Litmus Test

Isiah cleared every hurdle – and still got snubbed for Dream Team

Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images
As in no other team sport, winning a title confers greatness on basketball players. The flip side is every bit as irrefutably true. Retiring without an NBA title affixes a symbolic asterisk on even the most dazzling careers to a degree not present in other sports.

Isiah Thomas came to the Pistons with a competitive streak a mile wide. It was the force that carried him away from the gang violence that suffocated the lives of so many around him on the hardscrabble streets of west Chicago. It should surprise no one if Isiah set even that up as some sort of a competition – rising above the odds to beat the gangs and the poverty and the drugs and everything else that conspire to beat down the underclass.

I’ve long believed that his hunger for an NBA title shifted into a higher gear, though, as he saw the adulation accorded to the contemporaries he believed his only true peers: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They were two other products of the Midwest who preceded him by two years to the NBA and racked up eight combined league championships by the start of the 1988-89 season – Isiah’s eighth since leaving Indiana upon carrying the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA title as a sophomore, matching Magic’s achievement of two years earlier at Michigan State.

Let’s put that another way: Isiah wanted to win at everything he ever did, but his desire to win an NBA championship was amplified because he understood his place in basketball history would be defined by whether or not the Pistons – his Pistons, as the world saw it – could elbow their way past Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics.

So it wasn’t a purely selfless desire, but it caused no harm. Those were not competing agendas. To the contrary, Bill Davidson, Jack McCloskey and Chuck Daly had to be thrilled that their best player wanted so desperately to bring a championship to Detroit, no matter his motivation. Nothing Isiah ever attempted in his pursuit of an everlasting legacy was at odds with the organizational pursuit of NBA elite status, in the same way the egos of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird served well their organizations.

If you ever wondered why not being selected for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team – the Dream Team – so insulted and infuriated Isiah Thomas, there it is. He’d won a college title and led his franchise – aimless until his arrival – to two titles in the most competitive era the NBA had ever known. In his mind – and in the court of cosmic justice – he not only deserved to be on the team, he deserved the automatic, no-brainer kind of inclusion Bird and Magic and Michael Jordan did at that moment in time.

Isiah had hewed to the standards that judged greatness, sublimating his brilliant one-on-one capabilities, and driven the Pistons through obstacles that would have broken a lesser leader, and still the establishment refused to cite him as one of the top 11 players in the world. (Remember, as a nod to the last vestige of “amateurism” remaining from the Olympic ideal, USA Basketball held one spot on the 12-man roster for a collegian, which went to Christian Laettner.)

It galled Isiah that inarguably great talents like Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin and others who’d never taken their teams to NBA titles – never gotten close, by that point, for players like Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and David Robinson – were included on that most iconic of teams and he wasn’t.

The rules had been made clear to him for years: win or go home. And it didn’t take long for him to hear those taunts, either. Isiah was twice named MVP of the All-Star game. And for that, the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan – and in that era, where newspapers still boasted the dominant opinion-shapers, Ryan’s word held wide sway – penned an especially stinging line, words to the effect that the Pistons would never go anywhere because the highlight of Isiah’s every season was the All-Star game.

But he’d shoved those words back down Ryan’s throat by toppling the two great NBA dynasties, led by the two dominant personalities of their era … and still he couldn’t crack the club?

Years later, after Isiah had retired and Barkley’s career was winding down, I had a short exchange with him at The Palace – he was returning there as a visitor in his management role with Toronto – about Barkley, discussing his place in history. My contention was that Barkley deserved status in the inner circle – unofficial, but more exclusive even than the Hall of Fame. Isiah shook his head. No. Why? He pointed to his ring finger. No titles, no hallowed status.

I never asked him about Karl Malone and John Stockton, but I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that one.

Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl, but there is almost no credible NFL source who would contend Marino isn’t one of the top 10 quarterbacks of all-time. Most would say top five – and many still argue for him as No. 1. And that’s at the one position in sports that influences games like no other.

James Worthy and Dominique Wilkins came out of high school in the same year (they were on the same McDonald’s All-American roster as Isiah in 1979) and entered the 1982 draft together. You could have flipped a coin in debating their NBA potential. The Lakers had the No. 1 pick and went with Worthy; Wilkins went No. 3 to Atlanta. Worthy won three NBA titles in his first six years, playing alongside arguably the greatest center (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and point guard (Magic Johnson) in basketball history. Wilkins never got his team past the conference semifinals. But was it because Worthy was better than Wilkins, or because Tree Rollins wasn’t Kareem, and Doc Rivers wasn’t Magic? They’re both Hall of Famers. Should Worthy be more highly esteemed because fortune put him in position to win three titles?

Not by me. But Isiah Thomas probably has a different opinion. Can’t say I blame him.