How Isiah Thomas Went from All-Time NBA Great to Cartoon Villain

Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas - Credit: John Biever/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas - Credit: John Biever/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

The vilification of Isiah Thomas began in his prime playing years. As the star and floor leader of the Detroit Pistons, the so-called Bad Boys — Isiah named the team after a line of dialogue from Al Pacino’s Scarface — Thomas became associated with all the sins of that two-time NBA champion and its rogues gallery of stars. Rodman, Mahorn, Laimbeer — it could seem less like a pro roster than a pirate crew. Isiah’s reputation only worsened after his retirement, first with his poor performance as a head coach in Indianapolis, then with disastrous turn as the general manager of the Knicks. But mostly, if you hate him, it’s because of his epic battle with Michael Jordan. Isiah, a Chicago native and product of the west side playgrounds, battled MJ for the hearts and minds of Chicagoans. For years, the Bulls’ season continued only until they ran into Detroit in the postseason. When the Bulls finally defeated the Pistons in the 1990 playoffs and went on to win six championships in eight years, Michael Jordan became God. When Michael Jordan became God, Isiah Thomas became the devil. That’s why you hate him. So consider me the devil’s advocate. Inch for inch, Thomas was the best player in NBA history. He is the only player in the Athletic’s top 50 under six feet tall. He was a (relatively) small man, who played big and got knocked around, but always got up and usually played better after he’d been hurt. Not in spite of the pain, because of it. In this passage from Rolling Stone contributor Rich Cohen’s new book When the Game Was War, Cohen describes one of Isiah’s great Bull-killing performances from the 1988 playoffs.

A storm blew through Chicago early in Game 3, a freak system that came from the West. The sky turned black at midday. Streetlamps with sensors flicked on across the Loop. The thunder came with the lightning; the beast was right on top of you. Rain poured down. Upper Wacker Drive was a snarl. Lower Wacker Drive filled up like a bowl. A bartender stood in the window of the Billy Goat Tavern, looking out. When the wind arrived, it hit the skyscrapers like an open hand. The storm warning was upgraded first to a tornado watch, then to a tornado warning. People scurried for cover on Michigan Avenue and State Street. The gusts turned umbrellas inside out. Even people inside the stadium could feel the storm. The broadcast was knocked briefly off the air, but the game continued, meaning, for a time, that only those in attendance knew what was happening. To them, the weather was too perfect, a pathetic fallacy, the outer world reflecting the gloom felt by every fan who watched the Pistons descend on the Bulls with renewed focus.

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Bill Laimbeer fed on dark energy. He was a Bond villain, a heel. He hit a shot from the top of the key, pumped his fist, then caught Jordan with a quick, dirty hip check as the Bulls were running up-court. Jordan reeled, turned, and charged at Laimbeer.

From that moment, Jordan, who later said Laimbeer had hit him “in the balls,” forgot the mission, lost his composure, timing, and shot.

“It distracted us,” said Bulls coach Doug Collins. “And we never recovered.”

The Bulls scored just 79 points that night, their worst performance of the 1988 postseason. Having come for a coronation, Chicago fans witnessed a funeral.

What followed seemed inevitable: a desultory performance in Game 4—the Bulls did even worse, scoring just 77 points— followed by the Bulls’ final loss of the season in Game 5 in Detroit. What people remember is Michael Jordan and Pistons guard Isiah Thomas going up for a rebound in the third quarter. Michael caught Isiah with an elbow in the head. Isiah was unconscious before he hit the ground. For a moment, the game continued around him. Then the whistles blew. Trainers and coaches came running. Detroit assistant Ron Rothstein waved smelling salts under Zeke’s nose. His eyes opened. In them, you recognized fundamental questions: Who am I? Why am I here? His vision cleared; he got up and stumbled off. They said he was done for the night. He went to the locker room, found the door locked, and so, not knowing where else to go, returned to the bench. The announcer said he’d come back not to play but only to support his team. Then, a minute later, the same announcer said he would play but only if absolutely necessary. A few minutes after that, he was out on the floor. The Bulls were rallying. Thomas was told to stanch the bleeding.

Bulls fans dismiss Isiah Thomas as a whiner, a flopper prone to bitching and complaining, like the rest of the Bad Boy Pistons. But I’ve never bought this because I actually watched Isiah play. There was no one grittier, tougher, or more willing to sacrifice his body and well-being to the cause. As a regular-sized person in a big man’s game, he swallowed more than an adult portion of abuse, was knocked down, knocked out, and stepped on but almost always came back, reenergized, angry, and ready to play.

Post-retirement episodes have cast a shadow on Isiah the player, as has the acceptance of Michael Jordan as the NBA’s GOAT, whose bitter struggle with the Bad Boy Pistons became part of the legend, turning members of that Detroit team—those who dared thwart Michael—into villains. For Isiah, it’s a bum rap cemented for another generation by The Last Dance, which cast Isiah as the Eternal Foe. What happened to Isiah is like what happened to the Jews when Rome converted to Christianity. What had been a local rivalry between sects—one side of the story—was canonized into an immortal battle between good and evil.

But I remember it differently. Because I was there. Because I saw Isiah play in high school and college. Because I understood what he faced in Detroit, how he sublimated his talent to turn that team around. I admired how he took the weak hand he’d been dealt in Detroit and, with leadership and at tremendous physical cost, turned the team into a back-to-back winner.

What Isiah did that afternoon at the Silverdome is proof. At 1:55, he was out cold in the paint. At 2:10, he was pulling on the bolted locker room door. At 2:30 he was back in the game, carrying his team across the finish line.

The Bulls were within a basket when Zeke returned. Five minutes later, when he checked back out, they were finished. He’d scored 9 consecutive points in three minutes to end Chicago’s season.

From the book WHEN THE GAME WAS WAR: The NBA’s Greatest Season by Rich Cohen. Copyright © 2023 by Tough Jews, Inc. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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