Isiah Thomas is one of the most notorious NBA players in history. The former point guard made a name for himself at a young age. He became a McDonald’s All-American in high school and ultimately a 12-time NBA All-Star, winning two championships with the Detroit Pistons in 1989 and 1990.
However, Thomas was also the captain of the “Bad Boys. The Pistons earned the nickname due to their aggressive style of play, widely considered “dirty.” In the late ’80s and early ’90s, one of the Pistons’ biggest rivals was the Chicago Bulls. Stars from each team, specifically Thomas and Michael Jordan, had public disdain for one another.
Although the feud is decades old, it’s been brought to new light due to the April release of the highly-anticipated documentary The Last Dance. Shortly after its first episodes aired, CBS Sports‘ Bill Reiter asked Thomas to rank the top five players he faced. Thomas complied, and his list is full of surprises.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
It’s easy to understand why Thomas named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the best competitor he ever played. Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA championships, was a six-time league MVP, and still holds the records for most minutes played, most points, and most field goals scored. Aside from his basketball talents, though, Thomas considers Abdul-Jabbar the GOAT because of his humanitarian efforts.
2. Larry Bird
Thomas faced the powerhouse Boston Celtics and Larry Bird five times in the NBA playoffs during his career. Understandably, they were intense rivals.
After losing to the Celtics in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, Dennis Rodman told the press Bird was “overrated,” reports Forbes, and he only won MVP “because he was white.” Isiah Thomas publicly agreed with Rodman. But then he backtracked, insisting his comments were sarcastic and he had tremendous respect for Bird.
3. Magic Johnson
Thomas and Magic Johnson had nearly parallel careers in many ways. They entered the league two years apart; they were both named to the All-NBA First Team in several consecutive seasons, and both won back-to-back NBA championships.
The pair remained close friends for years. But this changed because of nasty rumors, as well as the 1988 and ’89 NBA championships. Los Angeles beat Detroit in the 1988 title game, then the Pistons swept the Lakers the following year. The longtime friends reconciled on television in 2017, according to Bleacher Report, rehashing some favorite memories.
Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan’s never-ending feud
Falling at Number Four on Thomas’ all-time greatest competitors list is Michael Jordan. The ranking raised eyebrows, with some surprised by how low MJ was on the list and others surprised he made it at all.
A few key events are believed to be at the core of Thomas’ and Jordan’s longstanding feud. There was the famed “Freezeout” in the 1985 All-Star Game, reportedly coordinated by Thomas, Magic Johnson, and George Gervin.
Then in 1991, after losing to Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals, the Pistons famously walked off the court without shaking any of the Bulls players’ hands. Episodes 3 and 4 of The Last Dance show the walk-off. But Thomas explained that things were done differently back then, saying, “When you lost you left the floor. That was it.”
The final component of the contention came when Thomas wasn’t included in the 1992 Dream Team. It’s still widely believed that it was because of Michael Jordan.
We may never know what truly kept Thomas out of the 1992 Olympics. But MJ being behind it isn’t so far-fetched when you consider the fact that in the documentary, he said he “hated” the Pistons back then and the “hate carries even to this day.”
One thing is clear: Thomas and Johnson don’t have much love for each other. In fairness, though, that’s what makes their rivalry so captivating.