Last Dance: Why Isiah Thomas Gets It Wrong, Except For One Thing

Former Indiana legend Isiah Thomas is still embroiled in a war of words with Michael Jordan, even nearly 30 years later. He's also wrong in this fight.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Growing up in "The Region'' is different. It's still Indiana and we are still Hoosiers, and even when it comes to rooting for Indiana University basketball, there's absolutely a ton of IU fans in Lake County.

But we're certainly perceived differently around the state. And there's no doubt about that.

We root for the Bears and not the Colts, though that line of demarcation has steadily moved north through the years because of Peyton Manning — and all of the bad Bears quarterbacks. We root for the Cubs and White Sox and not the Reds or Cardinals or even Tigers in different corners of the state. 

We're even in a different time zone, for Pete's sake.

We are, without question, a Chicago suburb. We watch Chicago TV stations, listen to Chicago sports talk radio — and thank you for that! — and even read Chicago newspapers back in the day when newspapers actually mattered. And growing up in Schererville, I absolutely rooted hard for all Chicago teams as a kid.

So during the 1980s and early '90s, I had a bit of a conundrum. Isiah Thomas was my all-time favorite Indiana player and Michael Jordan was my all-time favorite pro. (Still is.) So that intense rivalry between the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons was very real, and it was a bit difficult to deal with.

That Bulls-Pistons rivalry, to me, was the best there was in sports at the time. The hatred was real, and the journey for dominance in the head-to-head matchup was the best story out there. Getting over the hump for the Bulls was a live-and-die thing for a huge Bulls fan. And hating the Pistons — outside of Isiah, of course — was easy. Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn and, yes, even Dennis Rodman were despised in my book.

And now that this great "Last Dance" series on the 1998 Bulls has been much-watch TV on ESPN, it brought up that great rivalry again on Sunday. The whole thing about the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, when the Bulls finally dispatched the hated Pistons with a 4-0 sweep and Isiah and many of his teammates walked out before the game was over without shaking hands, has been a huge national story again — even 30 years later.

And, 30 years later, I still believe the same thing.

Isiah Thomas was wrong.

The case of the missing hand shake

If you don't know the story by now, here's the brief synopsis. The Bulls, who had been knocked out of the playoffs by the Pistons three years in a row, finally got over the hump in 1991, winning the Eastern Conference finals series 4-0 and advancing to their first-even NBA Finals, where they beat the Los Angele Lakers for their first title. 

In those previous three years during this heated — and hated — rivalry, Michael Jordan and his Bulls teammates all shook hands with the Pistons when it ended. It was sportsmanship, plain and simple, and it's what pros do. As much as they hated do it, they shook hands and congratulated Isiah and the Pistons.

But when the Bulls won, Laimbeer told everyone that they were walking out early and not shaking hands. Mahorn, Rodman and yes, even Isiah Thomas, walked out early. Thomas did it somewhat shyly, covering his face a bit with his warm-ups, but he still walked out early.

And he was wrong to do it.

When the story came up in "Last Dance'' on Sunday, Jordan didn't even want to hear what Thomas said about it recently in an interview. Nothing was going to change how Jordan felt now, or back then — or every single day in between since it happened 29 years ago.  He even called Thomas an "a--hole" and had no interest in how Thomas was re-spinning the story all those years later.

And Jordan would be right.

Now don't get me wrong. I still think, to this day, that Isiah Thomas is the best point guard I've ever seen outside of Magic Johnson. I loved watching him play, but hated the guys he played with. I always thought Laimbeer and Mahorn and Rodman and others were dirty players who took an extra shot any time they could. That made rooting FOR Isiah really hard.

The Pistons, for years, have used the excuse that it was OK to walk out early because Larry Bird and the Celtics did the same thing to them four years earlier. And while that may be true, two wrongs certainly don't make it right. 

Jordan shook hands every year after the Bulls-Pistions series. Thomas didn't in 1991, and he was wrong to do it. And he was still wrong, even all these years later. No new or newer excuse will change my thinking on that.

One point where Isiah is right

Thomas said Monday that he's paid a huge price for that "walk-off'' in 1991. He's right, too, because paybacks are hell.

Thomas has done everything imaginable in his basketball career. He's won championships at every level, he's coached in the NBA and generally managed teams as well. All that's lacking is an Olympic gold medal. He's a legend for sure, and absolutely an all-time great Indiana Hoosier. Watching him cherish every minute during the Bob Knight return to Assembly Hall in February was the highlight of my day.

Isiah Thomas (right) has a word with his former Indiana coach Bob Knight during the coach's return to Assembly Hall on Feb. 8, 2020. (USA TODAY Sports)

Isiah Thomas (right) has a word with his former Indiana coach Bob Knight during the coach's return to Assembly Hall on Feb. 8, 2020. (USA TODAY Sports)

But those Olympics medals? He could have had TWO!

Back in 1980 when the U.S. Olympic team was comprised of college players, Thomas was chosen for the team. But the U.S. boycotted those Moscow games and he never got to play. 

Then, in 1992, the "Dream Team'' was put together with the greatest players in the NBA. Jordan, Bird, Johnson and 11 total NBA greats were selected, along with one college player, Christian Laettner of Duke. (That's a rant for another day.) But, shockingly, Isiah Thomas was left off.

Paybacks.

For the failed hand shake.

Magic Johnson and Utah's John Stockton were the two point guards chosen for that team. No disrespect to Stockton, who was a great player in his own right, but he was no Isiah Thomas. Isiah had won two NBA titles and belonged on that team. Without question.

The thought for years was the Jordan didn't want to play with Thomas in the Olympics and he made his decisions known to all the higher-ups. Jordan remembered a few slights of his own, getting frozen out of his first NBA All-Star game by Thomas and some of the other veterans, and then watching Thomas stroll right by him at the end of the '91 game.

Thomas, to this day, still regrets not having that Olympic medal. And he'd be right for feeling that way. Jordan made sure that didn't happen in any way he could. And Thomas paid the price for that.

Did it hurt? Of course it did. And still does. You could see the pain in Thomas' face on Monday when he was talking about. 

Not shaking hands really did cost him an Olympic medal. And without  doubt, that is one steep price to play.

VIDEO: Weighing in on the "Dream Team'' Spat