Hubbard: 20 years later, we’re still talking about Isiah Thomas & the Dream Team?

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Perhaps the most amazing part of the NBA’s documentary of the Dream Team that aired Wednesday night was that Isiah Thomas has now become a sympathetic figure.

Thomas actually released a statement after the show aired and addressed not making the Dream Team in 1992.

Now I have to say my first reaction was pretty straightforward:

A statement in 2012 about not making a team in 1992?

Are we still talking about this?

Beyond that, I kind of felt sorry for the guy. The fact that it’s an issue 20 years later is outrageous. But it is obviously part of the cultural phenomenon that was and is the Dream Team.

I had the good fortune to be one of only a handful of reporters who covered the team from the first day of training camp until the last day of the Olympics while I was working for Newsday in 1992. So in honor of the 20-year anniversary, here is the first in what could be a series of 20 memories about various issues surrounding the Dream Team.

Part One: The Isiah Thomas Exclusion.

1. From Day 1 when the story broke that the selection committee had not invited Thomas, the speculation was that Michael Jordan kept him off the team. In the Dream Team documentary, however, Jordan said he was told even before he committed that Thomas would not be on the team and “I was getting strong innuendo that it was coming from higher places that didn’t want Isiah Thomas on the team.”

2. And that is true. It wasn’t only the enemies that Thomas had made. He had as many friends on the selection committee as anyone, including Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey. But he had little support. No one fought for him to be on the team.

3. In what has to be one of the greatest misjudgments by any member of any front office in NBA history, when the first 10 players were announced, McCloskey said not being on the team would not be that big of a deal to Thomas. I was at the NBA league meetings in Palm Springs and after they ended, I found McCloskey at the pool and asked him about Thomas’ exclusion.

“Isiah is above all of that,” McCloskey said in an interview that was recorded. “He can handle it. There’s going to be some great players that are not going to be on that team. … It may be a disappointment to some, but they’ve got to learn to live with those things.”

4. Later, McCloskey discovered how wrong he was because Thomas was incensed. So McCloskey resigned from the committee in protest because it was an insult that Thomas had not made the team! McCloskey simply was not going to take that! It was a matter of principle!

It was, however, a grandstand play that was really not grand at all.

5. The late Chuck Daly was the Pistons coach and head coach of the 1992 Olympic team. He did not have a vote on the selection committee, but one influential member of the committee told me, “If Chuck had come in and demanded Isiah to be on the team, he would have been on the team.” Daly did not do that.

6. I wrote a column at the time saying that it wasn’t enemies who kept Thomas off the team, it was friends. The next time I saw Dave Gavitt, who was the head of USA Basketball, he pulled me aside and said, “You hit that right on the button. I made copies of your column and faxed it to every member of the committee.”

7. Rod Thorn and Russ Granik, both high-ranking NBA executives at the time, pointed out in the documentary that the selection committee began making decisions shortly after the 1991 NBA playoffs. That’s when Thomas led a group of Pistons off the court when it was obvious the Bulls were going to sweep their Eastern Conference finals series. It was repugnant sportsmanship and who could have possibly been excited about that sort of mentality on an Olympic team?

8. Ah yes, we have heard and witnessed so much of the Michael Jordan competitiveness, and there were several funny moments in the documentary. But after writing all of the above, I do have to report that in Jack McCallum’s book on the Dream Team, which will be released next month (and can be preordered here - you’re welcome, Jack) , Jordan takes full credit for keeping Thomas off the team.

9. That is vintage Michael. He and Thomas have despised each other since 1985 and the infamous All-Star freeze-out (which colleague Mark Heisler wrote about here). After being eliminated for three straight years by Detroit, Jordan and the Bulls won in 1991, and Thomas and the Pistons did their little walk-off, which proved to be quite large. At that point, Jordan gained the upper hand. And when Michael has the upper hand, he’ll use it. So now he revels in keeping Thomas off the team.

10. No doubt that Thomas was not invited for a variety of reasons and Jordan not wanting him there was certainly a major one. But the fact is that during his career, Thomas had made a lot of enemies on opposing teams.

