The third and fourth installments of “The Last Dance” — the 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty — aired on Sunday night, with the latest episodes focusing in on the rivalry between Jordan’s Bulls and Isiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons.
Prior to the 1990-1991 season, Thomas and the “Bad Boys” era Pistons had knocked Chicago out of the playoffs in three straight postseasons, making the NBA Finals in all three years and winning back-to-back titles in 1989-1990. The Pistons were the class of the Eastern Conference and the Bulls just couldn’t get past them. That is, until 1991.
The fourth time was the charm for the Bulls, who emphatically dethroned the Bad Boys with a series sweep in ’91 and loudly announced their arrival as new top dogs in the East. The changing of the guard didn’t come without controversy, though, as Thomas and many of his Pistons teammates walked past the Bulls bench and headed into the locker room before the final horn, refusing to shake hands with any Chicago players on the way.
It was a defiant gesture that earned Detroit plenty of criticism and has gone on to live in infamy, and it was clear from “The Last Dance” that the incident remains a bit of a sore spot for Jordan and the Bulls almost 30 years later.
For his part, Thomas attempted to rationalize his team’s actions, which he said were spurred on by Bill Laimbeer, by claiming it was the way that things were done then. Thomas said the Celtics did the same thing to Detroit when the Pistons were finally able to breakthrough and dethrone Boston in 1988, and they weren’t heavily criticized for it.
Thomas also said, knowing what he knows now, he would have just shaken the Bulls’ hands.
But Jordan wasn’t buying Thomas’ justification for the walk-off, nor was he buying the idea that the point guard would genuinely carry himself differently given the chance.
“Well I know it’s all bulls—,” Jordan said when “The Last Dance” producers offered to show him Isiah’s explanation. “Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He has time enough to think about it. Or the reaction of the public has kinda changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want, there’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a–hole.”
But is Jordan right? Has Isiah changed his stance on the incident thanks to the benefit of hindsight and public reaction through the years? Is it revisionist history?
Well, consider what Thomas had to say about the walk-off about six months after it happened.
“In terms of walking off the court, we don’t really make any apologies for that because we were beat,” Thomas said the following November. “They beat us soundly. At that time, we were mad, we were upset. For me to sit here now and say we didn’t really mean it, that would be a lie, because at that time we meant it. Was it unsportsmanlike? Yes. Was it the wrong thing to do? Yes. But at the time, is that the way we felt? Yeah, it was a very emotional response. For me to sit here and say now that we really didn’t mean it, we didn’t feel that way, that would be a lie.”
It seems pretty clear from that clip that Thomas knew what kind of message was being sent with the early exit, and there was no apology — only a concession that it was the wrong way to go about things. It’s understandable that the Pistons would be bitter about their fall and caught up in the heat of the moment, especially after Jordan called them “undeserving champions” and “bad for basketball” ahead of Game 4, but the Celtics were never referenced in Thomas’ early explanations.
Then, during a 2013 Open Court televised sitdown, Thomas said, with hindsight, that he “absolutely” would have taken the high road and shook hands with the Bulls, but he attempted to justify the walk-off by explaining that the Pistons felt disrespected by the Bulls’ attempts at delegitimizing Detroit’s run of success.
“We had dethroned the Celtics, we had dethroned the Lakers and we thought that we deserved a little bit of respect as a champion,” said Thomas. “Before the Bulls swept us in ’91, I remember clearly Jordan and Phil Jackson…they went on a day-and-a-half tirade about how we were bad for the game, how we were bad people, how Laimbeer was a thug. In our town, they were up 3-0 and then they had this press conference just totally disrespecting us as champions.”
Again, no mention of the Celtics inspiring the Pistons to pass the torch in this manner.
So perhaps Jordan is right in that time has changed the way Thomas looks at the event, because his explanation for the walk-off has evolved over the years. What hasn’t seemed to change, however, is the animosity and bitterness that Jordan and Thomas share for one another.