SALT LAKE CITY — One of several subplots to the ESPN’s "The Last Dance" series on Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls has included the superstar’s rancorous relationship with Isiah Thomas.
Succinctly stated, time has done nothing to abate Jordan’s hatred of the Detroit Pistons point guard. Flashing back nearly 30 years, it was a reason why Thomas was left off the 1992 United States Olympic basketball roster known as the original Dream Team.
A two-time NBA champion who also won a national title in college with Indiana, Thomas had the credentials worthy of the Olympic selection. But Jordan, who also had won two championships by the summer of 1992, had surpassed the aging Magic Johnson and Larry Bird at that time as the face of the NBA.
To maximize the publicity surrounding NBA professionals playing in the Olympics for the first time, the selection wanted Jordan on the team. Whether wanted or not, Jordan had some power to determine the roster.
In an offshoot to the subplot, to a degree the documentary has resurrected the debate between Thomas and John Stockton. The Jazz point guard, along with forward Karl Malone, made the 12-player roster.
Did Stockton deserve selection ahead of Thomas?
“Isiah Thomas is even greater than John Stockton,” said ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon on his PTI show. “He won twice, Isiah did. Sorry, it’s Isiah.”
Full disclosure, Wilbon and Thomas both hail from Chicago and are only two years apart in age. But the obvious bias doesn’t distract from the argument that Thomas belonged ahead of Stockton on the Dream Team pecking order.
In terms of the most important accomplishment, Thomas was the best player on a two-time NBA champion in 1989-90. In the basketball world, rings matter more than any individual statistics, however impressive the numbers may be.
In the three seasons preceding the Olympic competition, Stockton compiled statistics at least as good, or better, than Thomas. But the Jazz advanced to only one Western Conference Final, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in 1992.
Even then, the eventual all-time NBA leader in assists and steals in many circles was considered the Jazz’s second-best player behind Malone. Before losing to the New York Knicks in the first round in 1992, the Pistons went to the Eastern Conference Final in five consecutive seasons.
Either way, both players clearly were good enough to play on the Dream Team. The problem is it did not need to boil down to between them.
The final roster reflected a traditional NBA 12-player team, comprised of two centers, two point guards, two shooting guards and six forwards, with several interchangeable players. Adding another point guard to the greatest team ever assembled would not have altered the game results in the slightest.
In an attempt to not have a roster entirely of NBA players, Duke forward Christian Laettner was on the team. At the very least, Thomas would have been a much better choice than the lone college player.
There’s also a valid argument that Thomas had earned a spot ahead of Johnson, who won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. But the then 32-year-old Johnson had retired in November 1991 after testing positive for HIV.
Even though Jordan and Rod Thorn, a former NBA executive who was chairman of the Olympic team selection committee, dispute that Jordan’s sour relationship played a factor in bypassing Thomas, there is no arguing Thomas’ talent. Strictly off of his resume, Thomas belonged on the team.
Setting aside any inherent personality conflict, it’s no surprise Jordan and Thomas were not bosom buddies. The overly physical Pistons, infamously known as the "Bad Boys," squared off against the Bulls in the postseason four consecutive times, with Detroit holding a 3-1 advantage.
Further complicating the situation, Thomas walked off the court without shaking any opponent’s hands after Chicago swept the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Final on the way to Jordan’s first NBA championship in 1991. As "The Last Dance" series has shown, Jordan is not prone to let go of a good grudge.