Scottie Pippen was very open in saying he did not want Thomas on the team. Larry Bird could not stand Thomas and made that clear years later when his first act as the Pacers GM was to fire Thomas. If Thomas had been invited, Bird might have passed. Charles Barkley, who is close with Jordan, might have not played, either.

And Patrick Ewing had the same agent as Jordan and could have passed also. Like Jordan, Ewing already had a gold medal from the 1984 games. And you can be sure that the selection committee knew all of that.

11. Although Thomas had been a key part of two championship teams, from a basketball standpoint, he was a shoot-first point guard and that style of play did not fit into what the Dream Team needed. Daly, of course, knew that better than anyone. Magic Johnson and John Stockton were classic pass-first point guards. Pippen and Jordan could also handle the point. So a third point guard was not needed.

12. Of the first 10 players chosen, which is when the Thomas controversy began, eight of those had made better than 50 percent of their shots from the field in their careers. Only Bird (49.7) and Pippen (49.2) were under 50 percent.

13. Thomas had made 45.2 percent of his shots in his career and often dominated the ball. No one on the committee or coaching staff wanted to get into a game where a player tried to take over as an individual and put on a show.

14. The first 10 players to make the team were announced in September 1991. The last two players – Clyde Drexler and Christian Laettner – were announced after the 1991-92 season. Thomas was not given strong consideration for the last NBA spot that went to Drexler.

15. John Stockton broke a small bone in his leg at the Tournament of the Americas in Portland when the Dream Team was qualifying for the Olympics. Daly, who was so paranoid that he was known as the “Prince of Pessimism,” started worrying that if there were other injuries or foul problems, the U.S. could actually lose a game. He wanted to replace Stockton, and Matt Dobek, his public relations director with the Pistons, was assigned to get a phone number for the replacement.

16. Dobek was told to make sure he knew how to contact Joe Dumars.

17. Although he has made some choices that didn’t seem to be that great, Thomas is a smart guy. But he had a tremendous lapse in judgment when he walked off the court against the Bulls. If he had thought about the selection process being close at hand and how walking off the court would look, he would have never done it. Imagine if he had gone and congratulated Jordan graciously and said all the right things later. He might have been on the team.

18. But then again, maybe not. The feelings about him were very strong and ran very deep.

19. Although Thomas was a cutthroat player and conducted himself in such a way that he was not welcome on the team, the way he conducted himself was also how he was a key part of two championship teams. So if he had been different, the Pistons might not have won titles. For better or worse, he was who he was.

20. If we’re still talking about Isiah Thomas not making the Dream Team 20 years later, he must be a pretty significant figure in NBA history.

Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.

 

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  2. rockerrick says:

    Thomas was an ahole. No one like him. He was a little like a snake oil salesman. Too bad he is still around. It would have been nice to see him lose it all.

  3. In terms of pure on-court ability, Thomas should’ve gotten Stockton’s spot. But pure on-court ability is not all there is in evaluating the total value a player brings to a team. To me, it was always very simple: Isiah Thomas actively cultivated a bad boy image (both on and off the court), reveled in that image, and gained a following from that image. He made a lot of enemies living off this persona and not only didn’t care, but enjoyed it. He enjoyed being spiteful, and deliberately instigated antagonistic relationships with other teams and players. These were all choices he made. Being kept off the dream team was one of the prices he paid for the choices he made. Stephen A Smith said Thomas should’ve been on the team because the selection process should’ve been based on ‘merit’. But that depends on how one defines ‘merit’. For Thomas to actively engage in the antics he chose to engage in, and then whine about the consequences, is the opposite of a meritocracy. Thomas long ago needed to man up and except what his own choices brought upon him.

    • FrankieB says:

      Jason, very good points. It’s worth noting that even the Pistons and their owner got peeved at Isiah. I recall Bill Davidson promising Isiah he’d run the team or have the option to buy a small share and asking that he keep it quiet and not say a word. And then Isiah promptly leaked the word — and then denied it.

