Reports and rumors have long existed that Isiah Thomas being left off the 1992 Dream Team can be directly traced by to Michael Jordan, who has never pulled any punches about his disdain for those old Detroit Pistons teams and Thomas himself.
“I hated them,” Jordan said during episode 4 of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary chronicling Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. “The hate carries even to this day. They made it personal.”
Jordan, in turn, made the rivalry personal, and all indications are that the rivalry become particularly bitter in the wake of Detroit’s infamous walk-off at the end of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, when Thomas and Co. left the court with 7.9 seconds remaining in the elimination game without shaking the Bulls’ hands. In “The Last Dance”, Jordan said “there’s no way you can convince me [Isiah] wasn’t an asshole [for walking off the court].”
On Monday, Thomas appeared on ESPN’s “Get Up” and spoke about the disappointment of being left off the Dream Team, adding that he would be “more disappointed today than I was back then” if it turned out that walk-off incident was actually the reason he was kept off what is considered to be the greatest basketball team ever assembled.
“Being left off the Dream Team, that personally hurt me,” 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 making the team, I fit all the criteria.
“That’s a big hole on my [basketball] resume,” Thomas continued. “That is the biggest hole in my resume. … In the sports arena, I’ve won at every level. I tried to do everything correctly, and I thought I should’ve made that Dream Team. And looking back, if I’m not a part of the Dream Team because a lapse in emotion in terms of not shaking someone’s hand, then I am more disappointed today than I was back then.”
Again, nobody can pinpoint whether that single incident drove Jordan, who had basically all the power at that time in NBA, to keep Thomas off the Olympic team, but it was almost certainly part of it. But suffice it to say, he wasn’t exactly in a room lobbying on his behalf. If Thomas was on the fence, Jordan absolutely had the power to push him one way or the other. In the book Dream Team, author Jack McCallum quotes Jordan as saying to Team USA selection committee member Rod Thorn: “Rod, I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team”
There is also this excerpt from Sam Smith’s book “The Jordan Rules”:
Jordan had not planned to play in the Olympics, but under pressure from fellow stars such as Magic Johnson and from his commercial sponsors, he eventually acquiesced. He was still unsure when approached by an emissary from the selection committee. Would he play? Jordan was asked. Jordan hesitated, but as is his custom, he joked, knowing Daly was coach and assuming that meant a spot for Thomas, “I don’t play on no teams with Isiah.” The selection committee had been leaning against Thomas anyway, so Jordan didn’t change the verdict. But word got out that Jordan had denied Thomas a spot when Utah’s John Stockton got the point guard spot behind Magic.”
There is a belief that the reason the selection was “leaning against” taking Thomas is because he would’ve been bad for team chemistry. Rivalries were fierce in those days. Thomas was a tough guy to get along with. Still, he was robbed of a spot on that team, however it went down.
Thomas is absolutely correct that being selected to the Dream Team was a resume-type accomplishment. It was an all-time recognition that you were one of the best basketball players to ever live. It was a career honor. That U.S.squad was going to annihilate its competition with or without team chemistry or any other component of typical team building. Thomas’ name belonged on that all-time roster.
Let’s get it straight: He was an indisputably better player than Clyde Drexler or Chris Mullin, and certainly Christian Laettner’s inclusion was a slap in the face. You could argue Thomas was better than Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen and David Robinson. Even if you think Stockton was the better point guard — which I, and a lot of other people, would dispute, but you can at least make a strong case — there were still plenty of spots on that team for both.
The ultimate proof that this was a legacy team lied in the inclusion of Magic Johnson, who wasn’t even in the league anymore, and Larry Bird, who was a shell of his former self with a borderline crippled back. At present time, Thomas, who was coming off a season in which he’d averaged 18 points and seven assists, would’ve arguably been a top-five player on the Dream Team.
Fact is, while Jordan took down Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley in the NBA Finals, and regularly dispatched Patrick Ewing in the playoffs, the only star player in that era who ever got the best of him of was Thomas. Only Isiah beat him, eliminating Jordan’s Bulls in 1989 and 1990 en route to winning two consecutive titles. Take off Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic and Bird, and Thomas had more career championships than the rest of the roster combined.
He should’ve been on that team.
And he’s right to still be upset about it.
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