Has it come to this?

This package arrives in the mail from Hartenstein and Associates, a public relations firm in Dallas, Texas. On the cover in big red letters is printed, "Isiah."Inside are five pages of ad copy, starting with, "Isiah Thomas is, without a doubt, the best pure point guard in the NBA," going on to note that "Sportswriters exhaust the English language to praise the caliber of his game."

What does that make Magic Johnson? Without a doubt the best impure point guard in the NBA?

Whatever has happened in the career of Isiah Lord Thomas, once the sweetest breath of fresh air, now just another perennial all-star, with fans, critics, scar tissue and days he'd rather forget?

Maybe that should be weeks, or months. Try last May, when he threw that in-bounds pass to Larry Bird that cost the Detroit Pistons Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, and within the week noted in affirmation of a judgment by teammate Dennis Rodman - jokingly, he insisted later - that the same Bird was over-publicized because he is white.

If there had been an Isiah-is-overrated movement before, it peaked there, beating upon his reputation like waves from a heartless sea.

Sportswriters exhausted the English language, all right, describing the caliber of his play in big games as selfish, not to mention inadequate. Worse things were muttered about Thomas, who is as engaging as any player alive, such as: he's a phony.

Similar things happen every spring in the playoffs, when the pack converges on some prominent member of a losing team who has played badly in a big game.

Can you remember when Magic Johnson threw up that air ball in the Houston series in '81, and dribbled out the clock and missed some free throws against the Celtics in '84? People said he was a bad big-game player. Honest.

But there's another round of playoffs every year, and suddenly Thomas is on the verge of being rehabilitated.

When the Pistons beat the Celtics in this season's East rematch, with Isiah personally accounting for two of the four victories, the pack began enumerating his virtues and glossing over his bad games. He went 3 for 11 in Game 6, but writers noted that even though Isiah did not make many shots, he hadn't really gone wild and was now, finally, playing like a point guard.

Of course, the Pistons won Game 6 and the series. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Of course, after two games of the NBA Finals, Thomas is 11 for 30. He'd better turn it back on or rehabilitation, like heaven, may have to wait.

What happened?

The short answer is, Michael Jordan came along and Thomas slid into the second rank of guards.

There should be no shame in this, because Jordan may be the finest player who ever laced up a basketball sneaker.

Thomas, gracious publicly, complained privately when the annual All-NBA entry of Magic-Isiah became Magic-Michael. He probably liked it even less this season, when the second-team guards were John Stockton and Clyde Drexler.

Can you imagine it? Stockton, this very nice, sound, but still somewhat limited player, beats out Isiah Thomas, the Nureyev of the point guards.

It's a hard world to get a break in. Isiah, who wears his great big heart right out there on his wristband, whose game is joy and fireworks, not to mention volatility and risks-gone-wrong, whose mid-season funks have led him to consider retiring more than once, is trying to cope.

First of all, Thomas comes from the most impoverished of backgrounds, the youngest of nine children in a family kept together by their mother, Mary, on the west side of Chicago.

If he looks rather unmarked by it - he is so sunny, so self-possessed, so genteel - appearances can be deceiving.

In a recent Sports Illustrated profile, he conceded that his brother, Larry, was once a procurer and a heroin dealer. Two other brothers went into detox programs. It would be silly to think that Thomas made it out of the same surroundings without taking some psychic losses.

But he was always the one who stood out.

"What I remember most was his authenticity," said Rick Majerus, then a Marquette assistant coach who recruited him, now head coach at Ball State.

"He was a really genuine person. There was no hype to him. He didn't play any mind games. He was very straight.

"The neighborhood was extraordinarily tough. I used to say they addressed the arrest warrants to `Occupant.' Everybody was under arrest.

"There was garbage strewn everywhere, a typical ghetto. You talk about abject poverty, human failing, suffering, they had all that in Isiah's neighborhood."