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Isiah Thomas on the line, the day after, on national television and before a captive audience mostly locked down and locked out of sports, Michael Jordanan "asshole."
How exactly does he feel about the documentary, "The Last Dance," so far?
"I really am into it. I'm glued to the television.
"You know," he says, "it's interesting watching the doc, getting a peek behind the curtain. Because you don't know how other teams work. Seeing the relationship and the way Jerry Krause was treated, I found that interesting. How Jack McCloskey was revered by us. And how Red Auerbach was revered by the Celtics. Watching the relationships -- even Jerry West with the Lakers -- and watching how Chicago and Jerry Krause had their relationship."
The implication is clear: If Jordan wants to sling mud on classiness and how to show respect, we might want to consider the broader truths.
Let me also say this: I like Isiah Thomas, a lot, and believe he's a grossly underrated all-time great. I got to know him almost a decade ago when I wrote a piece on how he was largely banished from the NBA. I learned then that there are hard, raw feelings toward him -- and from him as a result. That clearly hasn't changed.
Jordan has had, in the documentary he controls, the chance to say what he will say about his former rival. So in this space, today, let's largely allow Thomas to respond. There are two sides to every story, and here's the other.
Thomas became a national trending topic this week when on one of Sunday's episodes Jordan refused to even watch a video of Isiah talking, saying, "You can show me anything you want. There's no way you're not going to convince me he wasn't an asshole."
So, Isiah, Jordan called you an a-hole. Thoughts?
"I was definitely surprised," he says. "Because we've been in each other's presence before, and I've never gotten that type of reaction from him. We were even at dinner a couple times and he was always pleasant. Always good to my kids. Always good to my son. He even gave my son a pair of gym shoes.
"The competition that we all had on the floor, I truly just thought it was on the floor."
Only it wasn't. Clearly. Michael Jordan is an international icon -- albeit one famous for grudges -- whose words matter. And his words are clear. He does not like Isiah Thomas one bit.
Isiah, do you like Mike?
"I do. I do. I don't have anything against him and I definitely admire him as a basketball player," Thomas says. " Like I said ... I haven't had an interaction with him that's been unkind."
It's not just Jordan. Magic Johnson had a long, long feud with him. Others, on and off the record, will lay out a point-by-point case for why they dislike the man so thoroughly.
I ask Thomas why so many of these guys dislike him so strongly.
"They seem to like all the guys that they beat," he says, and laughs for a long time.
Yet the truth is more complicated. From his botched run with the Knicks, all the way back to his playing days as the star of the Bad Boys of basketball, Thomas has garnered many, many enemies. Winston Churchill could tell you that's a sign you've stood for something, at some time in your life. But a lot of others will just say that's the price of being, well, an asshole.
Yet the basketball era Thomas came up in wasn't like today's. You weren't friends. You didn't hang out in the offseason. There was no friendly Twitter banter, no AAU ties connecting you back to childhood, no culture of friendship away from the court.
Then, it was a war. You had to go through Bird, Magic, Thomas and Jordan at their primes. The all-time greats at the height of their powers all competing for the same singular thing, that trophy. And a rough and tumble version of the game that saw Jordan, and others, get knocked around in a way unimaginable for today's players or fans.
"I don't think there's a guy playing during that period of time that got hit more than me,".
Thomas tells me. "Remember, I went to the basket a lot and the rules then were the big guys could hit you. In that period, from '80 to '90 there were four dominant teams, and four dominant players that won championships: Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. When I came into the league they were the big dogs.
"Boston with Bird and McHale," he continues. "And then Magic with Kareem. Then us with the Pistons. Everyone was physical and everyone I mentioned, you wouldn't say soft about any of them. That was the physicality that everyone played with. What happened with the Pistons is they'll show you three or four videos and say, 'Oh yeah, that was the Pistons.' You could say that about any team. Just like Jordan got hit, I got hit by the Chicago Bulls, I got hit by Charles Oakley, I got hit by Horace Grant."
For Thomas, Jordan's greatness too often overshadows the '80s own version of historically great basketball, and its historically great players.
"When you put Jordan and his basketball team in the '80s, they weren't a very successful team," he says. "They just weren't. When you talk about Jordan and his team dominating, they dominated the '90s. But when you put him with those Lakers teams and those Pistons teams and those Celtics teams, they all beat him. They just did.
"What separated Jordan from all of us was he was the first one to three-peat. But he didn't three-peat against Magic, Larry and Dr. J."
"The credit that we give to the Lakers and the Celtics -- and me myself to Bird and Magic -- from learning from them, that's how we got better. We had to go to school."
Isiah Thomas is a two-time champion, an all-time great, and a radioactively controversial figure for Knicks fans. He's also a really interesting guy. I like him. Many, many people loathe him.
Is he simply a misunderstood man?
"You know, clearly," he says, laughing again. "You would have to say there has been a misunderstanding. It's interesting because while some of them have said, 'Well, we didn't like him, so forth and so on.' But during that period of time we were talking about from '88 to '94, I was the president of the players association and they all voted me to be their leader unanimously. Bird, Magic, Jordan, all of them said, 'This is the guy we want to represent us.' Again, every time I've interacted with any of them, any time I've seen any of them out in public, it has been warm. That's the only thing I can go on."
Since Thomas competed against some of the greatest players of all time, I ask him before he gets off the phone to rank, 1-5, the best players of all time based on his first-hand experience -- those he saw, those he competed against.
He gives me this list:
- Dr. J
"None of them can adequately tell their story without the Detroit Pistons," he says. "Either we were good or we weren't."
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