Walk-off winner: Give Isiah credit for being Chicago's best ever
Last week's second installment of "The Last Dance" documentary rekindled the complicated relationship between Chicago and Isiah Thomas.
The show featured a deep dive into the Palace Walk Off, when Thomas and the Detroit Pistons left the court at the end of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals without shaking the hands of the victorious Bulls.
Thomas explained that he was just doing what the Boston Celtics had done to the Pistons three years earlier -- left the court before time expired -- and admitted he wished he'd done things differently.
This documentary is about Michael Jordan and the championship Bulls, so Jordan got the last word. Producers showed video of Thomas' explanation to Jordan, who responded with an insult.
Pistons center Bill Laimbeer was less remorseful when he appeared on ESPN's "The Jump" this week, saying, "All that whining they did, I didn't want to shake their hand. They were just whiners."
A couple of bickering NBA legends is good entertainment nearly 30 years after the fact. But it is a shame that Thomas has been reduced to a Jordan foil when he should be celebrated for a stellar playing career -- especially in his hometown.
Thomas is still the greatest basketball player to grow up in the Chicago area. It's a close call for first place with the recently-retired Dwyane Wade, while Anthony Davis is closing fast. But no one beats Thomas, who is also in the argument with John Stockton as the best NBA player who stood 6-foot-1 or smaller.
Thomas made the all-star team in his first 12 seasons in the league, turned a sorry Pistons squad into a winner, and averaged 9.3 assists over his career.
Thomas has had other missteps in his life -- the worst being the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit when he was director of basketball operations for the New York Knicks. Former Knicks vice president of marketing Anucha Browne Sanders was awarded $11.6 million by a jury in 2007, then settled with Madison Square Garden and Knicks owner Jim Dolan for slightly smaller amount.
Earlier in his career, Thomas was a shining star, an incredible success story. Growing up on Chicago's West Side as the youngest of nine children, there aren't many NBA stars who came from tougher conditions. Thomas talked about those days on the "Strictly Speaking" podcast in 2018.
"Every day was a struggle just try to get some food," Thomas said. "You either gather from your friends' house or you got it from the youth center or some days you were standing in the soup line, waiting for a meal."
He caught the 5:15 a.m. bus every day to start a long commute to St. Joseph High School in Westchester. Thomas said he would have gladly joined Mark Aguirre at DePaul, but his mother Mary insisted Indiana was the choice and there would be no discussion.
After leading the Hoosiers to a national title in 1981, he was chosen by the Pistons with the second pick of the NBA Draft, after Dallas took Aguirre No. 1. Thomas talked to the Chicago Tribune's Fred Mitchell in 2010 about becoming an archrival of his hometown Bulls.
"It bothers me some, because I grew up a Bulls fan," Thomas said. "I was one of those little kids standing outside (the Stadium) begging for gym shoes. I used to get popcorn out of the dumpsters when they threw it out late at night. I got Jerry Sloan's size 15 shoe. Bob Love used to come up to the Boys Club."
Thomas added more fuel to the fire by listing Jordan as the fourth-best player he played against, following Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Most people would find that ranking ludicrous, but Thomas does make a valid point. The NBA probably reached its peak talent level in the mid- to late-80s, when there were just 23 teams. As an example of how loaded rosters were in those days, the Pistons' first championship team in 1989 had Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Vinnie Johnson and Rick Mahorn -- all coming off the bench.
Jabbar, Bird, Magic and Julius Erving all competed against each other more or less in their prime years. Thomas' Pistons rose to the top after the Celtics, Lakers and 76ers got older, but that was still a very competitive era. The NBA added six expansion teams between 1988-95 and the talent was spread among more teams.
According to ESPN, Thomas recorded more victories over Jordan's Bulls than any other NBA player.
"I know when I walk in a room with all of those guys in that era, I beat Jordan more than he beat me," Thomas said on the "Strictly Speaking" podcast. "And I'm not bragging, I'm just giving facts. We played Chicago four playoff series, we beat them 3-1.
"Bird, I think we played them five playoff series, we won 3-2. Magic and Kareem, we played two series and we split. When we were all young and healthy, all I can say is our team beat their team more than their team beat mine. I'm glad that they're still mad because that meant I did my job."
Thomas' situation is certainly unique. Jordan never had to deal with a bitter rivalry with his hometown of Wilmington, N.C.
Mike McGraw picks the greatest basketball players from the Chicago area:1. Isiah Thomas
2. Dwyane Wade
3. Anthony Davis
4. Derrick Rose
5. Dan Issel
6. Mark Aguirre
7. Tim Hardaway
8. Maurice Cheeks
9. Antoine Walker
10. Michael Finley
11. Terry Cummings
12. George Mikan
Honorable mention: Eddie Johnson, Juwan Howard, Jeff Hornacek, Hersey Hawkins, Cazzie Russell, Red Kerr, Kendall Gill, Mickey Johnson
Notes: Issel, from Batavia, scored the most career points (27,482) of any player on this list, including ABA stats. Derrick Rose is the only MVP on the list, but he was at his peak for just four seasons due to knee injuries. Kevin Garnett from Farragut Academy was not considered since he spent only one year in Chicago.