I don’t need to be a Chicagoan to hate Isiah Thomas, but it helps.
Actually, as a Chicagoan I am supposed to find a soft spot for him, as he’s something of a Chicago basketball O.G. having grown up here, starring at St. Joe’s. You could argue he should be revered here far more than he is. But the reasons that he isn’t are his own fault.
And beyond all that, Thomas is a sexual harasser, an incompetent businessman who cost scores of people their jobs and sunk an entire basketball league as well as kept the Knicks spinning in the mud for close to a decade. He was utterly helpless in Toronto and Indiana, who went on to success immediately after he left and perhaps because he left. He’s pretty much a conman in that he seems to keep falling upward.
But I have to give him this after last night’s episode of The Last Dance: He’s the same penis the Celtics were to him.
When it comes to walking off the court before the clock hits 0:00, most everyone only talks about the Pistons in Game 4 of the 1991 East Conference finals against the Bulls. Hardly anyone ever mentions the Celtics doing the same in the Silverdome just three years earlier. But here it is:
(forward to about 1:51:00).
Celtics apologists will probably tell you that the Cs thought the game was over, as they wouldn’t have been able to hear the whistle for a foul on Adrian Dantley with three seconds left and people were already storming the court (and why were they fouling Dantley anyway?). But it’s a stretch to claim Bird and Ainge and the rest didn’t know what they were doing. The Celtics hated everything about the Pistons, most everyone did, and weren’t going to recognize their time was over (the Celtics wouldn’t reach a conference final for another 20 years).
So why do we only remember the Pistons?
One possible reason is obvious. Isiah was the most recognizable player on the Pistons. Bird on the Celtics. I don’t really have to tell you the difference. Bird and the Celtics were identified as sort of all that was beautiful about the game (even though he couldn’t jump over a matchbook and played defense like an unlatched gate in a tornado). The Celtics were seen as “team” — they passed, they moved, they were fundamentally perfect. The Pistons were ugly monsters who were ruining not just basketball, but society as a whole, even though they remain one of the best defensive teams of all-time (strangely, the other Pistons championship team was as well. Must be a Detroit thing. Denying people what they want fits the city as a whole I guess). Take these themes into what’s generally associated with each’s skin tone, and you get the idea.
Even though it was Laimbeer’s idea to walk off the court before the horn, it’s Thomas we remember seeing central on our television. He was center-shot. He was the Pistons’ leader. So whatever adjective was attached to the Pistons as a whole (and you’d find a plethora in both amount and creativity of those within these city limits) was attached to Thomas specifically.
What’s unfair in addition, perhaps, is that the walkoff has become a major tenet of how those Pistons teams are remembered, while maybe not even a footnote to the Celtics. And those Pistons teams are only slightly less successful than those Celtics were. The Pistons won two titles and went to another Finals. The Celtics won three titles while going to six finals overall. In basketball, “rings” is still very much a hammer in any argument about players and history, and Thomas is only down 3-2 to Bird. And yet how are they remembered as players? One is Larry Legend, one gets called an asshole by Michael Jordan in the most watched basketball documentary of all-time (and Thomas is an asshole, to be sure, but we’re just talking about on-court antics only here).
Perhaps it’s some of the aftermath, too. Jordan never forgot, and used it to keep Thomas off the Dream Team (allegedly) while he pal’d around with Bird in Barcelona (and Thomas most definitely deserved to be on that ’92 Olympic team). Thomas had all of his post-career fuck ups and grossness, all of which certainly dovetails with the image of him being the tool who couldn’t bring himself to act like an adult when his team got their ass kicked. Bird meanwhile had a decently successful career as coach with the Pacers (including pushing those ‘98 Bulls as hard as anyone had and then losing to the first Kobe and Shaq powerhouse) and exec.
Still, Thomas has had to answer for and carry the weight of this ever since, when there’s certainly more than enough outside of it to beat him over the head with. Bird has barely ever had to answer for the same act.
I wonder what the difference really is?