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The Persistent Beef Between Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

Isiah Thomas is one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, but also one of the most polarizing. As part of the Detroit Pistons in the 1980s and 1990s, he and his teammates became known as the "Bad Boys," and for good reason too. They were a hard-nosed team and played tough, oftentimes bordering on dirty. Their entire persona was built around stopping the best basketball player of all time: Michael Jordan.

On the latest episode of Shannon Sharpe's podcast "Club Shay Shay," Thomas made some interesting comments on his rivalry with His Airness. He ranked Jordan as his fifth toughest opponent behind Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving. He then went on to say he "was dominant over him."

"Until '91, when I basically had career-ending wrist surgery, up until then, my record against him and his team—it really wasn't competition there," said Thomas.

Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas stand next to each other in an NBA basketball game.
Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas (right) | Image via CBS Sports/Andrew D. Bernstein

It's no secret that Isiah and MJ don't like each other, and it's a feud that's lasted since the late '80s. The Pistons won consecutive titles in 1989 and 1990, beating Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals both years. They established "Jordan Rules," guidelines for the team to adhere to in order to prevent MJ from scoring. Thomas had gotten the best of his counterpart in the early stages of their careers, but as Jordan did so often, he took it personally.

The next year in 1991, Detroit and Chicago met in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third straight year. Only this time, Jordan was ready for the Bad Boys. He and the Bulls swept the series in four games, but not before one of the most infamous scenes in league history. With just under eight seconds on the clock in Game 4, the Pistons bench walked off the floor without saying a word or shaking a hand. If the two stars hadn't been feuding before, that game made it official to the world that they surely were not friends.

The Olympics in 1992 only added fuel to the fire, as Thomas was not selected to play for the USA team. It is widely believed that Jordan had something to do with his exclusion, as he saw Thomas as the leader of the Bad Boys, the main proponent of doing anything necessary to eliminate the Bulls. In the fifth episode of Jordan's docuseries "The Last Dance," he claimed he had nothing to do with it.

"You want to attribute it to me, go ahead and be my guest. But it wasn't me," said Jordan.

"The Last Dance" was basically 500 minutes of Jordan propaganda, so was he telling the truth? Likely not. In the same episode, he called Thomas an "a--hole" for not apologizing for the handshake incident. Which, to be honest, isn't an outrageous insult considering IT and certified a--hole Bill Laimbeer were the ones who proposed the stunt in the first place.

Chicago Bulls shooting guard Michael Jordan lays up the basketball while being defended by Detroit Pistons forwards James Edwards and Bill Laimbeer.
Jordan surrounded by Pistons | Image via

In their playing careers, Jordan got the last laugh in terms of championships. Jordan and the Bulls went on to win six championships in eight years, establishing one of the best dynasties in history. Thomas retired in 1994 after having surgery on his wrist and tearing his Achilles tendon in the final years of his career. What I'm assuming his comments on Sharpe's podcast were referring to was his overall record against Jordan. In 65 games, Thomas has a 36-29 record against his foe. But even still, Jordan dominated those games in terms of individual statistics, averaging 31.6 points per game to Thomas's 21.

It's obvious that Thomas is still hurt by his omission from the 1992 Dream Team. And it's obvious that Jordan has no intentions of making any amends. But what's done is done. Thomas had his fun against the Bulls and won two championships. That's a fantastic accomplishment considering their legacy as one of the most imposing opponents ever. Despite that, IT isn't satisfied. While it just isn't right to disrespect Jordan, Thomas just wants a shred of respect added to his name. Until then, as basketball fans like to say, His Airness will live rent-free in the back of his mind.

1 Comment

michael cohen
michael cohen
Nov 12, 2020

Great thoughts on the Jordan/Thomas rivalry. Keep up the great writing

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