      Isiah may have gotten blamed for some things unfairly — the trade for Mark Aguire (his friend) for Adrian Dantley comes to mind (I remember Dantley’s mother skewering Thomas in the papers) but he clearly did instigate alot of things.

      And as I said to Jan below, I think the 1991 No-Hand Shake incident was worse than the alleged 1985 ASG Freeze-Out. Remember, the coach for the Bad Boys was Chuck Daley — everyone loved Chuck, including the Bulls players, on that 1992 Dream Team.

      Good stuff, Jason ! – Frank

    • Well said Jason. I may add that Isaiah hated Jordan so much, he probably wouldn’t have passed to him…like in the All-star Games…Thomas actually could have railed the Dream Team’s march to destiny. He was so decisive, it could have ruined everything. In hindsight, it was a great decision to leave him off the team.

    • Well said Jason. I may add that Isaiah hated Jordan so much, he probably wouldn’t pass to him…like in All-star Games…Thomas actually could have railed the Dream Team’s march to destiny. He was so decisive, it could have ruined everything. In hindsight, it was a great decision to leave him off the team.

  4. Isaiah Thomas was one of the biggest jerks that ever played in the NBA. Completely self-absorbed. Tried to injure Jordan at any given opportunity. Slashing at Jordan’s face, trying to trip him underneath the basket…constantly. Without question, one of the dirtiest players of all time. Does this sound like an Olympian? Yes, Jordan, Pippin and Bird all detested him…but for the right reasons.

    Parrallel…Lance Armstrong, one of our modern-day jerks. Nearly no one in the sport liked him. He was more than cocky…he was self proclaimed. Eventually, the bubble popped, and no one…like, NO ONE came to his aid. Why? He’s simply not a nice person, not at all.

  5. What’s your opinion on what Pete called the Dream Team ‘The Farcelona 12′?

    • FrankieB says:

      You know, Vecsey responded to me on that — I’ll try and find what he wrote.

      Can’t believe he’s not at the Post — been reading him on-and-off for 35 years there, aside from a brief stint at USA Today. Post had his name on the Columnist lineup for months after he left (probably hoping he’d reconsider) there though no new columns since May but they took his name off a few months ago.

      Not sure why he left — his Twitter comments indicate a lack of respect, maybe they wanted more columns/more travel, I dunno. Can’t enjoy him in 140 characters or less, I miss Hoop Du Jour. LOL

  6. FrankieB says:

    I wrote the following on that Pistons blog because someone took unfair criticism of Jan at the site (since Jan actually spoke in person with McCloskey, it wasn’t his opinion or conjecture). My entire post is recreated below:
    ______________________________________

    C-Foe, Jan Hubbard is giving you a 1st-hand account of the interview with Jack McCloskey. It’s not his opinion, he’s not speculating, he’s telling you point-black that McCloskey didn’t think it would be a big deal and then when he found out Isiah hit the roof he did a 180. You can say it doesn’t pass your ‘sniff’ test but Hubbard is an outstanding professional sports writer with 30+ years of experience.

    Hubbard doesn’t blame McCloskey and he doesn’t blame Daly. If you read the entire piece — and the comments from some of us at his blog and his responses to us — you’ll see that there were a number of variables that went into the decision. For instance, and I think Jan disagrees with me somewhat, but I posted a CHICAGO TRIBUNE story from 1985 on the alleged ‘freeze out’ and in the story Jordan and Isiah basically say everything is hunky-dory. I tend to think this was minor because nobody ever confirmed that there was a ‘freeze-out’ and if Isiah was so hated, who would protect him ?

    I think sometimes the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line. And that straight line is what Scottie Pippen said: Isiah was The General of those late 1980′s/early 1990′s Pistons teams that Jordan and Pippen HATED with a passion. Isiah was that symbol, along with Laimbeer and Mahorn. Not Joe Dumars…not even Dennis Rodman (later played with Jordan/Pippen), and not Chuck Daly.

