, LLC, a holding company he founded in 1990 with interests in a diversified portfolio of companies.

Thomas knows more about both basketball and business than many might appreciate, and he is running a family business in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to his children, nieces, and nephews.

“I put them though college, and what we require them to do is come back, put in six months to a year’s time, free labor, and that is how they pay off their student loans,” Thomas said. “And if they decide they like what they are doing in one of the companies or entities that we have, then this is a place where they can make a living, get a paycheck, pay their rent, and buy food. So when you talk about trying to uplift your family out of generational poverty, that’s the vision of Isiah International. So the diversification of the spaces we’re in, that is because we have family members and also myself who have specialties in those spaces.”

The New Plastic

One of the more interesting companies in Isiah International’s portfolio is One World Products, which develops sustainable hemp and cannabis products — everything that will eventually replace plastic-based materials — as well as medicinal uses of cannabis derivatives CBN, CBG, CBN and THC in the worldwide market.

The hemp he grows in Colombia meets the international threshold for low THC count, which allows it to be exported and distributed around the world. He recently hired Minyon Moore, former Assistant to the President and Director of White House Political Affairs in the Clinton Administration, to serve as Chairperson of One World’s advisory board.

Moore will also lead the company’s efforts evaluating various global supplier diversity initiatives like the recent Stellantis National Black Supplier Development Program. Stellantis N.V., one of the world’s largest automotive manufacturers with brands such as Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Maserati, and Peugeot, selected One World to develop and supply hemp-based bioplastic solutions for interior and exterior components as part of the National Black Supplier Development Program. The Program is a joint initiative of Stellantis and the National Business League (NBL), and is the nation’s first Black supplier development program.

“Years ago, hemp was the raw material that the U,.S. and everyone else was using, then it got classified as a drug along with THC, which put it in a very unique and different spot. But the environment now is calling for hemp to come back,” Thomas said. “On the THC side, I think science is going to continue to lead the way here. It helps with pain, it helps with appetite. When I had relatives who were dying from cancer and they were being prescribed THC to increase their appetite, that made me say: “Hmm, what’s going on here?”

“Then when you look at the CBD and CBG and the CBN space, which is not classified as a drug, what we’re doing in Columbia is we’re building one of the largest extraction facilities there to be able to extract the CBD, CBG and CBN, it gets below the level of 0.2 (THC content) where it allows you to ship and move product across the world,” Thomas continued. “I think 10 years from now I don’t think there will be a product that is made or consumed that won’t have some form of CBD, CBG or CBN.”

So, yeah. The guy knows hemp.

Always Outspoken

But he knows basketball, too, and listening in on his discussion with Durant for Kevin’s podcast (a must-listen), it becomes crystal clear that Thomas is not a big fan of the way analytics now drives many front offices and coaching staffs in the NBA.

Thomas told Durant that if he was playing in the same triple-post (a.k.a. triangle) offense that Michael Jordan played in, he would be unstoppable in a different way than he is today, especially with the way the game is officiated these days. With the Pacers, Thomas tried to build a team with Jonathan Bender becoming the same type of hybrid point forward that Durant has become over his years with the Thunder, Warriors, and Nets.

The cross-generational connection between Durant and Thomas is genuine, and KD grew up in Maryland learning about the legends of Jordan, Isiah, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird from watching old videotapes and from playing video games. But Zeke’s business resume reflects another model for younger players: building a life off the court. Much like basketball, his success comes from a formula that includes building with the right people, picking the proper brains, and harnessing the knowledge of the great ones who came before him and have gone on to do spectacular things.

Take, for example, Isiah Thomas.

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