If the long-held grudge between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas had any hope of softening in the decades since their Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons met in four straight NBA playoff series from 1988-91, “The Last Dance” documentary has all but solidified them taking their beef to the grave.
In an extensive interview with CBS Sports writer Bill Reiter, Thomas said he was “definitely surprised” to hear Jordan call him “an a--hole” in the documentary for not shaking hands after the Bulls swept the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. The way the much-maligned Hall of Fame point guard tells it, Jordan had never directly been so blunt, instead exchanging pleasantries with Thomas and his son each time they have crossed paths in the years since their on-court rivalry.
“I don’t have anything against him,” Thomas told Reiter after Sunday night’s airing of parts three and four of the 10-part ESPN documentary, “and I definitely admire him as a basketball player.”
As a basketball player.
Then, Thomas proceeded to diminish Jordan’s accomplishments for the rest of Reiter’s piece.
“When you put Jordan and his basketball team in the ’80s, they weren’t a very successful team,” he says. “They just weren’t. When you talk about Jordan and his team dominating, they dominated the ’90s. But when you put him with those Lakers teams and those Pistons teams and those Celtics teams, they all beat him. They just did.
“What separated Jordan from all of us was he was the first one to three-peat. But he didn’t three-peat against Magic, Larry and Dr. J.”
Let’s parse this a bit.
Absent of any context, sure, Jordan’s Bulls were not as dominant in the 1980s as they were in the 1990s. It would have been quite a feat, considering Jordan was still a high school senior in 1981.
Jordan is 13 years younger than Julius Erving, six years younger than Larry Bird and three years younger than Magic Johnson. To draw parallels between them is a little disingenuous. Erving won his lone title before Jordan was drafted in 1984. Jordan was in year three of his career when Bird won the last of his rings and a fifth-year player when Johnson won the last of his championships.
Thomas won the first of his two titles at age 27 in 1989. Detroit’s playoff rotation featured two other future Hall of Famers and two more multiple-time All-Stars. At that point, Jordan was the lone All-Star on Chicago’s roster. Scottie Pippen did not make his first All-Star appearance until 1990, when the Pistons eliminated the Bulls in a seven-game conference finals set, and Horace Grant would not play in his lone All-Star Game for another four years. They played two years together in the 1980s.
Jordan won the first of his six titles at age 27 in 1991, sweeping a 29-year-old Thomas’ Pistons and winning a five-game Finals series against a 31-year-old Johnson’s Lakers in the process. That Jordan’s best Bulls teams never faced the best of Erving’s 76ers, Bird’s Celtics and Johnson’s Lakers is a matter of timing, not definitive evidence that one player was any greater than the other.
And yet, Thomas offered this list to Reiter of the best five players he competed against, in order:
For the record, Bird called Jordan “the finest athlete he’d ever witnessed or opposed” as early as 1985, and Johnson declared Jordan “the best ever” by 1993 — in the same interview Thomas said, “It would have been interesting to see how our team would have fared against this Bulls team. When you’re talking about this Bulls team, you’re really only talking about Michael Jordan. You can’t really say that our team would’ve beat them or the Lakers would’ve beat them, because nobody has really found out a way to stop this guy.”
Oh, and here is what Thomas told Sports Illustrated following Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls in 1999:
“From all the players I have seen and played against, he’s definitely the best player ever. A lot of people like to argue this guy was better or this guy was better. But every player you think of there was some weaknesses and deficiencies in their game. He has the complete package in all facets of his offensive game, and when you break him down defensively, he’s also the best defensive player in the game. ... He should be remembered as the greatest of all time.”
It seems his opinion has changed with time, just as he has adjusted his reasoning for not shaking Jordan’s hand after the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. Being called “an a--hole” can make you rethink quite a bit.
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