    That 1991 walk-off probably sealed the deal. Had Isiah shook hands with Pippen and Jordan and wished them the best, maybe — MAYBE !!!! — they don’t diss him during the selection process. Or maybe not. I am guessing there, I freely admit it. You and Jan both say that if Daly had asked for Isiah he probably would have gotten him. You both may be right — and if not, if Daly had made personal appeals to Jordan/Magic/Pippen/Bird then it probably would have happened. It never got that far. Isiah had burned alot of bridges (the rumor of 1985, the Dantley trade, spreading rumors via favorite reporters, etc).

    One last thing: Isiah went downhill very fast at the end. By 1992 he was a shell of the player he was 3-4 years earlier. Bird was too, but he was injured and could still hit 3-point and long-distance shots even though he couldn’t move/rebound like 10 years earlier.

  7. Matt Schubert says:

    Jan, wonderful post with some great insight. One thing: It was noted in the NBA TV doc that aired earlier this week that Jordan and Chuck Daly golfed together each morning. This was the man that devised the Jordan Rules strategy, and yet he and Jordan were able to get along swimmingly by all accounts. How was this? And was there any talk of giving the coaching gig to someone like Phil Jackson or Pat Riley beforehand, since there was a chance Jordan may held a grudge against Daly as well?

    • FrankieB says:

      Good stuff, Matt…I was going to ask Jan the same thing but didn’t want to bug him again (LOL). Peter Vecsey’s column today (I had forgotten he had left the Post in 1992 for USAToday for a brief spell when they had financial problems) noted the same thing as you: Daly coached the team, and later Dennis Rodman played with both Pippen and Jordan on those late-1990′s Bulls teams. Surprised to learn that Vecsey has NEVER covered a Dream Team (personal dislike or something like that). But Vecsey — who has long documented Isiah’s backstabbings and personal faults — still felt that it was wrong to exclude Isiah. Go figure.

      I think the Daly-Rodman thing confirms that it was really Isiah (and maybe Laimbeer and Mahorn) who were really despised on those late-1980′s Detroit teams. Rodman was a tough player, would get chippy — but not dirty. Ditto Joe Dumars — class act. But Isiah, Mahorn, and Laimbeer all had the reputations of being ‘dirty’ and going WELL OVER the line.

      I’m guessing here, but I have to think that even with all that happened if Isiah had not walked off the court in 1991 and had shaken their hands and said “Good Luck” that all the other crap — David Falk, the 1985 All-Star Game, the Detroit beatdowns of Chicago earlier — would have been water under the bridge and Isiah would have been on that team.

      Imagine the publicity something like that would get today with all the cable TV and internet access ? Even back then it was pretty well-covered. I think Isiah would probably want a do-over on that 1991 no-handshake act.

    • Jan Hubbard says:

      Matt:
      Chuck was simply a master politician. Came from a very humble background and just had a way of getting along with people. He was a classic guy who could crush you, smile about it, take you out for a drink and become your best friend. He was one of a kind and he simply charmed Jordan. Riley and Jackson was always mavericks and had a adversarial relationship with D.Stern and the league. They were never considered for the position and neither one of them cared. — Thanks for the note.

      • FrankieB says:

        Jan, of all the NBA coaches I’ve followed in my 38 years of watching the NBA the only 2 coaches I ever wished I got a chance to meet were Red Holtzman and Chuck Daly. When Chuck passed away there were so many nice things said about the guy in the papers that you couldn’t help but be impressed. I wish he had worked for MSG as a post-game commentator or something had he lived a bit longer. What a guy. Class act. R.I.P. Thanks for the retrospective.

