Remembering Michael Jordan's "Freeze-Out" at the 1985 NBA All-Star game

There aren’t any Bulls players in Indianapolis this weekend for the NBA’s just-past-mid-season Super Bowl knockoff party and fashion show. It’s no longer the sleepy Midwest crossroads city often referred to as Naptown, which actually came about less as an insult for a lack of activities than just a nickname drawn from a syllable.

Indy has been rockin’ for the NBA this weekend, but it’s not about to have the effect on Bulls history that it did the last time the NBA parked there for a party 39 years ago.

Because Indianapolis, the game then in the cavernous football Hoosier Dome, was the site of Michael Jordan’s first All-Star game, and if not one of the most discussed NBA All-Star games of all time, it was probably the most important All-Star game for Bulls franchise history.

That Jordan inaugural 1985 All-Star game became the famous “Freeze-Out” game when NBA stars, supposedly led by Chicago native Isiah Thomas, allegedly kept the ball away from the super popular rookie Jordan in an attempt to embarrass him and demonstrate that he’d have to wait his turn behind the stars of the day, like Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, and, of course, Thomas.

It’s the stuff of NBA legend, and it almost certainly didn’t happen the way they said then. Still, you don’t want to ignore a good conspiracy as we see so often these days.

But what the events and whispers produced was the beginning of the Jordan/Thomas and Bulls/Pistons rivalries that were among the most intense and brutal perhaps in NBA history, and more importantly for the Bulls it began in Jordan the career long chase for slights and motivations that came to define his competitive nature and likely was one of the main reasons Jordan became the on-court killer that he did. And with that his unique refuse-to-lose ethic that pushed him to become one of the biggest winners in league history and regarded as likely the greatest player ever in the NBA.

After all, that wasn’t the Jordan in college, who did make a game winning championship shot, but who willingly deferred to better known teammates and never averaged more than 20 points in a college season, 17.7 combined for his three at the University of North Carolina.

But just a few days after that All-Star game in which Jordan scored seven points, the same as starting East center Moses Malone who played more than Jordan and during the game little notice was paid, the Bulls opened the post All-Star sprint with a home game against Isiah’s Pistons.

A fiery, focused and forceful Jordan scored 49 points with 15 rebounds, five assists and four steals in a 139-126 Bulls overtime win. Only beside the point—or points—no Bulls player even attempted a three-point shot in the game. Teammates recalled an angry, almost frothing Jordan they hadn’t seen before. Though many would see it since and come to regret it in legions of stories about payback after payback.

And it all began that Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis.

Though first some history about the overall significance of that weekend in Bulls lore.

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Michael Jordan actually should have been representing his home team Indiana Pacers.

In the all-time draft gaffes category one of the top prizes goes to the Portland Trailblazers, who had the No. 2 pick in the 1984 NBA draft and selected center Sam Bowie. It wasn’t a huge 'What!' at the time since the Trailblazers had a year before drafted All-American shooting guard Clyde Drexler, and, after all, there was that 17.7 per game Jordan.

The 1984 draft had been all about Hakeem, nee Akeem, Olajuwon, the star center who had played with Drexler at the University of Houston. In that era, a star center meant championships from Russell to Wilt to Kareem with side trips to Walton, Moses, Willis Reed and Wes Unseld. The race to the bottom and the No. 1 draft pick was so intense it led to the creation of the NBA lottery for the following season.

The eventual 1984 winner was biggest loser Houston Rockets, the tanking champs racing to finish last after the previous draft getting center Ralph Sampson, an eventual Hall of Famer. It was elite tanking.

The Bulls also were busy basically losing on purpose, 14 of their last 15. The 76ers, run by former North Carolina star Billy Cunningham, may have been the only team that might have passed on Olajuwon for Jordan with Dean Smith whispering in their ears about Jordan. They would eventually offer the Bulls their No. 5 pick they used for Charles Barkley and two All-Stars for Jordan. Bulls GM Rod Thorn badly wanted Olajuwon, but he made Jordan the consolation. The 76ers had the San Diego Clippers pick, and almost moved up. But the Clippers out of the tanking won their last game of the season to fall a game ahead of Houston.

