Isiah Thomas Disrespected Larry Bird but Eventually Paid Him the Ultimate Compliment

During the 1980s and 1990s, some legendary NBA players hit the hardwood. That led to some fierce rivalries — only one team can win the title each year, after all — plenty of verbal warfare. Isiah Thomas and his “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons understood that reality better than most.

In 1987, for example, Dennis Rodman made headlines by asserting that Larry Bird was overrated because of his race. Thomas then appeared to agree with that claim, although the guard later insisted he was only joking.

Whether you believe Zeke or think he was just doing a bit of damage control, we do know one thing is 100% true. Later on, he paid Larry Legend the ultimate compliment.

Isiah Thomas seemed to agree with Dennis Rodman about Larry Bird’s favorable treatment, but the guard insisted that he was only joking

As any basketball fan can tell you, Dennis Rodman made his share of interesting choices over the years. One of those involved claiming that Larry Bird was overrated.

After the Celtics eliminated the Pistons from the 1987 postseason, the forward made some ill-advised comments to the media. “He’s not God,” Rodman said of Bird. “He ain’t the best player in the NBA, not to me. He’s white. That’s the reason he gets it the MVP award. Nobody gives Magic Johnson credit. He deserved it last year, too. I don’t care. Go ahead and tell him. You’ll put it in the paper anyway.”

As recorded in the New York Times, Thomas then chimed in. When asked about Rodman’s comments, he said he “had to agree with” them. “Larry Bird is a very, very good basketball player,” the guard said. ”But if he was black he’d be just another guy.”

Isiah, however, later insisted that he was joking and even played the tape to show he laughed after making the statement.

“My mistake was in joking in a manner and with someone who did not fully understand that I was joking,” Thomas explained. “I’m really hurting about this.”

Bird, for his part, wasn’t too concerned and said that if he wasn’t bothered by the comments, then nobody else should be either.

Isiah ultimately paid Larry Legend some incredible praise, though

Larry Bird (L) and Isiah Thomas (R) during their NBA careers.
Isiah Thomas ultimately paid Larry Bird a high compliment. | Jerry Wachter/Sports Imagery/Getty Images, Focus on Sport via Getty Images
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While no one other than Thomas will ever truly know the sentiments behind his words, they still didn’t paint the greatest picture. Everyone expresses respect in different ways, but joking that someone’s race is responsible for their success doesn’t exactly feel like a standard way to pay a compliment. With that being said, though, Isiah did ultimately give Bird his flowers.

“If you put all of us in a room,” the guard explained on an ESPN Sportscentury episode preserved on Youtube,” you know, Magic, Jordan, myself, and Bird, Bird [would] probably be the guy who walks out the room at the end of the day.”

While you could cynically claim that compliment isn’t as lofty as it might seem — Thomas didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Magic Johnson and doesn’t hold Michael Jordan in the greatest esteem — two details do seem to suggest that Thomas was giving Bird credit.

First, the guard (presumably) appeared on the program willingly. If he didn’t want to sing Larry Legend’s praises, he could have declined the offer and remained on the sidelines. Secondly, Thomas’ inclusion of himself in the list seems telling. It would be one thing to go on TV and say that Bird was better than some guys he didn’t 100% respect, but it’s different for a competitive former pro to tell the world that someone was better than him.

And, if we assume his praise was genuine, the Boston Celtics great is certainly worthy of the kind words. Not only did Bird build up a successful resume, but he did so without the raw physical gifts of his peers. Even Michael Jordan recognized that reality.

As the cliche says, game recognizes game.