“You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you’re not going to convince me he wasn’t an asshole.” Those were Michael Jordan’s words before hearing Isiah’s explanation about not shaking hands after being swept by the Bulls. Words that have caused a lot of debate and conversation amongst basketball fans.
Isiah Thomas did not expect to have to answer the same questions again, mostly because he felt as if that part of his reputation is in the past. The game was different in the ’80s, a lot more confrontational and physical. In addition to being several decades behind it, Thomas believed everyone involved understood what happens on the court, stays on the court. That’s not necessarily who you are as a person.
“I was definitely surprised. Because we’ve been in each other’s presence before, and I’ve never gotten that type of reaction from him. We were even at dinner a couple times, and he was always pleasant. Always good to my kids. Always good to my son. He even gave my son a pair of gym shoes.”Isiah Thomas, via CBSSports
Thomas added he likes Jordan and feels like they have a respectful relationship. But, the fact remains there’s a narrative that a lot of players from that era will describe Thomas similarly to Jordan. Scottie Pippen famously said “Don’t nobody know who he is anyway. He’s a snake.” (He didn’t let that one slide and made fun of Pippen when talking about the Dream Team.) Magic Johnson had a long feud with him. Isiah had an explanation for his reputation.
“They seem to like all the guys that they beat,”Isiah Thomas, via CBSSports
It has to be more than that. The Pistons were not the only team winning in the 80s, yet Isiah and the Bad Boys are the only ones universally disliked (or hated) by most of their peers. Their physical style definitely had something to do with it. But Isiah pushes back on that narrative and points out everyone was punching and elbowing in those days. From his point of view, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who got hit more than he did as a small guard attacking the rim.
But, his reputation goes beyond the basketball court. Thomas’ stint with the Knicks is considered to be one of the worst GM/coach jobs in recent memory. His tendency to play very physical/dirty basketball resurfaced in 2006 when a brawl between the Knicks and Nuggets happened. Thomas allegedly instigated it by ordering his players to commit a hard foul in the paint. Then we have the fact the Knicks settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with a former employee for $11.5 million. Isiah has a lot of baggage.
The main storyline you hear is that he is very polite and friendly when around you, but you can never trust what he’s doing and saying when you are not around. Isiah explains he could say the same thing about all his critics. If he was so disliked, considered “a snake” and a dirty player, how come Thomas was unanimously elected to be the President of the Players Association from ’88 to ’94?
“Bird, Magic, Jordan, all of them said, ‘This is the guy we want to represent us.’ Again, every time I’ve interacted with any of them, any time I’ve seen any of them out in public, it has been warm. That’s the only thing I can go on.”Isiah Thomas, via CBSSports
All this drama’s been overblown because we have nothing else to do. First of all, every grudge Jordan has is not an indication of how serious an issue is. The man is pathologically competitive and blows things out of proportion to motivate himself. The Pistons did kick his ass for three years in a row; we shouldn’t be surprised MJ will never let go. Even more so, we shouldn’t form our opinion based on a documentary about Michael Jordan (and the Bulls), produced and approved by Michael Jordan. Not really an equal playing field.
When it comes to his general reputation, as a player, he is underrated. Isiah Thomas is one of the best pure point guards that ever played the game. As a person, he has his sins (the sexual harassment being the biggest one). As a basketball executive, it’s mostly been an F. But to talk about Thomas like the basketball community universally dislikes him is just wrong. Like everyone else, he has fans and critics. Nothing more, and nothing less.