Isiah Melts the 'Freeze-out'
Editor's Note: With Isiah Thomas coaching the Eastern Conference All-Star team, a roster that includes Michael Jordan, questions are bound to arise about the 1985 All-Star Game in Indianapolis when the story of Thomas' alleged "freeze-out" of Jordan first surfaced. In an exclusive interview with Pacers.com in 2001 that resulted in this story, Thomas debunked the myth.
Indianapolis, Feb. 8, 2001 - Joshua Thomas was working on a report for school about one of his favorite basketball players, Michael Jordan, so he checked a biography out of the library and began his research.
One event, in particular, stuck in his mind, so the 12-year-old made a point to ask his dad about it.
The question went something like this: "Dad, why did you freeze out Michael Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game?"
At that moment, Isiah Thomas decided enough was enough.
The line between myth, legend and fact had not only become blurred, but erased. And that's when the Pacers head coach decided to go public with his side of the story.
"That's when I said, 'OK, I've got to do something about this because this is crazy,'" Thomas said. "My son asked me about it and I just said, 'That never happened.'"
As legend has it, Thomas supposedly conspired with fellow veterans on the Eastern Conference roster to keep the ball away from Jordan - appearing in his first All-Star Game - as much as possible. He also was said to have encouraged his close friend Magic Johnson to ask the players on the Western Conference squad, notably George Gervin, to attack Jordan on defense. Of course, East coach K.C. Jones also had to be brought in on the plan, since he controlled the players' minutes.
Consider the thread of logic that would have to wind through those claims: Thomas, a fourth-year player, would have the ability to influence superstars like Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Johnson and Gervin, come up with a plan of attack for both teams, and also sell it to his head coach.
"Oh, yeah," Thomas said, laughing at the thought, "I can control those guys."
Nonetheless, it became accepted as fact. Thomas was first questioned about it not long after the game.
"I remember people started writing it, then people started talking about it and all of a sudden it became the truth," he said. "Now, it's written in books and people just assume that it's fact. I remember saying then and I say it now, 'If someone would get the tape and watch, I defy them to find spots where we as teammates deliberately decided not to give Michael Jordan the ball.'
"You're talking about Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Moses Malone and myself all getting in a huddle someplace and saying, 'Hey, let's not give this guy the ball.' I mean, that's absurd."
A review of two separate tapes of the game, one from the CBS broadcast and one from NBA Entertainment, which had a cameraman on the floor, revealed little to support the conspiracy theory.
In fact, the only moment that drew any comment from announcers Dick Stockton and Tom Heinsohn came in the final minutes of the first half, when Thomas stole the ball, setting up a two-on-one fast break with Jordan. Johnson was the lone defender. Thomas froze Johnson with a fake to Jordan, and then took it in for an uncontested layup.
Even then, the announcers described it as a good fake that surprised both Jordan and Johnson.
"If it's a two-on-one situation and the guy guards the guy who doesn't have the ball, then the guy who has the ball lays it up," said Thomas. "Now, if he would've come to guard the ball, then you pass it to the other guy.
"The defender has to make a decision and most players will say, 'I don't want this guy to get a slam-dunk, I don't want the crowd to go crazy,' so you eliminate that play because then you don't make it a momentum play."
"If Alvin Williams is coming down on a two-on-one with Vince Carter, most defenders are going to lean toward Vince Carter and let Alvin Williams take the shot because, if Vince Carter gets the dunk, now the momentum's going and everybody's going. That's just basketball."
Early in the third quarter, in another fast-break situation - this time three-on-two - Thomas chose to pass to Malone on the left wing rather than Jordan on the right. Malone couldn't handle the pass and it deflected out of bounds.
"You always reward the big man for running," Thomas said. "That's the way I was taught. Particularly in the All-Star Game, if a big man runs the floor, you give him the ball and reward him."
Of course, it should be remembered that, 16 years ago, Jordan was hardly the star of the show. He was a promising scorer on a mediocre team and a bit of a rebel, flaunting the basketball establishment as a walking billboard for Nike, then an emerging shoe company.
"He became a great player," Thomas said. "But, at that time, he wasn't the Michael Jordan that he became.
"At that time, he wasn't the NBA like he became the NBA. At that time, the NBA was Dr. J, Larry Bird, Magic, Moses - I mean, that was the NBA."
When the East lineup was introduced, Thomas, who attended Indiana University, and Bird, a native of Indiana, were greeted with far bigger cheers than Jordan by the fans in Indianapolis' Hoosier Dome. The crowd that day of 43,146 was the biggest ever to see an All-Star Game.
The other starters were Erving and Malone, also future Hall of Famers. Thomas didn't feel the need, then, to justify passes to any of Jordan's teammates.
"I thought he may have been a little nervous because of what had happened that whole weekend," Thomas said. "When he came to Indianapolis, if you remember, there was the big controversy with Nike, his warm-up suit, his gold chains. 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 their show.
"We were trying to feature Larry, which we should have. I mean, he was the best player in the league at that time. Moses and Doc had just won the championship. Larry and Moses had been MVPs of the league."
And there was also the fact that Thomas, himself an icon in Indiana, was having a good game of his own. He scored 17 points in the first half but was limited in the second by a muscle pull in his left thigh.
"I was at home," he said, "and I had a good game going."
Jordan, on the other hand, did not.
He appeared uneasy at the outset, mishandling passes and losing control of his dribble. At the time, his jump shot was a weakness, so defenders sagged in an effort to cut off his driving angles, keeping him on the perimeter. He finished the game with seven points, on two of nine shooting, in 22 minutes.
Only two East teammates played substantially more: Bird (31 minutes) and Malone (33 minutes). Thomas played 25 and Erving 23. Reserve Bernard King, the league's leading scorer, played 22.
The shots were similarly distributed, with one exception: Terry Cummings came off the bench and managed to put up 17 in 16 minutes. Among the starters, Bird took 16 shots, Erving 15, Thomas 14 and Malone and King 10 apiece.
Given the relative equity in the numbers, and the lack of obvious snubs during the game, how did the freeze-out theory get started? It remains a mystery to Thomas.
"I just know at that time you had Bird, Erving and Moses, and they were three of the top players in the game at that time," Thomas said. "I can't see any of us being a part of that type of conspiracy. I just think that the guy had a bad game, he didn't play well, and people wanted to make excuses for that.
"If there was anyone people could question, people were looking at Terry Cummings for jacking up 17 shots. I mean, Bird was at home here in Indianapolis. The whole theme of that All-Star Weekend was really centered on him and you wanted him to look good. As teammates, we tried to do that."
Thomas said he decided to go public not to make impugn Jordan, but to defend his own honor.
"When stuff is being written in books and kids are reading that, then that's a problem and that should stop," he said. "Before you write that, you should get a tape, look at the game and draw your own conclusions. It's always, 'This is what I heard happened.' But they write it in such a way that it really did happen.
"No one ever asked Larry Bird. No one ever asked Julius Erving, or Moses Malone, 'Did you guys sit down and do this?' They asked me. I have to defend it."
Even with Thomas' revelations, the legend of the freeze-out undoubtedly will live on. At least now, it is a story with two sides, for those who care to look.