The big what if in recent years, however, has been what the Rockets should have done and maybe they’d have passed Boston’s record 11 titles in 13 seasons.

Houston was taking Olajuwon, who now would replace Sampson. And Portland at No. 2 badly wanted a center as they had Drexler and Jim Paxson, the latter who had been an All-Star at shooting guard. Bowie was injured in college, and the Trailblazers gladly would have accepted Sampson for the No. 2 pick. But the playing ethic then was two big men. The Knicks signed Marvin Webster to pair with Bill Cartwright. The Celtics were winning with Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. No one thought Olajuwon with Michael Jordan was better than any of those jumbo combos. In subsequent years, I spoke with Portland’s Jack Ramsay and Houston’s Bill Fitch. Both said trading Sampson to select Jordan No. 2 for the Rockets never was discussed.

But Jordan should have been wearing Pacers blue and gold.

The NBA wasn’t thrilled in 1976 with the settlement of the Robertson free agency suit and merger to let in four ABA teams. The Pacers had been an ABA dynasty, but the NBA was making it difficult on all the former enemies. TV revenue was almost nothing, so teams like the Pacers relied on gate receipts, and thus wins to attract fans. They had a chance to draft Larry Bird in 1978 before he went back to school for another year, but passed because they knew they wouldn’t have enough money to sign him.

In 1980-81, the Pacers had their first winning season since coming into the NBA and made the playoffs, losing in the first round. But center James Edwards, the future Piston and even, yes Bull, left as a free agent. Desperate for a replacement, at a time draft picks weren’t that valued, the Pacers traded theirs for 1984 to the Trailblazers for center Tom Owens. Indiana would miss the playoffs the next five years and inn 1983-84 was 26-56, and thus the Portland Trailblazers got the No. 2 pick in the 1984 NBA draft.

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Michael Jordan stole Isiah Thomas’ city.

Thomas was the story of Chicago and was on the way, even playing for the Detroit Pistons, to being one of the most popular athletes in Chicago’s history. 

Until You Know Who came along.

“I didn't understand being booed in Chicago Stadium and I took it personally,” Thomas admitted years later.

Thomas was one of those kids who snuck into the old Chicago Stadium late in Bulls games in the Sloan/Van Lier days and begged for shoes. Though for him to wear rather than sell. Breakfasts at his West Side home often came courtesy of the church or the Black Panthers. He watched the tanks come down his street in the late 1960s riots.

But young Isiah was a basketball prodigy. When his older brother Larry played in a Catholic youth league, three-year-old Isiah provided the half time entertainment with dribbling shows. His brother, Lord Henry, was a basketball star headed for fame but sidelined as so many were in that era by drugs and gangs.

In the famous story played in a TV movie about his life produced by Bulls legend Chet Walker, chieftains of the notorious Vice Lords street gang appeared at homes on the West Side of Chicago to take recruits. One summer night in 1966, 25 chiefs stopped in front of the home of Mary Thomas. There were nine children, seven boys, with Isiah the youngest. They lived then on the first floor of a two-story red brick building on Congress Street facing the Eisenhower Expressway. The bangers had guns.

"We want your boys,'' the gang leader told her. ''They can't walk around here and not be in a gang.'' She looked him in the eye and said, ''There's only one gang around here, and that's the Thomas gang, and I lead that.'' She shut the door and came back with a shotgun.

"Get off my porch,'' she said, ''or I'll blow you across the Expressway.’'

Isiah never joined a gang.

It became basketball. First at Our Lady off Sorrows elementary and to stay safe, if not convenient, Isiah got into mostly white St. Joseph’s in west suburban Westchester. So it would be up at 5:30 a.m. for a 90 minute trip to school. St Joseph’s became a state power. Isiah went on to Indiana University, and after leading them to an NCAA title as a sophomore and deflecting the wrath of Bobby Knight, Thomas went on to be the No. 2 pick in the 1981 NBA draft to the Pistons.

The Bulls had the No. 6 selection and Isiah was angling to get there. He desperately wanted to play for the Bulls.

