Revisiting MJ v. Isiah and The Walk-Off

As our global purgatory continues, Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” documentary has masterfully dredged up old stories that we can reconsider.  As we previously noted, much of what has been covered is already well-known by older fans but is new to the younger generation.  One of the new stories is Jordan’s 30+ year rivalry with Isiah Thomas and the Pistons.  Let’s talk about the apex of their lingering resentments, the Pistons’ walk-off without shaking hands with the Bulls in the 1990-91 Conference Finals.

Jordan never really expounded too much on these thoughts until the recent documentary.  In the doc, Isiah, after years of not engaging in discussions about the walk-off, expressed regrets and connects that decision to not making the Dream Team. The film makers showed Thomas’ explanation for the walk-off and MJ’s visceral reaction was to note, 30 year later, that Isiah is an “asshole.”  Who is right and who is wrong?  Well, that depends on a lot of things.  To start with, neither of these guys is what we laypeople would call normal.  My first inclination was that Isiah and the Pistons acted like putzes and that, Jordan, for all his macho hyper-competitiveness had the better perspective.  Still, I think most non-Detroit fans tend to gravitate towards MJ but let’s flush this out and see what we can learn by going through the old history.

How the Feud Started: That Must’ve Been Some Elevator Ride

The feud between Isiah and MJ has been traced back to the infamous 1984-85 All-Star game where MJ was given the cold shoulder by most of the players.  We covered last time that Jordan blamed several players including George Gervin, Magic Johnson, and Isiah, for MJ being somewhat embarrassed in the game.  But why blame Isiah more than anyone else for the freeze out?  The record is surprisingly well-developed on this point.

In fact, the grudge might not have been as much about the game itself as much as a fateful elevator ride that same weekend.  In a February 14, 1985 Chicago Tribune article Steve Daley wrote that, after the All-Star game, rumors were spread that MJ was a prima donna:  “Jordan`s crimes? An ’attitude problem,’ in the published words of one Dr. Charles Tucker, an adviser to Thomas and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers.  Jordan left his sweat pants on for an unseemly length of time during the Slam Dunk exhibition, it was alleged, and he snubbed the ever-so-sensitive Thomas in an elevator at an Indianapolis hotel.  ‘This whole thing has hurt me, really hit me hard,’ Jordan said after the Pistons’ game.’”

The plot thickens…an elevator ride is the origin of this blood feud?  Apparently, so.  Daley wrote: “Somebody–not Isiah Thomas–says Jordan gave Thomas the brushoff. Thomas says, with some anger, that the ride never happened.  ‘I got to the hotel in Indianapolis and went upstairs to put my stuff away,’ said Jordan. ‘They told me to meet in Isiah`s room. So I went down there and we talked, and we got on the elevator.’  The plot–and the nonsense–thickens.  ‘We chatted for a little on the elevator,’ Jordan said, ‘and Isiah introduced me to his attorney [Tucker].  Maybe he [Tucker] just misinterpreted what happened. I know Isiah, but I don`t know him well enough to carry on a 30-minute conversation in an elevator, you know?’  Beyond the most sophomoric strain of jealousy, the motives for leaning on Michael Jordan are all but incomprehensible.”

Roland Lazenby had Tucker’s exact quote in “Michael Jordan: The Life,” as follows: “[t]he guys weren’t happy with [Jordan’s] attitude up here.  They decided to teach him a lesson.  On defense, Magic and George [Gervin] gave him a hard time, and offensively, they just didn’t give him the ball.  That’s what they’re laughing about, George asked Isiah, ‘You think we did a good enough job on him.’”

Yikes.  Tucker didn’t know when to shut up.  Thomas tried to downplay the All-Star game incidents and was clearly lying about them being in an elevator together.  Jordan basically never forgave him.

The Walk-Off

So, Isiah and Jordan’s long beef continued to simmer through four straight years of playoff series.  Jordan was obviously quite angry about losing the first three and called the Pistons thugs on occasion.  When the Bulls finally swept away the aging Pistons in 1990-91, Isiah and the Pistons unceremoniously left the court early.  The walked right by the Bulls and ignored them, in what looked as bizarre on live television as it does today in the documentary

In watching the tape of that game, we see more to the story.  The Pistons were down big in Game 4 and they pulled the Pistons starters with 4:35 to play to concede the series.  The fans in Detroit gave a huge standing ovation to the players as thanks for a great run.  With about 15 seconds left, the Pistons players get up and leave without any acknowledgement of the Bulls.  It was actually only three players.  Mark Aguirre, Isiah Thomas, and Bill Laimbeer (Dennis Rodman would’ve also done it but he was ejected for a gratuitous flagrant foul on Scottie Pippen a few minutes earlier).  Isiah embraced GM Jack McCloskey and left.  The rest of the Pistons did stick around to congratulate the Bulls.

