History is written by the victors, but also by the editors. Careers are shrunk to a sentence and people whittled into caricatures. We sum up entire wars in a paragraph, so it’s easy to nail down one of history’s best point guards with three words: Isiah Thomas, snake.
The problem is not so much with the descriptor itself; the problem is that this has become the only way we talk about Thomas. His list of transgressions—real, imagined, and exaggerated—include: The All-Star Game freeze-out of Michael Jordan; walking off the court after the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals without shaking the victorious Chicago Bulls’ hands; wrecking the Continental Basketball Association; telling everybody within earshot that Magic Johnson did not contract HIV the way he said he did; convincing the Pistons to trade Adrian Dantley so he could play with his childhood buddy Mark Aguirre; and making a mess of the Knicks.
There is enough there for a compelling full-length biographical book. But that’s the problem: All that stuff seems like the totality of Isiah Thomas’s basketball existence, and in fact everything there is a sidebar or a footnote. Thomas is too great of a player to be remembered primarily for his feuds and mistakes.
Thomas once scored 16 points in the final 94 seconds of regulation of a deciding game of a playoff series. It was as preposterous as it sounds. Think of how much we gush over Damian Lillard’s wave-goodbye dagger to beat the Thunder, or even Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russell. What Thomas did that night was much more impressive. He also scored 25 points in one quarter of an NBA Finals game with a severely sprained ankle. That was also as preposterous as it sounds. It was every bit as amazing as Jordan’s Flu Game.
Isiah Thomas was no Michael Jordan. But his coach, Chuck Daly, had it right: If he had been six inches taller, he would have been the best player in the history of the game. Instead, at 6-foot-1, Thomas had to settle for being the best little man in the history of the game.
Thomas was a ruthless competitor, and ruthless competitors have warts. One of Thomas’s problems is that he thought he could hide his warts better than he could. There was always some spin behind that smile, and after a while, it became hard to trust what you saw.
But now, after all these years: So what? Charles Barkley threw a guy through a window, spit on a little girl (accidentally) and made an assortment of ill-advised comments, and now he is beloved. Magic Johnson got his coach fired. Michael Jordan’s closet is not without skeletons. Scottie Pippen once sat out the end of playoff game in a pouting fit because he wanted to take the last shot. People make mistakes; we get mad and move on. Why do we still need Isiah Thomas to be the villain?
The Evil Isiah storyline blew up again this week with the Last Dance documentary, which highlighted the Pistons’ refusal to shake hands in 1991. But it’s not a new storyline. One reason the 1992 Dream Team snub still resonates is for what it implied: That Thomas did not belong on the same tier of stardom as the other famous names of his era.
Of course he belonged. Thomas was so much more than Jordan’s foil. He was the undisputed driving force behind a team that won two championships and nearly won a third. How many players in the last 50 years can say that?
Whatever the machinations behind leaving him off the Dream Team, he was left off largely because he was easy to leave off. That team was going to crush everybody it played regardless. America wanted Michael, Larry, and Magic. Basketball folks wanted one amateur (Christian Laettner) and a balanced roster. That left Thomas battling for one spot, with John Stockton, and nobody was going to complain about playing with John Stockton.
Stockton is one of the greatest point guards ever. But give old-time NBA players truth serum and ask who scared them more, Stockton or Thomas. The answer is clearly Thomas.
He was that good. They know it, he knows it, and any basketball fan who was paying attention knows it. Thomas turns 59 today. Happy birthday to one of the greatest players of his generation. Isiah Thomas was so much more than a guy you loved to hate.