Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas were not friendly. Thomas' Detroit Pistons beat the Chicago Bulls in three straight playoffs, using brute force and defensive tactics that became known as "the Jordan rules," and were back-to-back champions heading into the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. Jordan not only got his revenge with a sweep in that series, he told the world that Detroit's downfall was good for the sport.
"You have seen two different styles," Jordan told reporters the day before Chicago finally conquered its nemesis, via the Chicago Sun-Times. "That's dirty play, flagrant fouls and what I call unsportsmanlike conduct. We're a clean basketball team. We don't go out and try to hurt people. We don't try to dirty up the game."
Thomas and several of his Pistons teammates walked off the floor at the Palace of Auburn Hills without shaking the Bulls' hands. Months later, when the initial roster for 1992 Dream Team was announced, Thomas was not included. It was widely assumed that Jordan kept him out.
The sordid saga is newly relevant because of. In the fifth episode, Jordan denies that he explicitly requested Thomas' exclusion.
"Before the '92 Olympics," Jordan says, "(selection committee chairman) Rod Thorn calls me and says, 'We would love for you to be on the Dream Team." I say, 'Who's all playing?' He says, 'What does that mean?' I say, 'Who's all playing?' He says, 'Well, the guy you're talking about or you're thinking about, he's not going to be playing.'"
Jordan goes on: "I respect Isiah Thomas' talent. To me, the best point guard of all-time is Magic Johnson and right behind him is Isiah Thomas. No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game. Now, it was insinuated that I was asking about him, but I never threw his name in there."
Thomas offers this: "I don't know what went into that process. I met the criteria to be selected, but I wasn't."
In Jordan's view, however, meeting the criteria was about more than on-court accomplishments and talent.
"The Dream Team, based on the environment and the camaraderie that happened on that team, it was the best harmony," Jordan says. "Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes."
Jordan insists, however, that he didn't engineer the so-called snub: "If you want to attribute it to me, go ahead, be my guest. But it wasn't me."
The viewer is told that Jordan didn't directly ask for Isiah to be excluded, but he didn't need to. Here is what the documentary doesn't say:
Jordan has taken responsibility for Thomas' exclusion before
Initially, Jordan denied that his participation was contingent on Thomas missing the cut, but Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum reported that Jordan made it clear he wouldn't play with Thomas. In McCallum's 2012 book Dream Team, the first phone call between Thorn and Jordan is portrayed differently than in "The Last Dance."
"Rod, I don't want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team," Jordan told Thorn, per McCallum.
Jordan didn't confirm this at the time, but McCallum wrote that he did in the summer of 2011. He even directly quotes Jordan: "I told Rod I don't want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team."
According to McCallum, Jordan delivered the same message to Chuck Daly, the coach of both the Pistons and the Dream Team.
It is strange, then, to see Jordan ---- repeating the old story that he had nothing to do with it.
The resentment started long before the playoff battles
It was a bit of a surprise that "The Last Dance" didn't revisit Jordan's first All-Star Game, especially considering the episode that covered the Dream Team opened with Kobe Bryant's first All-Star Game. In 1985 in Indianapolis, the seeds of the Jordan-Thomas rivalry were planted with "the freeze-out."
Supposedly, Jordan's more experienced Eastern Conference teammates didn't pass him the ball because they were trying to teach him a lesson. They didn't like that he had started the dunk contest the night before wearing his Nike warmups rather than his Bulls uniform, with a gold chain around his neck. The three alleged co-conspirators were Thomas, Magic Johnson and George Gervin. (Johnson and Gervin were on the Western Conference team.)
Jordan finished the game with seven points on 2-for-9 shooting, taking fewer shots than any of his fellow East starters. In the immediate aftermath, he said he was tentative because he "didn't want to be perceived as a rookie going out to steal the show," but when Chicago hosted the Pistons in the first game after the break, he went off for 49 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and four steals. In Roland Lazenby's"Michael Jordan: The Life," legendary sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro says the incident in Indiana lit a fire in Jordan.
"That became his personal crutch," said Vaccaro, who signed Jordan to Nike. "That's why we watched this person turn into the killer on the court that he is. He took them all to task. He never forgot that day. He's smiling today and he's kissing with everybody and all that stuff, but he never forgot that. That was the first public snubbing of Michael Jordan."
Thomas met with Jordan, supposedly to apologize, before that 49-point game at Chicago Stadium. The brief meeting was "mostly show," Jordan told Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick a couple of years later. Thomas has always denied that anything out of the ordinary happened at the All-Star Game.
Thirty-five years after the alleged freeze-out, whether or not it was real remains up for debate. What we know is that story spread after Dr. Charles Tucker, an adviser to Thomas and Johnson, talked about it at the airport. According to Lazenby, Tucker told reporters that the veterans weren't happy with Jordan's attitude. "On defense, Magic and George gave him a hard time, and offensively, they just didn't give him the ball," Tucker said.
Attorney George Andrews, who in 1985 represented both Thomas and Johnson, told bulls.com's Sam Smith that "it wasn't just my guys" who were mad at Jordan, and accused longtime Detroit Free Press writer Charlie Vincent of either misinterpreting or exaggerating what he'd heard at the airport.
"After the game at the airport," Andrews said, "Charles Tucker and Bill Merriweather, they were advisors to Isiah and Magic, they're at the airport with Gervin waiting for the plane back to Detroit and Charlie Vincent strolls over and says, 'What's going on?'
"They're acting out and saying how they showed Michael who was boss, taught him a lesson and all that and it extrapolates into a plot against Michael, which was not the case," Andrews insisted. "The only plot was Isiah and Magic guarding each other by not guarding each other so they could run the game and that left Michael to guard Gervin and Michael just had a bad game. Not unusual for a rookie back in that era. There was no conspiracy."
