It’s always easy to forget how great of a player Isiah Thomas was because of his actions as a GM and head coach. He also won’t go down in the hall of fame for sportsmanship if there is such a thing, leading the Detroit Pistons off the court in order to avoid shaking hands with the Chicago Bulls and especially Michael Jordan after being swept in the playoffs.
Does Thomas regret making such a decision? According to his interview on NBA TV’s Open Court, he regrets not taking the high road back then, but he doesn’t completely feel like it came out of nowhere.
We thought we deserved a little bit of respect as a champion. Everyone could play and act like the Pistons and adopt our philosophy, except the Pistons. Before the Bulls swept us, I remember clearly Jordan and Phil Jackson and everyone, they went on a day, day-and-a-half tirade about how we were bad for the game, about how we were bad people, about how Laimbeer was a thug. They were up 3-0, and then they had this press conference just totally disrespecting us as champions.
The Pistons were built on excellent defense, that was borderline (and plenty of times over the line) violent, hustle, brought first and foremost by Dennis Rodman, and the offensive brilliance of Thomas, who was probably the second best point guard in the NBA at the time behind Magic Johnson.
There was a lot of pride to that unit, which held its head high through the us against the world mentality. There’s a reason Larry Bird said he hated Bill Laimbeer, because he went out there to injure players each and every night. The way the Pistons took care of Jordan and the Bulls in the years before the sweep in 1991 wasn’t the cleanest and most ethical. But basketball was like that in those days, and some teams were allowed to beat up on others.
After playing that kind of basketball for so long, Michael Jordan and the Bulls were good enough to catch on to the Pistons, and not have to worry about getting beat up in the paint. Jordan began getting more protection from the referees, as the league got tired of seeing him getting bruised up badly by the Pistons, who had one thing in mind in games against Chicago – stop Jordan, even if it means taking his head off.
Thomas might talk about bringing respect, but his championship teams weren’t good for basketball, and they deserved to go down in a humiliating manner. Accordingly, they made even bigger fools of themselves by refusing to acknowledge being dethroned by a better, more worthy team.