  8. FrankieB says:

    BTW, Jan, I am probably not the only die-hard NY sports fan who used to drive into NYC to get your column. I used to live in Rockland County and would have to drive over the GWB and pay the tolls ($2.00 back then, I think) just to get the late-city papers including NEWSDAY to read your column. Sure would have been nice in the late 1980′s/early-1990′s to have been able to read you on the internet. Would have saved me alot of gas and toll money — plus time ! ! LOL

    • Jan Hubbard says:

      Can’t tell you how great it is to read something like that. That’s the great thing about NY. I lived in Jersey and on Sunday mornings, I took the Post, Daily News, Times and Star-Ledger. You subbed Newsday for S-L. How great that is. Greatly appreciate the note. — Jan

      • FrankieB says:

        FYI Jan….gas is now $3.50/gallon instead of $1.25/gl. and the toll on the GWB is now $12.00 ($9.50 I think if you have EZ-Pass). Sure glad I don’t have to make that trip now to see my favorite columnists or get the late-city Sports Finals !! LOL

  9. FrankieB says:

    Jan, I came across this 1985 Chicago Tribune piece on the ‘freeze-out:’

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-02-12/sports/8501080975_1_dunk-show-players-attitudes-star-treatment

    Both Isiah and Jordan seem VERY deferential to one another. Doesn’t seem like this would have been the cause of animosity. I tend to think that the playoff battles from 1988-1991 were what really steamed Jordan negatively. Plus, I think the no-hands shake incident from 1991 would have struck the Committee and the other players negatively.

    Besides….even if Isiah was hated alot more 5-6 years later (after his titles and his ‘white’ crack about Larry Bird)…..why would all the 1985 All-Stars go along with the Hated Isiah in this freeze-out of Jordan ?

    I’m just a fan, but it seems to me, reading all the stuff I knew then and am reading now, that it was the playoffs and the 1991 incident that sealed Isiah’s fate, not the 1985 All-Star Game incident.

    • Jan Hubbard says:

      As far as them being deferential, that was an act. As far as the freeze out, I don’t think anyone went along with it. The point is that it was discussed and Jordan felt that alone was enough. I think the night they had the press conference, he scored something like 49 points. Ultimately, everything was tied in together. The two played for different teams contending for a title, the competition got personal and ultimately, Jordan had the upper hand. Thanks for the note.

  10. FrankieB says:

    Jan, awesome insights. If you can respond here or in a future column, could you let us know what the opinion of most of your peers at that time were ? Most NBA columnist at that time were veterans who were pretty objective, not like today with all the cable and internet outlets. I’d be interested in knowing what you, Bob Ryan, Peter Vecsey, and all the other veterans thought about the snub. Also, did you ever ask Chuck Daly about not fighting for Isiah ? I’m sure as a player he wanted him there, but he probably knew more than anybody how toxic Isiah would be in a locker room that wasn’t 100% under his control.

    • Jan Hubbard says:

      Chuck was a master. Yes, he was asked about it. He shrugged his shoulders and said he wasn’t on the committee and it wasn’t his role. Chuck had a wonderful way of deflecting any controversy. As as Bob and Pete, I’m not sure. Generally speaking, there was a group that felt Isiah should have been on the team but understood why he wasn’t and a group that felt Stockton was a better fit for that specific team. Thanks for the note.

  11. In regards to Isiah Thomas not being on the Dream Team, do you think his fallout with Magic Johnson may have played into that as well? In Magic’s book he talked about how Isiah and he were great friends until Magic contracted HIV and Isiah was questioning how he got and things of that nature. Magic said he has barely talked to Isiah since then. Did this come before or after the Dream Team selection?

    • Jan Hubbard says:

      Magic was named to the Dream Team in September and did not announce he was HIV positive until November. So it had nothing to do with it at the time. There was one NBA spot that was left to fill after the season and it went to Drexler so it possibly could have had an effect later. But I think it was minor in the overall picture.

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  5. [...] Jan Hubbard of Sheridan Hoops: I had the good fortune to be one of only a handful of reporters who covered the team from the first day of training camp until the last day of the Olympics while I was working for Newsday in 1992. So in honor of the 20-year anniversary, here is the first in what could be a series of 20 memories about various issues surrounding the Dream Team. 3. In what has to be one of the greatest misjudgments by any member of any front office in NBA history, when the first 10 players were announced, McCloskey said not being on the team would not be that big of a deal to Thomas. I was at the NBA league meetings in Palm Springs and after they ended, I found McCloskey at the pool and asked him about Thomas’ exclusion. [...]

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