A few years back, I noted Isiah Thomas fails to get the respect he truly deserves as a player. Part of it has to do with his stints an executive and head coach while part of it has to do with – whether admitted or not – how much of a nemesis he was to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
The lasting image of Zeke for many isn’t the 12 consecutive All Star Game appearances, the four seasons with more than 10 assists per game, the five with 20+ points (and nine with 18+), two championships or one Finals MVP. It’s walking off the floor without shaking hands with the Bulls before the end of Game 4 of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. The game officially ushered in the start of a new dynasty in pop culture. The act cemented itself as one of the more notorious examples of lack of sportsmanship prompting Michael Wilbon to label them in May 1991 as “classless thugs who behaved like anything but champions.”
Now, with 22 years of hindsight working in his favor, Thomas admitted to the Open Court crew that if he had the chance to do it over again, he “absolutely” would. Being swept is embarrassing enough by itself, but Isiah took offense to Jordan and Phil Jackson’s smear campaign in the media. Chicago had voiced their displeasure with Detroit’s brand of basketball for years. Only then, however, did Jordan want to put the nail in the coffin defining Detroit as “bad for basketball.” Go figure, a team in the ’90s complaining about physical play.
Nevertheless, prior to Game 4, Jordan rationalized beating the Pistons was good for the sport because their style of play had no place in the game. And that’s the thing. Pistons vs. Bulls was more than just a basketball rivalry. It was deeper than rap. They were two teams from two hard-nosed Midwestern cities with two compelling, yet completely different superstars leading the charge.
The Bad Boys beat the shit out of the Bulls for three consecutive postseasons. They put an entire country on notice that anyone in the league could endure their wrath, especially league poster boy and darling Michael Jordan. And, believe it or not now, their prison-yard approach haunted MJ to the point where even he began to have doubts. During the same series, Michael once admitting to Pat Riley, “I would much rather win. But if I don’t, I’m not going to look back at my career and say it was tarnished because I never won a world championship.”
How the story pans out is common knowledge. Should Zeke have led his guys to take the higher road and show respect to the opponent who just swept them, ending their run atop the NBA’s Mount Olympus? Without question. Maybe a truly legendary career is remembered more favorably. Maybe he’s apart of The Dream Team that very next summer.
Maybe he’s remembered for what he really is. The best point guard since the merger not named Magic.