It may not be his documentary, but “The Last Dance” has boosted Isiah Thomas’ profile all the same.
The ESPN biopic on the 1997-98 Bulls championship team has used its first six episodes to highlight Michael Jordan’s rise from a North Carolina phenom to an international icon. And Thomas has had a prominent voice in the documentary thanks to his heated rivalry with Jordan, which simmers today.
Episodes 5 and 6 aired Sunday and chronicled Thomas’ infamous exclusion from the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. It was a noted moment in the Jordan-Thomas rivalry, as many, including Thomas, believed he deserved a spot.
While Jordan denied responsibility, he ultimately endorsed the decision in the documentary.
“You want to attribute it to me, go ahead and be my guest,” he said. “But it wasn’t me.”
But “The Last Dance” skipped the first key moment in the Jordan-Thomas rivalry — the 1985 All-Star Game. Jordan, who was rapidly emerging as the most popular player in the NBA, was voted into the game as a rookie. Allegedly, Thomas helped lead a conspiracy to downplay Jordan’s role in the game. Jordan was held to seven points on 2-for-9 shooting, attempting fewer shots than any of the Eastern Conference starters. The game is now widely referred to as the “Freezeout.”
In the first post-All Star break game, Jordan scored a career-high 49 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and four steals to lead the Bulls to an overtime win over the Pistons. A rivalry was born.
It was widely reported that several All-Stars in the game were annoyed by some of Jordan’s actions leading up to the game. But the actual extent of Thomas’ role in the supposed freezeout is, to this day, more speculation than fact.
On Feb. 14, a day after Jordan’s performance, former Free Press sports writer Charlie Vincent wrote a slightly softer account of Thomas and Jordan’s relationship. Before the game, Vincent wrote that an hour prior to tipoff, Jordan made a point of greeting Thomas on the court in an attempt to squash any developing negative feelings between them.
“I wanted to make sure everything was all right,” Jordan said. “I was bothered by all that talk about getting the big head. I feel a lot better now … I feel like there was nothing to all that talk. That’s why Isiah and I made a point of going on (Chicago) television at the same time.”
According to Vincent, many of the rumors about the rocky relationship came from Dr. Charles Tucker, an adviser to both Thomas and Magic Johnson at the time. Tucker told reporters that Thomas and former Spurs star and Detroit native George Gervin denied Jordan the ball to teach him a lesson.
“SEVERAL HOURS after the All-Star Game, when Tucker, Thomas and San Antonio’s George Gervin met as they were preparing to board a flight for Detroit, they spoke for a minute, then broke out into gales of laughter,” Vincent wrote.
“We were talking about how good they got Jordan,” Tucker said in the story. “I got together with a bunch of the guys Saturday and talked about it. … But I think some of them thought we overdid it some.”
Thomas denied any involvement in the freezeout, noting that Moses Malone took only 10 shots, and Sidney Moncrief took just five.
On Feb. 16, Vincent wrote a follow-up. Thomas had learned that Tucker was the source of the rumor that he had a role in freezing Jordan out of the game. Tucker proceeded to walk back his comments.
“The guys weren’t serious about doing anything to Jordan,” Tucker said. “ … They just meant they weren’t going to go out of their way for him. … They never did plan on getting him. It was just that they weren’t going to let him do what he wanted to do. They played him hard and he didn’t get off. … They might have felt he was being a little cocky, (but) as far as arrogance, you know how arrogant Isiah can be, and Magic (Johnson), too.”
Pistons guard Isiah Thomas dribbles during a game against the Bulls in 1990.
Pistons guard Isiah Thomas dribbles during a game against the Bulls in 1990. (Photo: DFP file photo)
Other outlets also downplayed the incident. The Chicago Tribune wrote that a reported incident where Jordan ignored Thomas while standing in an elevator actually didn’t happen.
“I was very upset when I read that,” Thomas said in the story. “It could affect a potential friendship between me and Michael.”
“He’s a nice guy, and my cousin Darren, the Bulls’ ball boy, he hangs around him,” he continued. “My mom has invited Michael over for dinner a couple of times. It just isn’t true. Michael and I talked a couple of times down there.”
That friendship never came into fruition, of course. The heated battles between the Bulls and Pistons in 1989, 1990 and 1991, culminating with Thomas and many of his teammates walking off the floor before the conclusion of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, destroyed any chance of it.
Jordan still has strong feelings toward Thomas. In episode five of “The Last Dance,” he acknowledged that he feels as though Thomas would’ve negatively impacted the Dream Team’s chemistry.
He did have one compliment for him, though.
“I respect Isiah Thomas’ talent,” Jordan said. “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.”
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