Isiah Thomas has an impressive NBA resume. His storied NBA career with the Detroit Pistons included NBA titles in 1989 and ’90, a Finals MVP, 12 All-Star selections and two All-Star MVP selections, and a spot in the Hall of Fame.
After his playing career, Thomas was a coach for the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Florida International University, team president of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, a part-owner of the Toronto Raptors, owner of the Continental Basketball Association and a broadcaster.
With all his accomplishments, Thomas’ basketball legacy is cemented, but more than 30 years removed from the rivalry with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, there’s still talk about Thomas’ omission from the 1992 Dream Team that won the gold medal at the Olympics.
In 2020, ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary on Jordan’s career rehashed some of the rivalry, but it also raised more questions about where the relationship between him and Thomas stood.
Thomas spoke with The Detroit News about his Bad Boys team’s legacy, the portrayal in “The Last Dance,” the current Pistons squad and his potential to return to the NBA in some capacity.
Question: “The Last Dance” was something that helped get people through the pandemic. One of the things that had to be played up on the producers’ minds was the feud between MJ and the Bad Boys. How did you feel about the way that you guys were portrayed in “The Last Dance” documentary?
Thomas: The way it all came about, his producers and Michael himself reached out and asked me to be in “The Last Dance” to sit down and do this documentary. My nephew lived with Michael Jordan for three or four years and was a ball boy for the Chicago Bulls. His name was Darren. I dressed up in a three-piece suit, sat down, did the interview and talked for a couple of hours, at NBA TV, with another gentleman who happens to be from Chicago — and you can use all these people’s names — his name was Kevin Cottrell, from NBA TV, and he sat in a room with me.
I talked for two hours to their producers, and I still have all the emails and everything else, from his producer, from Jordan and everybody else. So, when we sat down and watch “The Last Dance” during COVID, we were all pretty excited to see it. When he came on and called me an a——, and then said he hated me, we were all shocked. So, his portrayal, not only of the Pistons, but his portrayal of (former Bulls general manager) Jerry Krause, his portrayal of his teammates — which, a lot of them called me, and I’m friendly with some of them still today — it was kinda like he just went off on everybody. Nobody ever got on TV and said they hated me and call me an a——, especially after my family and your family have been socializing for years.
I coached his last All-Star Game, and if you remember, Jordan wasn’t selected as a starter in his last All-Star Game. Vince Carter was. I went to Vince Carter and asked him if he would give up his spot so Jordan could start. I coached him in his last All-Star Game. He was always friendly to me. So, this whole “Last Dance” and “I hate Isaiah…”
Q: That was a surprise for you, then, the way that it sort of developed? Were you guys on speaking terms in the interim between kind of that last All-Star Game and more recently?
A: I went out to dinner with (Jordan) several times — me, him and Ahmad (Rashad) — when I was working at NBC.
Yeah, again, his producer and him calling me and asking me to be in it. That’s what’s got me (confused). And now, everybody’s quiet and kind of running away, (as if) this is how it’s always been. And I’m like, ‘No.’ Now, if it was (like that), I didn’t know, and I guess a lot of things came out in “The Last Dance.” I always took people at their word. He said he had nothing to do with me not making the Dream Team. OK, fine. I moved on. You’ve never heard me say anything bad about him or nobody. I still haven’t said anything bad about him.
Q: Can this be made right?
A: If somebody tells the truth. Yeah, it’s a lot of lies out there.
Q: Is there a way that he can kind of mend the fences with you?
A: I’m just saying, people can start asking him these questions. I’m the one that gets asked these questions in these interviews. By the way, I’m just as confused and blindsided as everybody else was. Yeah, he’s sent friends and people to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t mean it, and it came out the wrong way.’ OK, well, then clean it up. But, he’s letting this stuff linger out here.
Q: How much do you keep in contact with the other Bad Boys and Rick (Mahorn) and Bill (Laimbeer) and Joe (Dumars)?
A: We talk almost every day.
Q: How’s that relationship changed as you guys have gotten older, or has it changed at all? Even as parents or I don’t know if any of you are grandparents, just as you’ve gotten older.
