Pistons legend Isiah Thomas recently made headlines when it was revealed in the new book “When the Game Was Ours” by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson that Johnson believes Thomas spread rumors that Magic contracted HIV from gay relationships and that he (Johnson) helped keep Thomas off of the Olympic basketball team.
But that’s not how I will remember Isiah Thomas. So stick in your ear Magic, Larry, and Michael Jordan.
Say what you want about Isiah Thomas off the court. God knows he has failed miserably in several different areas.
But on it, he was the greatest Piston, one of the best guards in the game’s history, and for my money, probably the gutsiest and most competitive player I have ever seen.
I had the good fortune to personally witness one of the top five greatest athletic performances in Detroit sports history.
On April 27, 1984, the Pistons faced the Knicks in the fifth and deciding game of the first round of the NBA playoffs. The game had to be played at Joe Louis Arena because of the Silverdome’s damaged roof.
Bernard King and the New York Knicks walked all over the Pistons, but in the last 94 seconds of the game, Thomas took over the game and scored 16 consecutive points to tie the game and send it into overtime. Yes, I wrote, 16 points in 94 seconds! Even though the Pistons were eliminated after losing the game in overtime, Zeke’s performance made it feel like a victory.
Four years later in the NBA Finals against Johnson and the Lakers, Thomas nearly pulled off a miracle in one of the bravest performances ever seen in professional sports.
Before a record NBA Finals crowd of 41,732 who saw the last Pistons game at the Silverdome, Detroit took a 3-2 series lead.
Just before tip off in the first five games, Thomas and Magic, who were then good friends, gave a rather strange pre game kiss on the cheek to each other.
It would be their last.
The intensity of the physical series took on a new meaning during that game when, to the shock of everyone, in the heat of battle, a friendship was challenged. Driving through the lane with an injured back, Thomas was slammed to the ground by Johnson, who had grown tired of the Bad Boys’ physical play. Thomas bolted up and leaped at Johnson with a push.
“It was a cheap shot by Magic when he knocked me out of the air,” Thomas told me in a Detroit Free Press interview a few years ago. “I bruised my tail bone on that. But that’s the way basketball was played back then.”
Returning to LA for Game 6 with a chance to steal the title in Magic’s backyard, Detroit nearly poured the champagne but fell 103-102 in a contest highlighted by one of the NBA’s greatest and bravest performances.
Down 56-48 early in the third quarter, Isiah Thomas scored the next 14 points in every way imaginable, reminding many of the ’84 playoff game against New York when he scored those incredible 16 points in 94 seconds.
But with 4:21 left in the quarter, Thomas was writhing in pain holding his right ankle after landing on Michael Cooper’s foot. Hobbling with one good foot, Thomas returned 35 seconds later to score another nine points, setting an NBA Finals record for points in quarter with a total of 25 and single-handedly gave the Pistons a 81-79 lead.
“I was so pissed off that I was injured that I wanted to beat the Lakers even more,” Thomas told me.
With under a minute to play, the Pistons held a one point lead 102-101 when Bill Laimbeer was called for a “phantom” foul on Jabbar. The future Hall of Famer sunk two free throws with 14 seconds left that ended up the difference after Joe Dumars missed a potential game winning shot, nearly tapped in by Rodman with 7 seconds remaining.
At game’s end, Thomas hobbled off the court with awestruck praise, an empty feeling, and injuries that included a severely sprained ankle, dislocated left pinky finger, a cut near his temple, and two sore eyes from pokes.
For Game 7, Thomas was listed as doubtful, his ankle injury so severe that Piston trainer Mike Abdenour told the media, “if it had been the regular season, Isiah would be out three weeks.” Team physician Dr. Benjamin Paolucci said Thomas wasn’t medically fit to play, but when the All-Star guard insisted, Paolucci refused to give a painkiller for fear that it would cover up further damage that Thomas wouldn’t recognize.
Like Game 6, Game 7 came down to the last minute. Despite their captain only playing 28 minutes and scoring 10 points, twice the Pistons overcame 15 point deficits by two points. But then a boneheaded play derailed opportunity.
Trailing 103-100 with 39 seconds left, John Salley blocked a James Worthy shot and Dennis Rodman ended up with a clear shot to the basket. Instead, he threw up a jumper that missed and later admitted “it was a dumb shot.” Fans screaming at their television sets at home agreed. Thomas politely says “it was a learning moment for Dennis.”
With six seconds remaining, Laimbeer nailed a three pointer but the Lakers scored again instead of being intentionally fouled, repeating as world champions on a 108-105 victory.
Isiah would of course then lead the Bad Boys to consecutive world titles in 1989 and 1990 which would be the highlight of his NBA Hall of Fame career.
Trash him all you want Magic. When the chips are down and a championship is on the line, I would put Isiah up against anyone.