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Isiah Thomas on Michael Jordan: ‘That wasn’t my competition’ in 80s

Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and Bulls guard Michael Jordan

AUBURN HILLS, MI - 1989: Isiah Thomas #11 of the Detroit Pistons takes some time to catch his breath with Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls during a break in the action during an NBA game at The Palace circa 1989 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1989 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

Michael Jordan called Isiah Thomas the second-best point guard ever. Thomas, according Bob Costas, unfailingly called Jordan the greatest player he ever saw.

What happened to the beef that endured decades?

Thomas provided a spark to reignite it.

Speak For Yourself (hat tip: Rob Schaefer of NBC Sports Chicago)

When we were all young and healthy – from 84 to 90 – the numbers speak for themselves. He wasn’t really my competition. My competition was Bird and Magic, trying to catch the Celtics, trying to catch the Lakers. Chicago at that time, and Jordan at that time, from 84 to 90, before my wrist surgery, he just – that wasn’t my competition.

When Boston was at their absolute best, we gave them competition. But they were better than us. And as they got older, as they got a little bit more banged up, we were able to catch them. Now, what we were able to learn from Boston during that process – the Detroit Pistons, and every time you hear us talk about who were are, what we became, we do not mention ourselves as championships without saying the Boston Celtics. Because those were our teachers. Those were our mentors. Those are our people that really taught us how to win. And they gave us the heartaches.

When we got to go to the Finals and finally beat them, then I ran into another one of my mentors, which was Magic Johnson, who had let me become a student under him, learning how to win championships in the NBA, learning that Laker organization, learning that Celtic organization. And I’m sure all of you can look back and remember: You saw me at every NBA Finals game when the Celtics and the Lakers were playing. And not only was I there as a fan, but I was there as a student taking notes, learning how to win, how to put together an organization and, not just become a basketball player in the NBA, but become a champion.

And that’s what we became. We became a champion, and we were pretty dominant in our era.

Thomas’ description of Jordan’s and the Bulls’ place is correct in two ways – technically and barely.

By excluding 1991 – when Chicago beat the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, sparking Detroit’s infamous walk-off – Thomas set parameters that include the Pistons going 3-0 against the Bulls in playoff series. Thomas’ timeframe covered his prime. But it also includes 1989, when neither Magic Johnson nor Larry Bird were healthy in their teams’ series against Detroit. That’s inconsistent. Accurately defined, that era of Pistons basketball includes 1991.

Even restricting the period to 1984-1990, Detroit still faced Chicago in three playoff series. That’s fewer than against Bird’s Celtics (four), but more than against Johnson’s Lakers (two). Of course, those series against Los Angeles carried more weight in the NBA Finals. But most of those series against Jordan’s Bulls were hard fought.

It’s hard to believe Thomas didn’t intentionally craft the argument to slight Jordan and present Detroit’s accomplishments more favorably.

That said, Thomas had the Pistons aiming high throughout the 80s. Beat by the Celtics, Detroit was determined to best Boston. Beat by the Lakers, Detroit was determined to best Los Angeles. Thomas became obsessed with topping those teams because they were the standard-bearers – and he appreciated the bar they set. It made the Pistons better and, as he said, eventually champions.

It bothers Thomas that Jordan and the Bulls didn’t pay the same deference on their way up. Chicago whined and complained about Detroit. Even in “The Last Dance,” Jordan said he began lifting weights more strenuously to deal with the Bad Boys’ dirtiness. To Thomas, committing to training harder was just a natural step in a young team evolving to a champion.

That is what led to the Pistons walking off without shaking hands in 1991. They appreciated the champion Celtics and Lakers in a way the Bulls never reciprocated when Detroit became champions.

Disrespect begets disrespect. So, Thomas cuts off his timeframe before 1991, which was absolutely part of the Bad Boys era.

To put it most accurately: Joran and the Bulls were competition to Thomas and the Pistons. Thomas and Detroit looked up to view the Celtics and Lakers as competition, and the Celtics and Lakers looked back down and saw competition. Chicago looked up to the Pistons as competition, and the Pistons looked back down and saw competition – even if Thomas now strains himself not to admit it.