The best little man to ever play basketball started scuffling again last week. On the court, Isiah Thomas never ran away from a fight, and he has the scars to prove it. Off the court, well, don’t let anyone blast on him — or his Bad Boy Detroit Pistons.
Charles Oakley tried that last week when he said on the “All the Smoke” podcast: “(Michael Jordan) came into your city and took your city. That’s why you’re really mad. He took over Chicago.”
When folks tweeted the clip, Thomas fired back via Twitter:
“I remember us kicking your ass a lot, some one please check my record vs any team he played on! Sit down be humble.”
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The back and forth went viral because it’s part of a Thomas-Jordan feud that’s lasted decades; it goes back at least to when Thomas blamed Jordan for orchestrating his blackball from the Olympic Dream team in 1992. Jordan picked at the scab in the “The Last Dance,” the hagiographic ESPN documentary of his final Bulls season, calling Thomas an “expletive” starting with “A” and said he hated him.
Thomas was interviewed for the Jordan-centered film. He felt blindsided when it came out. And he said so when he went on the “All the Smoke” podcast last week. He wants a public apology from Jordan.
This made headlines, too, naturally. But the latest dustup is only part of the tale.
Sure, it makes for good fodder — a couple of NBA icons and their proxies exchanging verbal blows; Oakley played with Jordan in Chicago and remains loyal to his place as the game’s royalty.
And although Thomas would surely like a better relationship with Jordan — it’s hard to imagine Jordan cares, from his perch atop the basketball world — the former Pistons point guard didn’t take to Twitter last week to repair the long-time fissures.
No, this is deeper, more fundamental, and it’s not just about Thomas’ place in the game. It’s about Detroit, too. Thomas understands this, and when he defends his career and the legacy of the Bad Boys, he is also defending the city that adopted him.
Last week, on the anniversary of a 59-point game Jordan had at the Silverdome in the late 80s, Thomas responded to a tweet showing Jordan’s highlights by reminding everyone that his Pistons beat the Bulls in the playoffs that year.
“35 years ago I led my team Bad Boy @DetroitPistons to the NBA finals,” he tweeted, “it all depends on which story you want to tell and (sell).”
Thomas wasn’t gonna let Jordan have his flowers. The tweet didn’t come from Jordan’s camp, by the way, but rather a basketball account called Ballislife, which seems appropriate, because ball is life. And Thomas isn’t gonna find peace until he makes sure his legacy on the court is secure.
No wonder, then, he told Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, co-hosts of “All The Smoke,” that he sees himself as a history corrector, and that his Bad Boys are the most “misunderstood team” in the history of the NBA.
“For the record, I’m not beefing or hating on anyone,” he said. “I am correcting and teaching factual documented history, not mythology.”
In sports, though, especially among the greats, it’s impossible to separate fact and “documented history” from mythology, as much as Thomas is trying. As he likes to point out, his teams were the only ones that beat Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the halcyon era of the sport.
And when he says this, it makes his choice of “misunderstood team” easier to understand. For the record, I’m not sure the Bad Boys are misunderstood at all, and they certainly weren’t in their prime.
They were feared, yes. Admired, too. They were also resented, mostly by other players or fans who didn’t like their overly physical style of play nor that they crashed the Lakers-Celtics party and held off the Bulls’ reign for a few years. But they were definitely understood.
What they aren’t is remembered properly, particularly their skill, and in that way, Thomas’ defense of his team is airtight. Thomas spent his time on “All The Smoke” talking about how the Bad Boys’ guard-dominant lineup, with its stretch big (Bill Laimbeer) and pick-and-roll, or pick-and-pop, schemes foresaw the future.
And it did. And that’s a fact that’s lost on casual hoops fans. Which means that the Bad Boys’ dominance and uniqueness has partly been lost to history, too.
Thomas has a right to beef about how his teams fit into the NBA catalog. Jordan walks with a halo these days, as if he never missed a shot or, heaven forbid, lost a game. Thus, mythology.
Jordan has earned it, though. Going 6-for-6 in the NBA Finals will do that. So will all those gorgeous videos of him soaring for dunks that pop up on Twitter and Facebook so often.
What’s harder to remember, however, is that before the Bad Boys, and, to a degree, before Jordan took flight, Thomas was a national draw, and easily the third-most watchable star in the league, after only Bird and Magic.
Fans outside Michigan loved his smile, of course, but were drawn to his speed and quickness, his dribbling and shot making, and his passing. He was a showman, and it wasn’t that hard to find him on television long before the Pistons started winning big.
The Bad Boys changed that for Thomas and, in a way, he’s been fighting to keep that part of his history alive since. No one played the game as he did before he came along, not at his size with that kind of skill and fearlessness.
Is it any surprise then, that he thinks he and his team are “misunderstood?”
Sports are remembered best through stories. How those stories are shaped matters. Who shapes them matters more.
Thomas will never occupy the cultural space that Jordan does, or even that of Magic and Bird. But when he played at his peak, his best teams were right there with theirs.
That’s why he set fire to “NBA Twitter” last week. He is trying to tell a story. A Detroit story. A story he hopes will stick, someday.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.