Judging by the teasers that have aired throughout the NBA playoffs, the NBA TV Dream Team documentary that airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday will more than casually address the failure to include Isiah on the roster of the most talented team in basketball history.
In that fact alone – 20 years after the 1992 Summer Olympics, still talking about a player who wasn’t on the team that was also basketball’s most exclusive ever – is about all the validation those who felt Isiah Lord Thomas III was robbed really need to prove their point.
In other words, where’s the outrage that Dominique Wilkins or James Worthy were excluded? You could have formed the ’92 silver-medal winning team with spillover from the Dream Team, but nobody got jilted quite like Isiah did.
USA Basketball could afford to leave him off the roster, of course, because it didn’t really need any particular player to prevail over the world that summer. Joe Dumars could have replaced Michael Jordan – and, yeah, Joe D could have been in Barcelona, too – and the margin of victory wouldn’t have suffered for it.
On merit, it was no travesty that John Stockton got to wear the uniform. Go back and look at the All-NBA teams of the time. Stockton by that point showed up more frequently than Isiah.
But admittance to the Dream Team club was about more than MVP balloting. Inclusion was a tacit acknowledgment that a player belonged somewhere in the ethereal stratosphere somewhere beyond star – not just a star, but a champion. In that group, there were only four players who flat-out demanded inclusion: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan.
You couldn’t blame Isiah at that moment for believing he should have been on the Dream Team even if they’d only taken five NBA players, let alone 11, with Christian Laettner the token amateur included on the final roster.
Was Isiah a tad past his prime in 1992? Sure. So were Magic and Bird. They were no-brainers. Those were the two players always held up by Isiah’s critics – and they were many in his early NBA days, when his big numbers didn’t immediately move the Pistons into contender status – as the ideal: leaders who sacrificed and made their teams better.
(It’s fair to wonder here what might have been if Isiah had walked in as point guard of a team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center instead of Kent Benson, or Kevin McHale at power forward instead of Phil Hubbard, and if Magic or Bird had arrived to the Pistons of 1981 that Jack McCloskey had inherited from Dick Vitale.)
Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan penned the searingly critical line of Isiah, pre-Bad Boys, words to the effect that the All-Star game was the most important one of his every season. The underlying sentiment was that Isiah reveled in superstar attention but lacked the mettle to be a winner.
I don’t know that the criticism transformed him. He won an NCAA title as an Indiana sophomore, after all, and had no chance to win with the Pistons until McCloskey arrived and traded for Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley and drafted Joe D, Dennis Rodman and John Salley.
But I fully believe he took it to heart and made a career transformation as dramatic as Steve Yzerman later would with the Red Wings, not because Isiah or Yzerman ever defined themselves by their offensive exploits, necessarily, but because they did what they were asked to do – what their modestly talented teams absolutely needed them to do. When the talent around them improved, they adapted to what those teams required of them.
Pretty hard to prove whether you’re a winner or not until your team is put in position to win. You can’t be expected to produce a result superior in quality to all other chemistry students when you’re handed a completely different and inferior set of variables.
Isiah Thomas arrived in the NBA with a competitive fire that burned hotter than most, but it was further fueled by the criticism he took both going up the ladder and coming down it. He was held to one impossible set of standards – winning above all else – and then when he mastered the art, they changed the rules on him.
Prove you’re a winner, they told him. He proved it. Then they took issue with his methods. Magic and Bird were admired for their cold-blooded ruthlessness. Jordan would soon be exalted as no one before or since for the same qualities. Isiah? His ruthlessness got him exiled.
He burned bridges on the way to the winner’s circle. He tapped deeply into the souls of both Bird and Magic, saw what made them tick, then applied it to the team whose competitiveness he embodied. He had help, make no mistake. Joe D, Laimbeer, Vinnie, Rodman, Rick Mahorn – all of them carried the championship DNA. But Isiah was the face of the Pistons, the most decorated, the most charismatic. And when the Pistons became the Bad Boys, loved passionately by many but reviled as thoroughly by others who resented the overthrowing of Magic and Bird and the blocking of Jordan, Isiah became less than beloved, but deeply polarizing.
There is no credible argument for Isiah’s omission on merit alone. He was 30 years old when USA Basketball named the first 10 players to the team in September 1991, a little more than 12 months removed from being named NBA Finals MVP for a two-time league champion during the most competitive era the league had ever known.
It was an omission made strictly on political grounds. The Pistons-Bulls rivalry had been as bitter as the league had known. After knocking Chicago out of the playoffs three straight years, each with increasing difficulty, the Pistons had ceded the East to the Bulls in 1991. Jordan was king. He didn’t want Isiah on the team. Years later, Magic Johnson – famous friends with Isiah until their wills collided in the 1988 Finals, poisoning their relationship – admitted he too campaigned against Isiah.
McCloskey, on the board of USA Basketball, resigned his position in protest. To this day, he’s utterly convinced the NBA establishment resented the Pistons. The NBA controlled the process. Jordan was the star on its marquee as David Stern envisioned taking his game global, and he could do nothing to risk Jordan’s participation on the vast Olympics stage. Twenty years later, it’s easy to forget that Jordan needed some coaxing to participate. Begging off was a credible option for him, and the NBA clearly believed that if Thomas was in, Jordan was out.
Simple as that. You can’t argue that the NBA made the wrong call by tying itself to the marketing dynamo Michael Jordan was and was on his way to becoming in 1991. But you also can’t argue that on merit, and by the rules of stardom and winning he’d been taught over a decade, that Isiah Thomas didn’t deserve to be on that podium in Barcelona.