Commentary: ‘The Last Dance’ has a double-standard problem. Just ask Isiah Thomas
We give Michael Jordan the benefit of the doubt because of the image he and his handlers created, but also because of the near perfection of his game. That allowance hasn’t been given so much to Thomas and the Bad Boys.
Isiah Thomashas taken a beating lately. Mostly because Michael Jordan doesn’t like him. And Jordan controls the narrative.
This is how it is when you’ve won six NBA championships, and no one remembers that you ever missed a shot. Or at least an important shot.
Well, Jordan is still taking shots, and if you’ve watched ESPN’s “The Last Dance” the last couple of Sundays, you’ve noticed an inordinate amount of those shots are directed at Thomas.
The latest installments of the documentary series detailed Jordan’s first three-peat with the Bulls, the isolation he felt as the world’s most iconic sports figure, the reaction to his taste for gambling, and his experience with the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, a squad that didn’t include Thomas.
When asked about his role in Thomas’ exclusion, Jordan said he had nothing to do with it, that other players didn’t want him on the team, but that Thomas would’ve changed the chemistry and camaraderie on the team — and not for the better.
“I respect Isiah Thomas’ talent. To me, the best point guard of all time is Magic Johnson and right behind him is Isiah Thomas. No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game,” Jordan said.
That’s a strong word. Yet it’s why Thomas and, by extension, his Bad Boys’ Pistons, have been portrayed so negatively during the series.
By comparison, consider how the New York Knicks — Jordan’s rival after the Pistons — and a team as physical and hard-fouling as the Pistons, were discussed in Sunday’s installments:
You know what wasn’t said?
That the Knicks were bad for basketball. Even though they didn’t have near the skill — or offensive flair — the Pistons did. And it’s this kind of revisionist history that has irked so many basketball fans around here lately.
It’s true that the Pistons’ teams of that era deserve the reputation they have — in part. It’s also true that the NBA had no issue helping to market the Bad Boys image, despite the league’s understanding that the team was led by a Hall of Fame backcourt.
In other words, there was a kind of double standard even then. Which is why the infamous walk-off led by Thomas and Bill Laimbeer after the Bulls had swept the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals became a national story and Larry Bird’s similarly dismissive act four years earlier is a footnote, if even that.
The problem is the image. Thomas was caught ducking as he walked by the Bulls’ bench. It looked like he didn’t want to own what he was doing. Whereas Laimbeer strode past Jordan and Co. almost defiantly.
It wasn’t surprising, then, when Laimbeer told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols last week that if he had to do it all over, he wouldn’t change a thing. Thomas, meanwhile, has given various reasons for why he skipped the traditional post-series handshake, even hinting at regret.
That difference in tone and temperament is important: Thomas wanted — and still wants — to be loved; Laimbeer doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
Thomas’ longings are messy this way. But then so are Jordan’s. It’s just that Jordan’s messiness is dismissed as the result of his desire to win.
As he said in the latest installment: He doesn’t have a gambling problem. He has a competition problem.
That sounds much nicer, doesn’t it?
We give Jordan the benefit of the doubt because of the image he and his handlers created, but also because of the near perfection — and beauty — of his game. He was put on earth to win basketball games.
Whatever it took.
That allowance hasn’t been given so much to Thomas and the Bad Boys. It’s almost as if they cheated the game. Jordan said it himself. The Pistons weren’t worthy champions, which is another way of saying they were undeserving champions.
That description still defines the Bad Boys, and it robs them of their proper place in history. Which is why, all these years later, they are villains once again.
In this way, “The Last Dance” has reopened old wounds, and reminded Pistons fans that the chasm between their love of the Bad Boys and the country’s hate for them is as wide as it has ever been. Folks around here understand that Thomas has a complicated legacy in the game, and that his post-playing career has unfolded unevenly.
Yet he led the most beloved team in this region the last 40 years. A team that personified our region like no other.
We are complicated, too.
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