Isiah Thomas: The Necessary Evil Villain of the Dream Team

Every good drama or action story needs a great villian. The fortitude, courage and charisma of the hero is measured by the degree of difficulty needed to vanquish the bad guys. Without Lex Luthor, Superman is just a cross-dresser running around in tights and a goofy cape.

This is why I submit that Isiah was, in his absence, an important facet in the success of the Dream Team. The documentary emphasized how good the chemistry and comaraderie was with the other players. Any dime store psychiatrist will tell you that this is partially because they all bonded over vanquishing a common enemy. The Dream Team's first victory was not over Cuba; it was over Isiah. Even if it went unspoken, all of the players who had borne the brunt of the Bad Boys' tactics could take delicious revenge and revel over Isiah's banishment. It wouldn't surprise me if, at one of their legendary all-night card games, Michael or Scottie would look at an empty chair and say, "Your turn, Isiah. Oh. My Bad," and the whole table busts out in laughter.

And without Isiah Lord Thomas III, the NBA of the mid - late 80's and the Dream Team would have been a great deal less interesting. This post does not serve to defend Isiah's actions as the leader of the Bad Boys. I just want to provide an explanation from another perspective. Okay, it's 1987. Let's say that you're Isiah or Coach Daly and you look at your roster in comparison to the defending champion Lakers, the star-studded Celtics and the rising Bulls featuring Micheal Jeffrey Jordan. What would you do? That's right. Slow the game down, play tough defense, hit the boards, allow no layups or dunks and foul with a purpose. (For you young folks out there, the NBA back then allowed hand checking and there was no such thing as flagrant fouls which carried stiffer penalties. The Bad Boy Pistons were the catalyst for these rule changes.)

Say what you want about them, but you can't deny that the strategy worked. In 1988, they ended Boston's run of four straight Eastern Conference Championships. (It would be 20 years before the Celtics went to the Finals again.) In 1989, they squashed the Lakers' bid for a three-peat. (The Lakers would go 12 years without a title.) And in 1989 and 1990, they beat the stuffing out of Michael and the Bulls, delaying their inevitable championship run. The Pistons 1989 playoff obliteration of the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers is the strongest run of all-time.

So, Isiah had to wear the black hat. Mr. Thomas was comfortable in the villian role, and it's not hard to understand why. Thanks to "Hoop Dreams," we know that he got up at 5 A.M., left the mean streets of Chicago's infamous South Side and was bused to the suburbs to play for the no-nonsense coach Ping. Then, at college, he played for Robert Montgomery Knight. From there, it was onto the NBA and Chuck Daly. Three successful coaches, but they aren't exactly the Boy Scouts.

Of course, at the end of any good drama or action story, the villian has to get what's coming to him. Isiah terminated the two most popular teams in NBA history and knocked Magic and Bird off the stage before the league or fans were ready for them to exit. In addition, he played the role of a mafia chief and ordered "hits" on Michael, Scottie and Horace when they weren't quite ready to fight back. The stage was set for the ultimate payback. Isiah was banned from his well-earned spot on the Dream Team by the other players.

I'm sure Isiah was disappointed, but I'll bet he shed no tears. He had a job to do and he did it. In a 20-year period when the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls were hogging all the rings, he burst through and got two of them with a lesser supporting cast. The rules at the time allowed for an aggressive style of play. Is that his fault? I'd wager that if the other option was having those guys as friends, making the Dream Team and having no rings, he would not have changed a thing.

6 Replies to “Isiah Thomas: The Necessary Evil Villain of the Dream Team”

  1. That last paragraph and a half is all that matters when it comes to writing the legacy of Isiah Thomas. Zeke, not MJ, ended the Magic/Bird era. Two rings, a revered leader of men with the Bad Boys, and so much hate that can only be equivalized into ultimate respect.

    Good read JAG, as always.


  2. Yup. If it weren't for Isiah, the Finals would have been:

    1988 - Lakers vs. Celtics. The fourth and last go round with the rivalry that saved the league. Magic, Bird, Kareem, McHale, Parrish, Worthy, DJ, Ainge, Riley, KC Jones, Scott, Cooper's socks, AC Clean (living), Rambis' glasses, Carr's towel.

    1989 - Lakers vs. Bulls. Michael would have gotten there two years sooner. Possibly had eight rings. (A five peat? Pentapeat? Good gravy!). Kareem's last game together with Michael's first Final. Ratings would have been stratospheric. By the time Michael got there in '91, Divac was manning the post. Not quite the same.

    What a great transition from the Magic/Bird era to the Michael era. But it was not to be.

    The Pistons were the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass. No one outside Detroit wanted this slowdown, brutal ball. Games went from the high flying, creative 118-115 contests to 87-85 wrestling matches. But the Bad Boys weren't there to make Stern, CBS and the casual fans happy. They were there to get rings. If there's a price to pay later, so be it!

  3. I'm a fan of Isiah's talent, but the Bad Boys went too far. Barkley explained it best. He said something like: "There's nothing wrong with tough, aggressive play and going 100% to win. Hell, I do it myself. But pushing people in the back when they're in midair and totally defenseless, elbowing people, not in the ribs to get position, but in the head and neck, knocking people around away from the ball just for intimidation. That's crossing the line from tough play to jeopardizing somebody's career and livelihood. Look, we're competitors, I get that. But we're also in a brotherhood where we don't intentionally risk permanently injuring each other." The Bad Boys broke the unspoken rule among players where they play tough but clean with no cheap shots.

    That's why everyone was fed up and wanted nothing to do with Isiah. Even his kissin' cousin, Magic, was pissed because Isiah had questioned Magic's sexual preference when news of the virus broke. Talk about burning your bridges!

  4. Good post.

    I love the Stephen Smith video. Looks like the guy from SNL used this one as his model. Hilarious.

    Yes, Isiah was deserving, but the selection committee has a right to consider team chemistry in choosing the squad. If it comes down to Michael or Isiah, you have to choose Michael. If it's true that Isiah froze Michael out of his rookie All Star Game, then, when the worm turns and Michael has the leverage, he's going to pay Isiah off.

  5. "The Pistons 1989 playoff obliteration of the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers is the strongest run of all-time." EXCUSE ME?!?!?!?

    The Lakers were without Byron Scott and Magic FREAKIN' Johnson!!! They couldn't beat the Lakers at full strength the year before, so a sweep of a team without its two starting guards (one of them the greatest player of all time) can't help but be remembered with a big asterisk. Could the Pistons have beaten the Lakers in '89 if LA was healthy? Maybe, but there is no chance in HELL they sweep Magic Johnson in his 1989 MVP season.

    Zeke beat the Celtics, out thugged the original thugs. He beat the Bulls who weren't ready yet. And he got the biggest gift in NBA history facing a Lakers team without the best player in the league. Zeke was great, and I always respected his abilities, but he only earned one of his rings. He beat Portland fair and square, the Lakers ring was a gift, no doubt about it.

  6. @Bruce

    The Pistons were about to beat the Lakers in '88 until Isiah sprained his ankle. So, if Piston fans don't cry about that, Laker fans shouldn't cry about Magic's injury in '89. As far as I'm concerned, it's a wash. It's too bad that neither of those Finals were fought with both teams at full strength.

    I notice you don't have a problem with the Lakers winning the title in '87 while McHale was playing on a broken foot. Injuries happen; in my opinion, they don't demean any championships.

    Zeke earned both rings, sir.

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