The Bad Boy Pistons not shaking hands with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls after they were swept in the 1991 NBA Eastern Conference Finals wasn’t the only reason why Isiah Thomas was left off the 1992 Dream Team.
Popular opinion points to Zeke’s not-so-cordial and even downright acerbic relationship with His Airness as the reason why the 6’1”dynamo wasn’t part of the first ever U.S. professional basketball team to compete in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The fact that they don’t get along isn’t the question here. What’s up for debate—as Thomas himself alluded to in the latest episodes of ESPN’s Last Dance documentary—is whether that fateful walkout ultimately led to Thomas’ non-inclusion in the Dream Team.
I’d say it was the last straw in a parade of slights Thomas and his Bad Boy Pistons exacted on Jordan and his Bulls that did him in—whether you believe or not that Black Cat’s only condition in agreeing to join the 1992 Dream Team was that Thomas shouldn’t be in it.
Thomas also had reason not to like Jordan from the very start. Before Jordan came along, it was Thomas that was Chicago’s Mr. Basketball.
Born and raised in Chicago’s West Side, Thomas attended Our Lady of Sorrows School and St. Joseph High School in Westchester before becoming an All-American at the University of Indiana under legendary coach Bob Knight.
He led the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA championship and in that same year entered the NBA Draft and was picked No. 2 overall by the Detroit Pistons. He started for the Eastern Conference in the 1982 All-Star Game in his first year and eventually made it to the All-Rookie Team.
In 1984, while Thomas was leading his Pistons to playoff contention, his hometown Bulls drafted Jordan third overall in that year’s NBA Draft.
Perhaps jealous that Chicago had a new apple of her eye, Thomas was said to be the main instigator of “freezing out” Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game and the relationship between the two future Hall of Famers have been frosty ever since.
It also didn’t help that the Pistons and the Bulls would meet in the playoffs four straight years.
In 1988, Detroit and Chicago faced off in the Eastern Conference semifinals with the Pistons coming out on top, 4-1, as the “Jordan Rules” came in full effect.
Thomas and company then went on to beat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals before ultimately losing to Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games in the NBA Finals.
The next season in 1989, Thomas and Jordan’s teams met again in the postseason but this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons again manhandled Jordan and company, 4-2, en route to a second straight NBA Finals appearance where they upended the Lakers in a 4-0 sweep with Johnson and Byron Scott injured.
In 1990, third time wasn’t the charm for Jordan and the Bulls as Thomas and the Pistons once again had their number with Detroit booting them out in seven games as Scottie Pippen sat out most of Game 7 with a migraine. The Pistons would collect their second straight NBA championship at the expense of the Portland Trailblazers.
Sick and tired of the Pistons and their so-called “Rules,” Jordan and his teammates rededicated themselves to becoming more physical in the coming season to better deal with Thomas and Detroit’s roughhousing ways.
It worked and as the two teams met again in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan and his no-longer Jordainaires were more than ready not only physically but also mentally. They brought out the broomsticks and swept the Pistons.
With 15 seconds left in the last game of the one-sided series, Thomas and the two-time defending champions left the court and didn’t even shake hands and congratulate the Bulls, as Jordan and his teammates did years prior.
That slight, we can say now, was no doubt the last nail in the coffin of Thomas’ non-inclusion to the Dream Team, which was formed a little over three months after the Bulls annexed the first of what would become six NBA championships when they beat the Lakers in five games for the 1991 NBA championship.
Columnist’s note: Of course, the 1996 Chicago Bulls finished the regular season with a then-record 72-10. It was only eclipsed by the Golden State Warriors’ 73-9 record in the 2015-2016 season. Thanks to my cousin for pointing out the error from last week,
Mark Rabago is a former reporter at Manila Times. He has continued his journalism career abroad but remains a true blue PBA fan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.