But he was the top rated prospect in the draft. So when he went to Dallas, which had the No. 1 pick, he told owner Don Carter in his cowboy hats and boots how stupid he looked and he wasn’t wearin’ no ridiculous cowboy outfit. The Mavericks selected Thomas’ buddy, Mark Aguirre at No. 1. Thomas then told Pistons GM Jack McCloskey what a pit Detroit was. McCloskey told him to complain all he wanted, he was going to be a Piston.

Even still, Isiah was a hero to Chicago.

The Bulls were lousy, and Isiah was an instant star starting every All-Star game from his rookie season, the first NBA player ever to do it his first five times. The Pistons were starting to win, 49 wins by 1983-84, and Isiah still was the hometown hero when he was back at his favorite courts in Gladys Park (Gunderson) Park. 

Until that Bulls rookie came along with the tongue hanging out of both his mouth and his famous sneakers, and finally Bulls fans could begin to wipe away the haze of defeat. Isiah still came back to Gladys Park, but this time the hangers on were yelling that he wasn’t good enough for Jordan. How could that be?

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The Buildup and the background.

It was love at first dunk for Chicago with Michael Jordan.

The Bulls had a great run in the early 1970s, but more on grit than talent, and the talent always prevailed as first Kareem and then Wilt took them out of the playoffs year after year. There was a brief resurgence with the merger acquisition of ABA superstar Artis Gilmore, but they ran into Bill Walton’s one magical season and the Bulls soon faded back to basketball oblivion. There seemed to be almost as many drug rehab stints as wins some of those seasons.

And then came Michael.

He shocked the world in the 1984 Olympics as the coach of Spain’s team marveled how everyone went up and came down, and this Michael stayed up.

But it still was the league of Magic and Larry and to a developing extent Isiah, and certainly at the All-Star game.

The NBA All-Star games in the 1960s and 1970s were relatively competitive games since the winner versus loser prize money was significant in an era of low pay. They’d occasionally try to get a car for a member of the home team, like they did for Cincinnati’s Adrian Smith in 1966. But the games were reasonably close to regular season.

Then they became the greatest show on hardwood thanks to buddies Magic and Isiah.

They’d become close friends with the same representation, Isiah playing in Michigan and Magic from there. The winner/loser share began to mean much less as salaries began to increase in the 1980s, and Magic and Isiah combined to make the All-Star game the spectacle weekend it’s become the game to see. Both were showmen players, and they showed out for that game with the best of street ball and their phenomenal skills. Most of the players stepped aside to watch as they filled the game with behind the back full court passes, lobs off the backboard for dunks, the best of the Harlem Globetrotters smoothed over with the best of NBA talent.

Basketball now had the midseason classic.

So actually it was no surprise that Jordan would have a modest debut. Isiah actually did, also, when he was a rookie. But even as Johnson was winning the titles and Isiah was winning hearts, Michael was winning the endorsements.

There was that infamous Nike contract. Jordan as a rookie was really just this wide-eyed kid thrilled about being in the NBA and at his first All-Star game to play with and meet players he’d idolized in college. Yes, really, though he’d never admit it now. He was a Mr. and Ma’am guy, and he wanted to be careful about understanding his place in the game. Dean Smith and his parents always had made that clear.

So when Jordan ran into Isiah in the hotel elevator, Jordan didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to act out of place. Isiah took it as rookie arrogance, a snub. And Jordan was wearing some of his specialty designed Nike stuff while the other players wore the league mandated jerseys. Showing off his endorsements, which were not big in that era, it seemed to some.

"Part of the tension might have been that I was coming into a city he grew up in and was loved in," Jordan said years later in a Playboy magazine interview when it was the place for celebrity interviews. "I think a bigger part was the way I came into the league. Magic had that great smile and had won multiple championships while I was in high school and college. Isiah also had a great smile and was a great player before I came into the league. But here I come, a rookie, and David Falk is making all these deals, and there's an explosion of marketing opportunities that Magic and Isiah and George Gervin hadn't had. Those guys were all great players. But they hadn't yet been marketed to the level of their skills or celebrity. I came in, unproven in pro basketball, and was getting the stuff they should have previously gotten.