How was this event reported at the time?  Here are the snippets:

-Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press wrote about trying to get Jordan to recant his criticisms of the Pistons’ style of play and all issues came up.  Jordan told Albom that “[Detroit’s] type of dirty basketball wasn’t meant for this game.  They were the champions. But that doesn’t mean they played the cleanest basketball to become champions. If they were sportsmanlike champions, why would they walk off the floor like they did [at the end of Game 4]? That speaks for itself….[Some Pistons did greet the Bulls after the game like] Joe Dumars and James Edwards and John Salley and the coaches. They showed respect. They showed class. The others didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong; it didn’t break my heart. I didn’t need them to tell me we won the series. But they didn’t show any class. True champions would….and Isiah’s the head of our Players Association. That should tell you something.”

-Michael Wilbon in the Washington Post showed some of the conflict the Pistons felt.  He quoted Dennis Rodman as defiant: “I’m not giving the Bulls any credit.  All they did was complain the whole time: ‘You’re bad for basketball. You shouldn’t even be here.’… They still haven’t proved anything. They’ve got to win about five or six championships before they’re a great team [editor’s note: they did]. But they can go home now and rest in peace because the world is safe again. Life without the Pistons is safe.”

Aguirre actually was bit more circumspect, telling the press: “Before today, I thought it took an awful lot to win a championship. I thought it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. But now, I realize that it takes more to admit defeat. That’s harder.”

Thomas was genuinely hurt by MJ’s barbs about style of play though, saying: “People will look back at this team and say we were one of the greatest teams to play basketball. We were great champions. He should be classier than to talk like that.”

-In the Daily Press, David Teel summed up the non-Pistons attitude: “the Pistons’ antics only served to mask their considerable talents: Rodman’s ferocious defense; Laimbeer’s tireless rebounding; Vinnie Johnson’s unstoppable offense; Thomas’ unyielding spirit; Mark Aguirre’s clutch shooting.  In penning his obituary of the Pistons’ season, one Detroit newspaper columnist said it was appropriate for the team to be dethroned on Memorial Day, ‘when you honor fallen heroes.’  Sorry. Heroes are humble. Heroes are fair…. It’s refreshing to be rid of them.”

The Pistons began taking a lot of heat for their bad loser routine.  The Pistons made the point that the Celtics behaved similarly when the Pistons finally were able to knock them off.  And this is mostly true.  Isiah and Laimbeer actually tracked down Kevin McHale and shook his hand as he was walking past them (they did not catch Larry Bird but he clearly detested the Pistons).  So, the Pistons were somewhat right but two wrongs don’t make a right.  Even more troubling was that Rodman had taken such a cheap shot at Pippen near the end of a blowout that the Pistons were probably obliged to do a little better if they cared about the fallout.    

The walkout aged even worse over time.  Shortly after the incident in 1992, Sam Smith wrote in the “Jordan Rules” in a cursory fashion: “several Pistons players marched off the court and out to the locker room, without offering any congratulations to their conquerors.  This gesture would set off a storm of protest within days as columnists called for [coach Chuck] Daly to be removed as 1992 Olympic coach and writers around the country castigated the Pistons for their boorish exit.”

In “Playing for Keeps,” which he wrote shortly after the 1997-98 season, David Halberstam had the actual details of the exit and the story is even worse: “Led by Isiah Thomas, the Pistons players walked off the court in the final seconds without shaking hands with the Bulls.  There apparently had been a debate over that.  It was Isiah’s idea, and most of the other players had agreed.  Originally, Isiah was going to grab a microphone and thank the Detroit fans for their loyalty, but Daly, appalled, had pleaded with him not to do it and had managed to talk him out of using the microphone, saying if they did it, their behavior would never be forgotten.  So what happened was something of a compromise:  They walked off, without using the public-address system but without the traditional respect for the winners as well.  That scene, more than anything else, was what many fans outside of Detroit remembered about the Bad Boys.”

In the end, the walk-off has hurt the Pistons’ legacy.  They were two-time champs and had a great run but the sore loser ending is a large part of everyone’s memories of them.  They could not accept that the Bulls had surpassed them.  MJ should chill out about Isiah all these years later.  Yes, Isiah acted like a jerk in 1985 and repeatedly for several years thereafter but Jordan has vanquished all foes including Isiah.  In some weird way, though, his hatred of Isiah actually validates the Pistons more than letting the facts speak for themselves.  It’s sort of a sore winner Yin to counterbalance Isiah’s sore loser Yang in 1991.  I guess those opposing forces really balance out this story.