Whatever the truth is, Jordan undeniably felt that Thomas was a part of an effort to embarrass him, and his distaste for Thomas only intensified with their teams' bad blood. After the roster announcement, Thomas told the New York Times' Harvey Araton that he visited Jordan's hotel room at All-Star weekend in 1986 to try to clear the air. He also called the entire freeze-out story a "flat-out lie."
"There was no plot," Thomas said. "It was Michael's first All-Star Game and you know what? He just didn't play well."
Jordan isn't the only one who disliked Thomas
In "The Last Dance," ESPN's Michael Wilbon says that "half the team" didn't want to play with Thomas, naming Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. But the documentary doesn't go deep on why this was the case.
In, the 2012 NBA TV documentary "The Dream Team," however, Pippen says he "despised the way that [Thomas] played the game." Asked directly if he wanted Thomas on the team, Pippen says he did not. Asked about Jordan's preference, Pippen smiled as wide as humanly possible, barely stifling his laugh until the end of his answer: "Well, I can't speak for Michael, but I don't think he wanted him on the team."
In 1991, Johnson released a statement through the Lakers saying that he was "very disappointed that Isiah Thomas was not selected." Evidently, this was not sincere -- in "When the Game Was Ours," a 2009 book co-authored by Jackie MacMullan, Johnson and Bird, he says that he chose not to advocate for Thomas:
"Our relationship was really strained at that point," Magic explained. "We didn't speak for years, and Isiah knew why. He questioned me when I got my HIV diagnosis. How can a so-called friend question your sexuality like that? I know why he did it, because we used to kiss before games, and now if people were wondering about me, that meant they were wondering about him, too.
"I'm sad for Isiah. He has alienated so many people in his life, and he still doesn't get it. He doesn't understand why he wasn't chosen for that Olympic team and that's really too bad. You should be aware when you've ticked off more than half of the NBA."
"If you went strictly in terms of ability, then Isiah should have been chosen for the Dream Team. But Michael didn't want to play with him. Scottie wanted no part of him. Bird wasn't pushing for him. Karl Malone didn't want him. Who was saying, 'We need this guy'? Nobody.
"Michael got singled our as the guy that kept Isiah off, but that really isn't fair. It was everybody. We all understood the camaraderie wouldn't be the same."
Johnson called the deterioration of his relationship with Thomas "the biggest personal disappointment of my life."
Thomas struck back in a fiery interview with Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen: "I'm glad that he's finally had the nerve and the courage to stand up and say it was him, as opposed to letting Michael Jordan take the blame for it all these years. I wish he would have had the courage to say this stuff to me face to face, as opposed to writing it in some damn book to sell and he can make money off it.'' He also denied gossiping about Johnson's sexuality and said their friendship had changed when they were competing in the 1988 Finals and Johnson didn't come to the hospital for the birth of Thomas' son.
In 2017, Thomas and Johnson reconciled in a tearful exchange televised on NBA TV.
If there was a rift with Bird, it stemmed from the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. After Bird led the Boston Celtics to victory with 37 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in Game 7, Thomas told reporters that "if he were black, he'd be just another good guy." The comment sparked outrage, and Thomas insisted that he was joking -- Dennis Rodman had called Bird overrated, and Thomas claimed he was sarcastically agreeing with his teammate.
Complicating matters, longtime NBA scribe Jan Hubbard maintains that Thomas was left out because of his friends, not his enemies. Then-Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey resigned from the selection committee in protest, but hadn't spoken up for Thomas when he had a chance. McCloskey had also mistakenly told Hubbard that he didn't think Thomas would consider it a big deal. Daly, too, elected not to fight for Thomas.
Calling it a snub is insulting to Stockton
It's not as if some scrub stole Thomas' spot. John Stockton made the team as the backup point guard, and in the summer of 1991 he had just made his fourth of 10 consecutive All-NBA teams. Thomas had not made All-NBA since 1987; in effect, it was the fifth straight time Stockton had received an accolade over Thomas.
Stockton can't match Thomas' two championships or his scoring average, but it shouldn't be blasphemous to suggest that the former Utah Jazz star was superior. Stockton was always far more efficient, and at the time he was quarterbacking a much more potent offense. There is also an argument that, on the team with the most firepower ever assembled, Thomas' one-on-one scoring wasn't necessary.
Thomas' supporters can fairly point out that Stockton injured his leg before the Olympics. Hubbard, however, reported that if Stockton had withdrawn from the team, his replacement would have been a different Piston: Joe Dumars.
'The dirtiest play I have experienced in the game of basketball'
Detroit hosted Utah two weeks into the 1991-92 season, and Thomas took out his anger on Stockton's team. He scored 44 points, his highest total in eight years, on 15-for-22 shooting, in a 123-115 Pistons win.
"I didn't try to prove anything tonight," Thomas told reporters. "I feel everyone on the Olympic team deserves to be there and I wish them the best of luck."
Few believed him. And a month later, in Salt Lake City, Malone elbowed Thomas in the face. Thomas got 40 stitches; Malone got a one-game suspension and a $10,000 fine.
"It was premeditated," Detroit's Bill Laimbeer told reporters. "I think basically it was because he lit them up for 44 points the last time. It was a premeditated situation. They wanted to take him out. They didn't want him to embarrass [John] Stockton again."
Thomas said it felt like he'd been shot in the head. In 2014, he told Terry Foster, then of The Detroit News, that it was "the dirtiest play I have experienced in the game of basketball in my life. I don't think I've seen anything as vicious and as intentional to a player. I still don't understand it."