Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan and Detroit Pistons great Isiah Thomas had an intense rivalry during their playing careers. Thomas eliminated Jordan from the playoffs three years in a row and played a part in physically hurting him during the “Bad Boys” era.
Thomas admitted that he didn’t know Jordan hated him so much until watching The Last Dance docuseries, although he certainly had to have some idea. Despite his rivalry with the Bulls icon, though, Thomas did pay Jordan an unexpected compliment in 2020, and His Airness should be proud of it despite how much he hates Zeke.
Michael Jordan is one of Isiah Thomas’ favorite NBA players
In March 2020, Thomas was a guest on the Knuckleheads podcast with Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson. During the episode, Miles asked Thomas to name his five favorite NBA players of all time, and the two-time champion named Jordan as one of them. The other four are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving.
It’s unknown if Jordan ever heard Thomas say this. If he did, he should be pleased since his biggest rival in the NBA enjoyed and respected his game.
Jordan said in The Last Dance that he still hates Thomas. Most fans remember what happened in 1991 and 1992 involving the two NBA legends. However, believe it or not, Jordan and Thomas’ rivalry actually began during the 1985 All-Star Game.
Isiah Thomas supposedly played a role in the Michael Jordan freezeout game
Jordan made the All-Star team as a rookie after having a specular first half of the season for the Bulls. However, his first All-Star appearance wasn’t as fun as he wanted it to be. Thomas, Johnson, and George Gervin supposedly came up with a secret plan to embarrass Jordan. MJ shot 22.2% in the contest, which is called the “Jordan freezeout game.”
George Andrews, a Chicago lawyer who repped Johnson and Thomas during their playing days, claimed the veteran guys on the East All-Star team were upset at Jordan because he was promoting Nike by wearing Nike warmups, which violated the NBA protocol. The older players evidently used the All-Star Game to teach the Bulls’ high-flyer a lesson and tried to humiliate him on national television by freezing him out.
The Bulls and Pistons met in the playoffs in ’88, ’89, ’90, and ’91, with Detroit winning the first three times. Thomas and Co. created the “Jordan Rules,” a four-step plan to stop MJ at all costs, and it worked well for three years. The Pistons didn’t want Jordan to go baseline and wanted the Bulls star to go left instead of right. Detroit also trapped the shooting guard every time he got the ball in the post and knocked him to the ground when he did manage to go baseline and get to the basket.
The “Jordan Rules” forced the Bulls superstar to hit the weights and get stronger in the summer of 1990. He put on about 15 pounds of muscle and was ready to dish out pain. Chicago and Detroit met in the ’91 Eastern Conference Finals, and Jordan and Co. easily won the series in four games.
What happened at the end of Game 4 will go down in the history books, as it’s the main reason why Jordan despises Thomas and allegedly played a role in one of the biggest roster snubs in Olympics history.
Pistons didn’t shake Bulls’ hands, Zeke was left off Dream Team
The Pistons didn’t shake the Bulls’ hands and left the court early in Game 4 of the ’91 conference finals. Thomas and his teammates walked right past the Bulls’ bench, and cameras showed Jordan with a look of utter shock. It is believed that Jordan will never forgive Thomas for that night.
One year after the Pistons’ walk-off, Thomas was left off the 1992 Dream Team. The rumor at the time was that Jordan told Team USA officials he wouldn’t play if Thomas were on the team, although Johnson, Bird, and Scottie Pippen also had their issues with the Pistons star.
Nowadays, most of the best players in the NBA are friends with each other. With that said, we likely won’t ever see a rivalry like the Jordan-Thomas one.