One of the highlights of “The Last Dance” this past weekend was Michael Jordan‘s reaction to Isiah Thomas discussing the Detroit Pistons walking off the court before Game 4 of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals was over. The Chicago Bulls were just about to complete a 4-0 sweep of the Pistons when Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, and a number of Detroit players exited the floor with 7.9 seconds remaining, refusing to shake hands with the team that had just ended their two-year NBA title reign.
It’s a story that’s been discussed for close to three decades but “The Last Dance” has made it fresh once again. Isiah Thomas claims in the ESPN docuseries that he and the Pistons were simply passing the torch in the same manner that the Boston Celtics had passed it to them in 1988. But that’s a different story than he’s been telling for the past 29 years.
A former Celtics staff member notes how different the situation was in 1988 as opposed to what the Pistons did in 1991
During “The Last Dance”, Isiah Thomas says that he and the Pistons were passing the torch in the Eastern Conference to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, just like the Boston Celtics had done to them in 1988. The Pistons had defeated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games that season to earn a trip to the NBA Finals, where they would lose to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.
Before Game 6 (which took place at the Pontiac Silverdome just outside Detroit) was officially over, a number of Celtics players, including Larry Bird, walked off the floor. As the footage showed, that is true. So Isiah Thomas, who did have a brief interaction with Kevin McHale that night once the buzzer sounded, claims that the Pistons did what they did in 1991 because the Celtics did it to them first. However, former Celtics staffer Jon Jennings told the “The Boston Globe” that the two situations were completely different.
“What Isiah said simply isn’t true. I was sitting right behind [head coach] K.C. Jones. K.C. and [assistant coaches] Jimmy Rodgers and Chris Ford were all talking about getting guys off the floor, because we were in the Silverdome, and you could just tell these folks were ready to storm the court. That is honest-to-goodness what that was about. It had nothing whatsoever to do with trying to show up the Pistons or a lack of sportsmanship. It was really the safety of those guys. I remember K.C. pointing at the guys, going down the bench and saying ‘OK, go to the locker room.’”Former Boston Celtics staffer Jon Jennings on Isiah Thomas
Jennings continued by saying that the experience of trying to leave the floor that night was one of the scariest experiences of his life. He says that McHale finally got back to the locker room and told him that he had told Isiah Thomas to go and beat the Lakers, whom the Celtics obviously didn’t like.
Isiah Thomas had a different story in 1991
As you can clearly hear in the video above, an interview Isiah Thomas gave to TNT in November 1991, his story was a little different than it was during “The Last Dance.” He makes zero comments about the Boston Celtics and any kind of torch being passed. He talks about how he and other members of the Pistons felt when the walk-off was happening. He didn’t make apologies for it but he at least admits that it was unsportsmanlike.
“In terms of us walking off the court, we don’t really make any apologies for that because we were beat. They beat us soundly. At that time, we were mad, we were upset. For me to sit here now and say we didn’t really mean it, that would be a lie, because at that time we meant it. Was it unsportsmanlike? Yes. Was it the wrong thing to do? Yes. But at the time, is that the way we felt? Yeah, it was a very emotional response.
“For me to sit here and say now that we really didn’t mean it, we didn’t feel that way, that would be a lie.”Isiah Thomas
So that’s a little more like what Dennis Rodman was saying about things during “The Last Dance.” He knew that Michael Jordan and the Bulls had just destroyed them and the Pistons knew it and just walked off. But in 2013, Isiah Thomas added another piece to the puzzle.
Isiah Thomas says the Bulls disrespected the Pistons after taking a 3-0 lead and that’s why the walk-off happened
Yet another version of Isiah Thomas’ story came in 2013, which you can see in the video above when Zeke joined NBA TV to discuss the situation. Here, Thomas says that he and the Pistons felt disrespected by Michael Jordan and the Bulls after Chicago took a 3-0 lead in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals.
“We had dethroned the Celtics, we had dethroned the Lakers and we thought that we deserved a little bit of respect as a champion. Everyone and every team could play and act like the Pistons and adopt our philosophy, except the Pistons.
“Before the Bulls swept us in ’91, I remember clearly Jordan and Phil Jackson, because they swept us in Detroit, they went on a day-and-a-half tirade about how we were bad for the game, how we were bad people, how Laimbeer was a thug. In our town. They were up 3-0 and then they had this press conference just totally disrespecting us as champions.
“They went on to sweep us, and the decision was made just to walk off. It was made on the bench as the game was winding down.”Isiah Thomas
So he does mention the Celtics there but says nothing about the passing of the torch. So while some have said that Michael Jordan is still being a little petty after all these years in the way he feels toward Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, especially with how he reacted in “The Last Dance”, it actually looks like he’s right. The story has changed numerous times in the last 29 years. This past Monday, Isiah did go on ESPN and apologized to the city of Detroit for the damage that the walk-off brought to the city and admits that if given the chance to do it over again, he probably would do things differently.