A: We’re all still good. We have a group chat. We talk to each other, happy birthdays and all that. We’re good. Our kids socialize. They all know each other. They have their Instagram, and they all communicate.
Q: What’s the legacy of that Bad Boys group and how do you want to see people remember that, because it’s sort of changed, and certainly as we’ve gone through “The Last Dance” and those sorts of things, people view it a little bit differently and time does a thing too. Even the media, to some degree, gives it a certain label and a certain sort of descriptor. How do you want that era to be remembered?
A: Well, I just wanted to be remembered accurately. We won back-to-back championships, and all the teams that everyone is saying are great, we beat those teams. The way they’re casting it is that ‘Oh, well, you didn’t beat them; you beat them up.’ No, no, no, wait. That’s not how it happened. Other teams played physical. Our team played physical, but that was the time; that was the era. How are we going to be remembered? Clearly, that’s not up to us; it’s the people who are writing the stories — and I hope they write them accurately because a lot of the propaganda that’s been coming from other places is just not accurate. So, when I fight for the Pistons and I fight for Detroit, I’m only fighting with facts. You can’t go out there and find anything that I have said that is not accurate and factual. That’s all I put out there.
Q: Yeah, and it’s just a different sort of time now, and I think that’s the point that gets lost is that’s what it was. It wasn’t all the other teams were playing like the style now. And you were the one rogue team that was out there and just being so physical, and you were the problem. That was everybody. That was (Robert) Parrish. That was (Larry) Bird; that was (Karl) Malone. That was (Charles) Barkley and that was a lot of teams in the league, and that’s the part that doesn’t get shown as often.
A: Yeah, it’s like we were the only ones. It was Milwaukee, Philly, Boston, L.A. That was the league, and guys were physical. That was the whole entire league.
I thought, for all intents and purposes, I was done in ’91 after I broke my wrist. You can look at the stats — I never was the same player again. And the last couple of years, I was hanging on like everybody else, so you get your check. But, you weren’t really playing, or you weren’t as good. Most of the teams in the ’90s, they were very physical then, too, if I remember correctly. It was a physical league. That’s all I can say.
Q: I think that’s the point … that was the league at the time, and there were other people who tried to kind of copy what you guys were doing because they’re saying hey, if this is what we have to do to be good, and this is what the league is allowing, it wasn’t just that you guys were the rogues. There were others before you; there were others after you, and then the league kind of said OK, we want to do something different.
A: What I’ve always rebelled against is the labeling that they attached to Detroit’s city and Detroit itself, and it seems to be like we in Detroit, you can just throw anything at us, and it sticks. Whatever is bad in the NBA, oh, Detroit did it. Whatever was going on in America at that time, oh Detroit did it.
Q: What are your impressions of the current Pistons and the young roster they’ve got with Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey and those guys?
A: I love it. Troy has done a great job of getting talent. I like the young talent that he’s assembled. They’ll get a draft pick and then you add Cade back to this. I think Troy’s been excellent. I really do.
Q: In terms of rebuilds, how patient do fans have to be with that, because I think some fans want it to be just a kind of a just add sugar and water and a Kool-Aid sort of mix. And it’s not that. Rebuilds generally take five or six years or more to really get going and to really get where you want to be.
A: You hit the keyword — where you want to be. In Detroit, we try to win championships. Rebuilds for other cities may be they just want to make the playoffs, and they’re happy happening. Troy is using the correct words — he’s saying, “restore.’ That means that he’s trying to put together a championship team. There are other places where they just want to make the playoffs.
Question: What’s your sense of the fan base and the Pistons are somewhere around 10th in attendance, or tickets sold, that even though the team isn’t winning now, there’s still this rabid fan base that likes this resurgence.
Thomas: I love Detroit, and one of the reasons why I love Detroit is because they support the team through the good times and the bad times.
Question: For you, why was it important to diversify your interests outside of sports and move into the business with the ownership of Isiah International, venturing into other areas with Cheurlin and the cannabis companies? Why was it important for you to do that?
