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.