Behind Michael Jordan’s hatred for Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons
‘The Last Dance’ shows how MJ holds a grudge, even to this day
For Bill Cartwright, there are numerous memories that linger from defeating the Detroit Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals — from the postgame locker room celebration to the sense of accomplishment in conquering the team that for years denied the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs.
But what Cartwright doesn’t dwell on is the moment the Pistons walked off the court in the final seconds of the game.
“Not only did we win, we swept your a–,” said Cartwright, who won five rings with the Bulls — three as a player and two as an assistant coach. “Them walking off? I could care less.”
It’s clear that, 29 years later, other members of those Bulls teams don’t feel the same way.
“Straight up b—-es. That’s what they walked off like,” said former Bulls forward Horace Grant in episode four of The Last Dance.
For Michael Jordan, whom the 10-part documentary revolves around, the contempt he carries from that moment is aimed directly at former Pistons guard Isiah Thomas. “There’s no way,” Jordan said, “you can convince me he wasn’t an a–hole.”
Time has been able to heal many NBA feuds, most notably beefs pitting Shaquille O’Neal against Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson versus Thomas. But while Thomas described his relationship with Jordan as being “friendly” four years ago, it was revealed on The Last Dance Sunday that Jordan would beg to differ.
“As competitive as Michael was, it doesn’t surprise me that he still feels like that,” said Dennis Hopson, who played one season with the Bulls during their 1990-91 championship season and currently is the head coach at Lourdes University in Ohio. “Michael always had something for Isiah.”
What seeded that feud? There’s a long-standing theory that Thomas was a conspirator to freeze Jordan out during the 1985 All-Star Game. (Jordan, who started the game as a rookie, scored only seven points while hitting just 2 of 9 shots.) It’s an allegation that Thomas has long denied.
“That never happened,” Thomas said before coaching Jordan in the 2001 All-Star Game.
Whether the story is true or not, Jordan was leery of Thomas, according to Brad Sellers.
“We all heard about what happened at the All-Star Game,” said Sellers, the current mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, and Cleveland Cavaliers radio analyst, who played with the Bulls from 1986 to 1989. “But the bigger issue was that Isiah was from Chicago, he worked to be one of the top players to represent that city, and Mike came in and eviscerated that.”
Sellers, who later played with Thomas in Detroit, said that didn’t sit well with the Pistons guard.
“There’s jealousy in this game, and when you peel back the layers of the onion, a lot of it is territorial,” Sellers said. “I can’t imagine what that felt like for Zeke, to have an outsider come in and have the entire city behind him. There was no love left for him in Chicago, except from family.”
While the rivalry between the two may have materialized immediately after Jordan joined the NBA in 1984, the friction between the Pistons and Bulls intensified in 1988 when the two teams were playoff opponents for the first time. That year, Jordan was the league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star MVP. But in the playoffs, he was roughed up by the Pistons — Jordan threw a punch at Bill Laimbeer after he was shoved by the Detroit center in Game 3 — in a conference semifinal series that Detroit won easily, 4-1.
“I learned later when I played in Detroit, they played that way against Michael because of fear,” Sellers said. “They saw his talent, they saw what was coming and the only way they could deal with him was through intimidation.”
The Pistons pretty much acknowledged that in the episodes that aired Sunday.
“We knew [Jordan] was the greatest player,” Thomas said. “We had to do everything from a physical standpoint to stop him.”
Former Pistons forward John Salley was more blunt about his team’s plan: “As soon as he steps in the paint, hit him.”
The Bulls, with Charles Oakley playing the role of Jordan’s enforcer in the early stages of the rivalry, believed the best approach to beating the Pistons was to fight fire with fire. But it proved unsuccessful.
“We couldn’t play physically like they played,” Cartwright said. “We had to play our game. …
“The Pistons were a veteran team, smarter than us, more physical and better scorers,” added Cartwright. “We knew we had the best player in the league, but then we started to add more talented bodies. I remember [assistant coach Phil Jackson] telling us after that second-round loss in 1988 that for us to beat the Pistons, we needed to be in a position where we would bend and not break. Ultimately, that’s what happened.”
Following a loss to Detroit in the conference finals in 1989, Jackson became the team’s head coach for the 1989-90 season. The Bulls would fall to the Pistons in the conference finals in 1990, but before long, they had mastered the triangle offense. During the 1990-91 season, the Bulls won 61 games and were clearly the best team in the East. A sweep of the New York Knicks in the first round and an easy series win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round (4-1) set up another anticipated matchup against Detroit in the conference finals.
“We were able to figure them out, meaning we had to play our own game,” Cartwright said. “People would talk about Bill Laimbeer all the time, but the thing is, if he can’t play that way, he can’t play.”
So the Bulls put the Pistons in unfavorable matchups: Scottie Pippen defended Laimbeer, which put him on the perimeter defensively. Cartwright switched from Laimbeer to Dennis Rodman.
“So we made the change to our game to play basketball, not to get into anything physical,” Cartwright said. “The bottom line: When we lost to them, they were the better team. After two years, we were better. It was the experience of going through what they had gone through. Guys have their roles down. We were just ready to win.”
The Bulls swept that series, which ended with the Pistons walking off the court — directly in front of the Bulls’ bench — before time expired.
“I was young, in my early 20s, and we had won the series, so it really didn’t bother me,” said Hopson. “As time goes on, you look at how classless it was — like a kid in the park who doesn’t get his way and takes his ball home. I’m sure if they had a chance to do it all over again, they wouldn’t.”
With four episodes of the series having aired, Cartwright, Sellers and Hopson are eagerly awaiting to see how The Last Dance plays out.
“I’m an old-school guy, and when you have family, there are certain things that are just kind of my business,” Cartwright said. “So I’m curious in that way to see what some things are brought up.”
For Hopson, the series is an opportunity to revisit his one year with the Bulls — the 1991 title that began the team’s dominance.
“I wasn’t there long, but it was a first-class operation and a great time to be in Chicago,” Hopson said. “It was amazing to play with Mike. He was mature before his time, and I don’t know of anybody who had that mindset at that age.”
Sellers, who had the misfortune of leaving the Bulls before their breakthrough and joining the Pistons after their run had ended, is excited to see Jordan let his guard down.
“I was concerned there’s been some sort of revisionist history, but it’s been accurate,” Sellers said. “What it captures about Michael is that he was always looking for an edge at all times. He was insatiable for information and knowledge, and that made him special.”
He can also hold a grudge like few can, which was evident as he talked about the Pistons in the documentary.
“I hated them,” Jordan said. “That hate carries to this day.”