What if Michael Jordan had played in the age of social media?
It’s a question as intriguing as it is unanswerable. But with the airing of “The Last Dance” during a global pandemic that has effectively paused the world as we know it, we’ve gotten a taste of how the biggest storylines from the NBA of yesteryear would play out in the theater of sports talk/debate television, podcasts, Twitter and the blogosphere.
Chief among those storylines is the public beef between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas, which centers around a handful of flashpoint moments throughout each of their careers: The 1985 All-Star freezeout (not depicted or referenced in “The Last Dance”), the Pistons’ walk-off without shaking hands after being swept by the Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals and Isiah Thomas’ exclusion from the Dream Team of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics — a decision that it’s long been speculated Jordan played a part in.
The latter two points of contention have been blown out across the sports media universe since Episodes 3 and 4 of “The Last Dance” debuted, with Episode 4 chronicling the Bulls’ rivalry with the Bad Boy Pistons and the walk-off, and Episode 5 detailing Thomas being left off the Dream Team.
It’s been quite a sight to behold. Decades-old controversy, debated with the same fervor as as a present-day free agent signing or public feud.
“I hope the full content of what I was trying to express in the admiration we all had for him as a player is shown from my comments,” Thomas told The Detroit News on April 14.
Here’s an (aggregated) account of how it’s all gone down since then:
After falling to the Pistons in the postseason two years in a row, the Bulls finally dethroned their most heated rivals with a sweep in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. But the real trouble began when, with just under ten seconds left in the decisive Game 4, most of the Pistons players (led by Bill Laimbeer and including Isiah Thomas) walked off their home floor without shaking the Bulls’ hands. Accounts differ on the exact reasoning behind the move.
John Salley (Pistons center 1986-1992) to Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter: “Bill Laimbeer said, 'Let’s hand them the torch the same way the Celtics handed it to us.’”
Isiah Thomas (Pistons guard 1981-1993) in 2013 on NBATV’s “Open Court”: “We had dethroned the Celtics, we had dethroned the Lakers, and we thought that we deserved a little bit of respect as a champion. Everyone and every team could play and act like the Pistons, and adopt our philosophy, except the Pistons.
“They (the Bulls) went on a day, day-and-a-half tirade about how we were bad for the game, how we were bad people, how Laimbeer was a thug, and all the time, they were getting ready to win, they were up 3-0. And then they had this press conference just totally disrespecting us as champions.”
Thomas in Episode 4 of “The Last Dance”: “Knowing what we know now and the aftermath of what took place, I think all of us would have stopped and said, ‘Hey, congratulations…’ like they do now. I mean, we would’ve done it, of course we would have done it. But during that period of time, that’s just now how it was passed. When you lost, you left the floor. That was it.”
Michael Jordan (Bulls guard 1984-1993; 1994-1998) in Episode 4: “Well, I know it’s all bulls**t. Whatever he (Thomas) says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it, or the reactions of the public has kind of changed his perspective of it. You can show me whatever you want. There’s no way you can convince he wasn’t an a**hole.”
Horace Grant (Bulls forward 1987-1994) in Episode 4: “Straight up b**ches. That’s what they walked off like.”
Thomas to Bill Reiter of CBS Sports: "I was definitely surprised (to hear Jordan call him an a**hole). Because we've been in each other's presence before, and I've never gotten that type of reaction from him. We were even at dinner a couple times and he was always pleasant. Always good to my kids. Always good to my son. He even gave my son a pair of gym shoes.
"The competition that we all had on the floor, I truly just thought it was on the floor."
Chris Broussard (FOX Sports Analyst) on “The Association”: “He (Thomas) was stunned to see Jordan talk about him, use the expletive about him… Isiah didn’t know that that was coming, and thought that his interactions with Jordan had been cordial over the years.”
Shannon Sharpe (FOX Sports Co-Host) on “Undisputed”: "Listen to Michael talk, listen to his body language and his demeanor. He ain’t forgot that. He’ll never forgive Isiah.”
Jordan and Thomas’ public airing of grievances over the walk-off inspired a week of think-pieces, public interviews by Thomas and other members of the Pistons and Bulls, and countless televised Zoom debates. That discourse seemed to reveal deeper fissures in the Thomas-Jordan relationship.
Thomas, to Bill Reiter of CBS Sports: "When you put Jordan and his basketball team in the '80s, they weren't a very successful team. They just weren't. When you talk about Jordan and his team dominating, they dominated the '90s. But when you put him with those Lakers teams and those Pistons teams and those Celtics teams, they all beat him. They just did.
"What separated Jordan from all of us was he was the first one to three-peat. But he didn't three-peat against Magic, Larry and Dr. J."
