On Sept. 21, 1991, the first 10 Dream Team players were announced. Isiah Thomas was not one of them. On May 12, 1992, the last two players were announced. Again, no Thomas.
Thomas, who led the Detroit Pistons to NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, who was an NBA All-Star Game starter in February 1992, whose coach, Chuck Daly, was the Barcelona Olympic head coach, was left off the greatest collection of NBA superstars.
Many believed Michael Jordan had something to do with it, given his icy relationship with Thomas. This long-held belief is back in the news after the most recent episodes of “The Last Dance” documentary series on the Chicago Bulls on ESPN.
How big of a deal was the Thomas omission nearly three decades ago?
Well, on the NBC selection show for the first 10, Marv Albert sat down with Jordan after Jordan was announced, perhaps for dramatic effect, as the 10th and final player in the first round of announcements.
Albert asked Jordan three questions. Two were about Thomas’ omission.
“If I had anything to do with the selection, then I would have picked my brother, my sister, my whole family to take to Barcelona,” Jordan said that day. “I didn’t have anything to do with it. Isiah Thomas and my relationship has nothing to do with me being on this team. I think a lot of things are being blown out of proportion because of him not being selected, at this particular time, I think there’s still two spots open and there’s still a possibility that he may be selected. I think it’s being blown out of proportion, and certainly, fingers are being pointed at me because of our relationship and, of course, about the way the end of the game between Detroit and Chicago ended [some Pistons, including Thomas, walking off the court with 7.9 seconds left of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals]. I don’t think it has anything to do with our relationship. That’s something that really bothers me to a certain extent.”
Albert followed up, asking if Jordan issued an ultimatum. Did Jordan say he wouldn’t play if Thomas was on the team? No, Jordan said.
That is what has been disputed.
Longtime Sports Illustrated NBA writer Jack McCallum reported in his 2012 book, “Dream Team,” that Jordan told selection committee member (and the former Chicago Bulls GM who drafted him) Rod Thorn, “I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.”
On Wednesday, Thorn denied that.
“There was never anything in my conversation with [Jordan] that had to do with Isiah Thomas, period,” Thorn said on ESPN’s Golic & Wingo. “He said, ‘I’ll do it.’ … Isiah’s name never came up during that conversation. He never backtracked and said he didn’t want to do it from that time on, to those of us in the NBA office.”
Jordan, in a 2012 NBA TV documentary, said he received “strong innuendos” coming from “higher places” that didn’t want Thomas on the team.
“That was one of the stipulations put to me prior to me even committing that Isiah wasn’t a part of the team,” he said.
Daly was not part of the selection committee.
“Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics,” Magic Johnson said in “When the Game was Ours,” a book he wrote with Jackie MacMullan and Larry Bird. “Nobody on the team wanted to play with him.”
It meant plenty that the statement came from Johnson, an openly close friend of Thomas in the 1980s. By the end of 1991, Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons had alienated some in the NBA, including Jordan, after a series of events.
-The theory that Thomas conspired a freeze-out of Jordan at the 1985 All-Star Game.
-At the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, Thomas’ involvement after then-teammate Dennis Rodman called Bird “overrated” and that he won three straight MVPs “because he was white.”
-The Pistons’ trademark physical play, notably against the Bulls, and most notably on Jordan.
-The walk-out in the 1991 East Finals, four months before the first 10 Dream Team players were announced.
-For Johnson, that Thomas questioned his sexuality after announcing he was HIV positive in November 1991.
An argument can also be made that Thomas didn’t merit a spot on form at that time, perhaps in comparison to John Stockton as the other point guard after Johnson. Thomas’ last All-NBA selection — for a first, second or third team — was in 1987. Every member of the Dream Team was an All-NBA first- or second-team member in 1991 or 1992, save Duke’s Christian Laettner and Bird.
“If I’m not a part of the Dream Team because 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.” Thomas said on ESPN’s “Get Up” on Monday, noting he also missed the 1980 Olympics, having been named to a team after the U.S. boycott was announced. “The only thing that’s missing from my resume is not being on the Dream Team. … I still don’t know who did it or why they say I didn’t make it.”
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