''I was very quiet when I went down there,'' Jordan said. ''I didn’t want to go there like, ‘I`m a big shot rookie and you must respect me.’ I didn’t want to be perceived as having an arrogant attitude. That was my first All-Star game. I stayed in my room most of the time because I didn’t know what to do. None of my teammates were there. I didn’t want to be out in a situation that I wasn’t comfortable with. The one time I did go out, I got on an elevator with Isiah Thomas to go downstairs for a league meeting. I was really intimidated because I didn’t know him and I didn’t want to get on his nerves. I didn’t want to seem like a rookie. You know, to just be so stupid. So I was quiet. I stayed in the corner. When I went down in the room for the meeting, I still didn’t say anything. After the weekend was over, it got back to me that I was arrogant and cocky and I wouldn’t even speak to Isiah on the elevator, that I gave him the cold shoulder.”

Thomas in later years explained his view.

"He became a great player," Thomas said. "But at that time he wasn't the Michael Jordan that he became. At that time, the NBA was Dr. J, Larry Bird, Magic, Moses.”

When the East lineup was introduced that day, Thomas, who attended Indiana University, and Bird, a native of Indiana, were greeted with far bigger cheers than Jordan. The crowd that day of 43,146 was the biggest ever to see an All-Star Game.
"I thought he may have been a little nervous because of what had happened that whole weekend," Thomas said. "When he came to Indianapolis there was the big controversy with Nike, his warmup suit, his gold chains (NBA fines for not wearing conforming sneakers which Nike turned into more ads). That whole weekend he was in some controversy. I thought at the start of the game, Gervin came out and was into his thing, Bird was ready, Dr. J was ready and in the All-Star Game, it was the show. We were trying to feature Larry, which we should have. Moses and Doc had just won the championship. Larry and Moses had been MVPs of the league.”

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The Freeze-Out.

It really began after the game the West won 140-129 with Sampson the MVP with 24 points and ten rebounds. Gervin had 23 points and Thomas led the East with 22. Bird had 21. Jordan was two of nine for seven points, though starting center Malone had just ten shots. The story of the game was the Magic/Isiah showmanship.

Until in the airport waiting to return to Detroit.

Charles Tucker and Bill Merriweather were advisors to Isiah and Magic. They were waiting for the plane with Detroit columnist Charlie Vincent. He says, ‘What's going on?’ So they say, well our guys taught Michael a lesson. And they described this plot that Magic, Isiah and their Michigan buddy Gervin schemed to make Michael look bad for all his showing off.

Which Chicago attorney George Andrews, who then represented both Thomas and Johnson, insisted was nonsense.

"You're telling me Larry Bird was in a conspiracy with Isiah Thomas?" said Andrews. "If Isiah said one thing, Bird would do the opposite (it would be two years later, remember, that Thomas at the conference finals declared Bird only the MVP because he was white. And then made to apologize by the league). Bird years later when he took over the Pacers immediately fired Thomas as coach.

“And you’re getting Dr. J, who was the moral compass of the league back then who started the basketball chapel, and Larry Bird ganging up on Michael Jordan?” wondered Andrews. "If Isiah said to do this, Bird would say screw you. And remember, Bird and Magic had not made up yet from the college and their NBA rivalry.”

There’s also another classic footnote in Bulls history from this episode.

The following training camp, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause signed Gervin. Yes, with Jordan still believing Gervin was part of the plot. To do so, Krause released Rod Higgins, who then was Jordan’s only friend on the team that was deep with drug addled veterans. That more likely was the start of Jordan’s feud with Krause than the issue with his foot injury and returning, with came later.

Vincent wrote the story in the Detroit Free Press, and when the Pistons came to Chicago for that first game after the All-Star break it was on.

The Jordan legend thus began.

It really didn’t matter if there was a plot since, after all, two of the supposed plotters were on the other team. But even when Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame he attributed “the Freeze-Out” to a large part of his famed game face.

“I’m going to thank a couple people that you guys probably wouldn’t even think that I would thank, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, George Gervin,” Jordan told the audience. “They say it was a so-called ‘Freeze-Out’ in my rookie season. You guys gave me the motivation to say ‘you know what, evidently I haven’t proved enough to these guys. I gotta prove to them that I deserve what I’ve gotten on this level.’"

And he just kept on proving it after it really all started that Sunday in Indianapolis.

Chicago can only be grateful.

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