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Isiah Thomas should have been on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.” He deserved it.
With that out of the way, let’s dig into the backstory.
Circumstances – some of it his own doing, some of it others carrying a grudge – conspired against him, and he was left off the team that featured the NBA’s biggest stars from the 1980s and 1990s: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler and Chris Mullin.
Thomas’ conspicuous omission from that team is covered in the compelling Episode 5 of “The Last Dance” on ESPN.
There’s revisionist history taking place in this episode (and other episodes, too) starting with Jordan’s denial that he had any influence on Thomas’ exclusion.
“You want to attribute it to me, go ahead and be my guest. But it wasn’t me,” Jordan says in “The Last Dance.”
Jordan also doesn’t hide his disdain for Thomas, stemming from the Detroit Pistons’ decision to walk off the court without shaking hands or congratulating the Bulls for defeating them in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. There was also the lingering issue that Thomas reportedly tried to “freeze out” Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game.
‘The Last Dance’ takeaways: Michael Jordan dismisses Isiah Thomas’ explanation for not shaking hands after playoff loss
“The Dream Team, based on the environment and the camaraderie that happened on that team, it was the best harmony,” Jordan says in the “The Last Dance.” “Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes.”
There is one book by a respected sports journalist – Jack McCallum’s fabulous “Dream Team” – that put Thomas’ omission on Jordan.
“Isiah Thomas was not a member of the Dream Team primarily because of two men, Michael Jordan and (Detroit Pistons coach) Chuck Daly,” McCallum wrote. “If we want to put a finer point on it, it was really one man – Jordan.”
Rod Thorn, who was the head of basketball operations for the NBA and who drafted Jordan as GM of Chicago in 1984, called Jordan in 1991 to ask about his interest in playing in Barcelona in 1992.
“Rod, I don’t want to play if Isiah is on the team,” Jordan said, according to McCallum’s book.
In the “The Last Dance,” Jordan said, “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. Now, it was insinuated that I was asking about him; but I never threw his name in there.”
But McCallum writes that in the summer of 2011 Jordan told him: “I told Rod I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.”
Consider the circumstances in 1991 as USA Basketball and the NBA focused in on the Olympic roster: Jordan had just won his first championship, his first Finals MVP and second regular-season MVP. He was the face of the league, entering his prime and one of the most famous people on the planet.
With NBA players going to the Olympics for the first time in Barcelona, the league needed Jordan on the team. There was more at stake than just a gold medal. Then-NBA Commissioner David Stern and then-FIBA secretary-general Borislav Stankovic had plotted basketball’s global explosion.
The U.S. couldn’t send a team without Jordan. He was a necessity. If Jordan didn’t want Thomas on the team – and it didn’t matter how many people were on Thomas’ side – Thomas wasn’t going.
Now, were there other factors that kept Thomas off the team? He had little support from other players at the time, too. Pippen and Malone weren’t Thomas fans, and Bird wasn’t going to fight for Thomas, not after Thomas agreed with a ludicrous Dennis Rodman comment about Bird and said during the 1987 playoffs that “Larry Bird is a very, very good basketball player, an exceptional talent. But if he were black he’d be just another good guy.”
Even if Thomas clarified it was all in jest, the comment stunk. And, the Isiah-Magic relationship had soured by that time. Johnson had announced he was HIV-positive in November 1991, and there was a rumor that Thomas wondered if Johnson was bisexual. The two were close friends, but when Johnson heard Thomas was (possibly) saying that, the relationship suffered.
“He questioned me when I got my HIV diagnosis,” Johnson said in “When The Game was Ours,” his book with Larry Bird written by journalist Jackie MacMullan. “How can a so-called friend question your sexuality like that? I know why he did it, because we used to kiss before games, and now, if people were wondering about me, that meant they were wondering about him, too.”
Thomas denies he said anything about Johnson’s sexuality, and in a 2017 NBA TV special, Johnson and Thomas reconciled in a tearful embrace.
“You are my brother,” Johnson said. “Let me apologize to you if I hurt you that we haven’t been together, and God is good to bring us back together,” Johnson said.
But in 1991-92, it was a different story. “Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics,” Johnson said in MacMullan’s book. “Nobody on that team wanted to play with him.”
The 1992 Dream Team was a celebration not just of basketball but the NBA and the product it had developed in the previous decade – emerging from the shaky 1970s into a spectacular show in the 1980s. Thomas was a vital part of that show, an All-Star, All-NBA performer and NBA champion, and he deserved to be part of that showcase.
“I don’t know what went into that process. I met the criteria to be selected, but I wasn’t,” Thomas said in the documentary.
Thomas remains disappointed. He isn’t blameless in what has amounted to a disappointing sidebar in NBA and U.S. Olympic history.