Foes became friends at NBA All-Star Weekend in 2003. Well, sort of. Isiah Thomas had the distinction of coaching the Eastern Conference in Michael Jordan‘s final All-Star Game, but Zeke understood that media would focus on past animosities between the two legends.
In particular, Thomas understood the number of questions he would face about a rather infamous occasion in 1985, when he and two other NBA greats allegedly froze a rookie MJ out of the All-Star Game.
Isiah Thomas coached Michael Jordan in his final All-Star Game
The 2003 NBA All-Star Game served as a sendoff for one of the greatest players in league history.
Former Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, then with the Washington Wizards, made his final All-Star appearance in front of an adoring group of basketball fans in Atlanta. A familiar face greeted him at the front of the Eastern Conference bench.
Indiana Pacers head coach and Detroit Pistons icon Isiah Thomas earned the distinction of coaching the East. The icy relationship between Zeke and MJ made for an interesting dynamic.
Thomas and the “Bad Boy” Pistons tormented Jordan and the Bulls for years. The two teams developed a dislike, and Mike often expressed his harsh feelings for Thomas. Though Thomas retired from the NBA close to 10 years prior, he understood the press would likely choose to focus on past tensions between himself and Jordan.
Most notably, Thomas prepared to field questions about the 1985 All-Star Game, which might be the origin of the feud.
Thomas said he poured over film of the 1985 All-Star Game
Michael Jordan electrified the NBA as soon as he stepped on the floor for the Bulls. But Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, and George Gervin sought to bring the rookie down a notch.
The three NBA legends allegedly planned a “freeze-out” of Jordan at the 1985 All-Star Game, refusing to pass him the ball and taking him out of the exhibition. Jordan finished with just seven points and took only nine shots, the lowest total of any Eastern Conference starter.
It’s a confusing moment in NBA history, as the three icons have since been adamant that they did not intentionally try to prevent Jordan from getting into the flow of the game. Indeed, Thomas challenged (h/t the Washington Post) reporters to find evidence during the buildup to the 2003 All-Star Game.
“I’ve looked at the film of that game at least 60 times to see whether I could have given him the ball at some point and didn’t. I’m bringing that tape, and the first person who asks me, I’m going to say, ‘Here it is, go ahead and do some homework.'”–Isiah Thomas (2003), via the Washington Post
Whether Thomas and Co. froze Jordan or not, public perception and the budding rivalry between the Bulls and Pistons all seemed to play a role in Zeke’s eventual exclusion from the 1992 Dream Team, which in turn heightened the strain on the relationship.
Still, Thomas refused to dwell on the past or let personal feelings get in the way of Jordan’s sendoff in 2003. He acknowledged that he voted for MJ and also Jordan to play a starring role during the contest.
Thomas gave Jordan the chance to be a hero during the 2003 All-Star Game
Isiah Thomas became just another spectator to Jordan’s last act during the 2003 All-Star Game.
Jordan started the game and played over 36 minutes in an overtime thriller, scoring 20 points on 9-of-27 shooting. Despite the lackluster numbers, he gave fans one last thrill.
The back-and-forth affair remained tied in the final seconds of overtime when Jordan got the ball on the right wing against an elite defender in Shawn Marion. He spun baseline before lofting his patented, high-arcing fadeaway over Marion’s outstretched arm. The ball seemed suspended in the air before dropping through the net.
It’s hard to say Thomas didn’t have at least some influence on the final play. Every player on the East clearly intended to get the ball into MJ’s hands.
The East lost the game after Jermaine O’Neal fouled Kobe Bryant on a three-point try. Still, if even for a brief moment, all the bad feelings between Thomas and Jordan appeared to be a distant memory.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.
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