Thomas is asked by Reiter to give his list of the top five players he played against. This is what he said:
Asked Isiah to rank the five best players he ever played against based on his own experience. His answer:— Bill Reiter (@sportsreiter) April 27, 2020
4. Jordan 👀
5. Dr. J https://t.co/YDojum1dYD
Skip Bayless (FOX Sports Co-Host) on “Undisputed”: "This is nothing but bitter, bad blood from Isiah Thomas. He still mistakenly holds it against Michael Jordan for keeping him off a Dream Team that he didn't make on sheer ability."
Jordan in Episode 5: “I respect Isiah Thomas’ talent. To me, the best point guard of all time is Magic Johnson and right behind him is Isiah Thomas. No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game.”
Bill Laimbeer (Pistons center 1982-1994) on ESPN’s “The Jump!”: “They whined and cried for a year and a half about how bad we were for the game. But more importantly, (they said) we’re bad people. We weren’t bad people. We were just basketball players winning. And that really stuck with me because they didn’t know who we were or what we were about as individuals in our family life."
Will Perdue (Bulls center 1988-1995) on the Bulls Talk Podcast: “At the time, I kind of thought it was classless as far as, at least recognize the team that beat you. But later on, as I reflect on that, I thought about, I kinda understand where they were coming from because they just got their ass handed to them, and I can imagine that they were probably in denial.”
Isaiah Thomas (NBA player 2011-2020) on Twitter: “Y’all be tweeting me mad at me like I was tryna hurt Jordan lol”
Isiah Thomas repeatedly expressed regret for the incident, saying he “paid a heavy price” for it, that he would do it differently if given the chance, and even apologizing to the city of Detroit. Had he known the scope of the ramifications of his actions, he said he would have done things differently.
Isiah Thomas on ESPN’s “Get Up”: “Being left off the Dream Team, that personally hurt me. In 1980, I was on the Olympic team. As a matter of fact, I was voted the male athlete of the year in 1980 for the USA Olympic team. And the only thing that’s missing from my resume is not being on the Dream Team.
“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."
And then there’s the Dream Team controversy. In the 1991-92 season, Thomas’ age 30 campaign, he made his 11th consecutive All-Star appearance and played 78 games, averaging 18.5 points, 7.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game. To that point in his career, he was a one-time NCAA champion, two-time NBA champion, a Finals MVP and had earned five All-NBA selections. Yet, on the greatest basketball team ever assembled, he was excluded. Conspiracies swirl as to why, with many speculating it was his dispute with Jordan that led to him not being selected.
Isiah Thomas in Episode 5: “I don’t know what went into that process. I met the criteria to be selected. But I wasn’t.”
Magic Johnson (Lakers guard 1979-1991; 1995-1996 and Dream Team member): "I know he’s hurt… During that time, he was one of those top ten players for sure.”
Charles Barkley (NBA player 1984-2000, Dream Team member) on ESPN’s Waddle & Silvy: “I have zero knowledge of why Isiah was left off the team. Obviously, I heard the rumors. I was never asked about Isiah. Michael had never mentioned to me anything about Isiah ever… Isiah probably should have been on the team.”
Michael Wilbon (ESPN NBA Analyst) on ESPN’s “The Jump!”: “My best guess would be, having covered the team and having been there, I’m gonna say nine of those guys were just not in favor of hanging out with Isiah Thomas at the time. And that’s what that summer was, Rachel (Nichols), it was a big hang out… They knew who they wanted to spend the summer with and they knew who they didn’t want to spend the summer with. And hanging that on Michael Jordan (alone) is just inaccurate.”
Rod Thorn (chair of the USA Basketball Men's National Team Selection Committee in 1992) on ESPN’s “Golic & Wingo”: “When I called Jordan, his first inclination was he didn’t know if he wanted to play or not because, as he said, ‘I played on an Olympic team before (in 1988)... 'It’s for the younger guys as far as I’m concerned.'
“So we continued the conversation, and at the end of the conversation, he said, ‘You know something, I’ll do it.’ There was never anything in my conversation with him that had to do with Isiah Thomas. Period.”
Jason Hehir (“The Last Dance” director) on the "Jalen & Jacoby Aftershow": “More than one person told me that Joe Dumars is the guard that would have been chosen for the Dream Team because he was a defensive stopper in the backcourt and they had Magic Johnson in the backcourt.
"But I also agree that a lot of guys on that team at that time had beef with Isiah.”
Jordan in Episode 5: “It was insinuated that I was asking about him, but I never threw his name in there… Based on the environment and camaraderie that happened on that team, it was the best harmony. Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes.
“You want to attribute it to me? Go ahead, be my guest. But it wasn’t me.”
So, yeah, quite the whirlwind. And quite frankly, this merely scratches the surface.
But with the Bulls’ first three-peat and Jordan’s meteoric rise (and gambling-related PR foibles) in the rearview after Episode 6, there’s a solid chance this news cycle is behind us.
When we tell our grandchildren tales of American sports in the time of coronavirus, this story’s break neck, twisting nature will be an essential inclusion. What would it have been like to consume the NBA of the early 1980s and 1990s in the era of social media? We just got something of a taste.
Daniel Santaromita contributed to this aggregation.