The hatred between the Bulls and Pistons teams of the early 1990s is still strong, and Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas remain right at the center of the rivalry.
Exclusive interviews from ESPN’s documentary series “The Last Dance” recently brought the Hall of Fame feud back into the spotlight. It’s clear Jordan and the Bulls didn’t respect how the “Bad Boy” Pistons approached the game, and that animosity extended well beyond the floor.
In fact, one of the biggest controversies from that era didn’t even involve NBA competition. Thomas’ omission from the 1992 “Dream Team” Olympic roster frustrates the two-time NBA champion to this day, and there has been plenty of speculation about Jordan’s role in the decision.
Purely based on merit, Thomas deserved to play with that legendary group in Barcelona. Did Jordan shut down Thomas’ dream of winning a gold medal? Or were there other factors involved?
Why Michael Jordan may have kept Isiah Thomas off the ‘Dream Team’
Before the Bulls became a dynasty, they struggled to advance past the Pistons, losing to Detroit in the 1988, 1989 and 1990 playoffs before finally breaking through in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals.
Chicago swept its way to the NBA Finals, closing out the series with a 115-94 victory in Game 4. With 7.9 seconds left remaining in regulation, Pistons players walked off the floor right past the Bulls’ bench without the customary hand shakes. Cameras followed Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre as they headed toward the locker room before the final buzzer sounded.
During his interview for “The Last Dance,” Thomas expressed regret and conceded he should have congratulated the Bulls. Jordan wasn’t buying the explanation.
“Whatever [Thomas] says now, you know it wasn’t his true feelings then,” Jordan said in the documentary. “You know, there’s time enough to think about, or the reaction of the public that’s changed his perspective. You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you can convince me that he wasn’t an a—hole.”
Thomas told ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and Jalen Rose on “Get Up” that it “personally hurt” him to be left off the “Dream Team,” and he discussed the potential impact of his infamous walk-off.
“The only thing that’s missing from my resume is not being on the ‘Dream Team,'” Thomas said. “When the ‘Dream Team’ was selected, and I wasn’t a part of it, there was a lot of controversy around it. And I still don’t know who did it or why they say I didn’t make it. I know the criteria for selection of making the team, I had fit all the criteria. And that’s a big hole in my resume. That is the biggest hole in my resume. That is the only place and that’s the only thing on my resume that I did not succeed at. …
“I tried to do everything correctly, and I thought I should have made that ‘Dream Team.’ However, I wasn’t a part of it. That hurt me, and looking back, if I’m not a part of the ‘Dream Team’ because of a lapse in emotion in terms of not shaking someone’s hand, if that’s the reason why I didn’t make the ‘Dream Team,’ then I am more disappointed today than I was back then when I wasn’t selected.”
But should Michael Jordan receive all the blame?
While Jordan is often viewed as the primary culprit, Thomas acknowledges other members of the “Dream Team” spoke more openly about his possible inclusion.
“Honestly, I’ve never heard Jordan really say that he didn’t want me on the ‘Dream Team,'” Thomas told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. “Now I’ve heard people say that for him, but I’ve never heard it come out of his mouth. The only two people I’ve really heard say anything is [Scottie] Pippen and Karl Malone.”
It’s possible Jordan spoke with someone privately about Thomas’ status, but the larger issue may have been the overall uneasiness about what Thomas’ presence would mean for team chemistry.
As Thomas noted, he wasn’t seen favorably in the eyes of Pippen and Malone, and Magic Johnson later admitted in his book “When the Game Was Ours” he was opposed to Thomas joining the “Dream Team.” It’s not like Larry Bird was going to bat for Thomas, either, after the ugly battles between the Celtics and Pistons in the 1980s.
Rod Thorn, a longtime NBA executive who drafted Jordan in 1984 and was part of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team Selection Committee, told ESPN’s Trey Wingo and Mike Golic that Jordan had no involvement in the construction the “Dream Team” roster.
“There was never anything in my conversation with [Jordan] that had to do with Isiah Thomas, period,” Thorn said. “He said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Everybody else said they would do it, most of them right away. … Isiah’s name never came up during that conversation. And he never backtracked and said he didn’t want to do it from that time on, to those of us in the NBA office.
“Now, if that in fact happened, then it happened with somebody else. Because when I talked to him, he ended up saying he would definitely do it.”
This is likely not a black-and-white issue, but rather one with shades of gray. From a basketball perspective, did a player like Christian Laettner deserve a spot over Thomas? Of course not — but basketball was not the only consideration.
1992 USA “Dream Team” roster, stats
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