A: It was important for me just for the simple reason that you’ve got to earn a living. I retired from basketball at 32, and the most money that I had made at that time in terms of a paycheck, I think I had gotten a $3 million check and I thought I was rich. In your (sports) afterlife, what are you going to do for the next 50 years of life? And I had nieces and nephews, who were extremely poor, still, and a lot of them still in poverty, that I’m trying to help get out, education-wise.
Q: Your basketball resume is obviously unique as a Hall of Fame player, coach, front office, CBA and everything that you’ve done, and even in the broadcasting booth. Is there something you still want to do that you haven’t done? Is it ownership? Do you think about going back to the front office at some point?
A: Front office, I definitely would think about and consider. Future-wise you just don’t know. You don’t know what the next turn is; you don’t know what the next venture is, so you just always try to prepare yourself to be ready just in case opportunity comes.
Q: There were, obviously, the reports when Mat Ishbia bought the Suns that there might be some opportunity there for you. Is that still something that you would be open to or has there been any discussion of that?
A: No, Mat Ishbia and I are good friends, and I’m on the (United Wholesale Mortgage) board. He and I talk basketball, and whatever Mat asks me to do or participate in, I’m open to it. But, as you’ve seen over the years, I advise several owners and several teams in the NBA.
Q: What made you want to do that and to go into so many different areas and not just be a player and a coach and that’s it?
A: I am a forever learner. Just curiosity. I love the game. I mean, I truly do love the game. I love every aspect of it. Basketball is a game that you never truly master, so there’s always something you can get better at. Having the opportunity to stay around the game, stay connected to the game, and learn about it and make it better. I’m always interested in that.
Q: What have you learned from the media side now that maybe you think differently about?
A: I would say the thing that I like about the media side now is that literally everybody has a voice. And I think what it’s done in this space is it’s allowed for everybody to be a part of the basketball conversation, and the sports conversation, in my opinion, which makes it better, because it keeps growing the pie and it keeps people interested. I think from a writing and speaking standpoint, you have a better chance of dispensing accurate information. But, there’s also a large group that wants to put out inaccurate information. It’s a fight between the factual and the non-factual, and it’s kind of like who weaves the best story sometimes wins the battle.
Q: My last question is about Twitter and a lot of people would just say they don’t want to be bothered with Twitter. I used to joke with Stan Van Gundy that he should get on Twitter. And when he was coaching and he said no, no, no, I don’t have any use for that at all. And now that he’s in the broadcast booth, he’s got a Twitter account and he engages just as well. Why do you want to be on Twitter?
A: I interact because if people have seen me in public, I talk. If somebody comes up and asks me a question, I talk. On Twitter, what I just try to do is there are a lot of young folks on Twitter who can sometimes receive a lot of inaccurate information, and just like in history, there are certain versions, particularly in Black America right now, that are being written out of history and legislated out of history, and what I try to do on Twitter is remind everyone of the accuracy and factual points of our NBA basketball journey — not just the Pistons — but I feel I have a responsibility not only for the Pistons, but also for basketball, in general, because I work at NBA TV and I work for the NBA. So, it’s important that when I weigh in on conversations, that I have facts and I’m accurate. And I think it’s important to give young people who never saw Bob McAdoo play, who never saw Bill Laimbeer shoot the 3, who never saw Dan Issel shoot. They think big guys never could shoot the 3 before. So, when I remind people, and I show them there’s some other people who can really play. I think this generation of players, I also give them a big pat on the back because what they’re doing sometimes goes unnoticed by the fans.
What LeBron James has done for the game of basketball, nobody else has done. The records say it; the stats say it. What Kevin Durant has done, what Steph Curry has done, and then you look at what Giannis (Antetokounmpo) is doing. It’s crazy. Now, Twitter, they may not appreciate what it is that they’re seeing right now. But I want to be on the record because 10 years from now, when they go back and they look at some of these guys I just named, they’re gonna be like, ‘They were kind of good!’ Yeah, they were.
Note: Q&A is a Sunday feature on detroitnews.com. If you’d like to recommend a subject, email Special Projects Editor Kelley Root at email@example.com.