On Sunday night, the third and fourth episodes of the ESPN documentary The Last Dance revisited the heated rivalry between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons of the 1990s. As a result, former Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas found himself a target of renewed criticism almost 30 years after he and his teammates walked off the court in the final seconds of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. The game would see the Pistons eliminated at the hands of Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
At the time, Chicago’s sweep of Detroit was a passing of the torch, with the two-time defending champions — the Pistons — finally being defeated by Jordan on his way to the Bulls’ first title. The 1991 series was a culmination of several bruising playoff matches in previous years, and Jordan’s comments in The Last Dance revealed that there is still some bad blood between him and the team referred to as “The Bad Boys.”
In an interview on the documentary, Thomas defended the decision — enacted by himself and his Detroit teammates — to leave the court and not congratulate the Bulls on their victory. Thomas made this defense by referencing the series when they were on the opposite, winning end of a bitter game, their defeat of the Boston Celtics in the 1989 NBA playoffs. Thomas claimed that the Celtics walked off the court after their defeat, and that the only congratulations offered up came from Celtics players that hadn’t exited quickly enough. Thomas said he had no problem with that, and didn’t understand why the Bulls would have any problem with what he and the Pistons did in 1991.
However, Jordan had no time for Thomas’ explanation. When producers of the documentary tried to show him a video of the interview, he brushed it aside before he even watched it, saying Thomas had years to polish what his true intentions were.
“You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an (expletive).”
On Monday morning, Thomas appeared on ESPN’s Get Up, not so much to defend his actions or revel in his villainous portrayal, but to give a context of the event. Speaking to hosts Mike Greenberg and Jalen Rose — who Thomas coached while he was the head coach of the Indiana Pacers — the Detroit legend explained that it was a result of the emotions he and his teammates felt when they realized that their time at the top was over while seeing that the future would be dominated by the Bulls.
“Looking back over the years, had we had the opportunity to do it all over again, I think all of us would have made a different decision. Now me myself personally, I paid a heavy price for that decision… Looking back at how we felt at that particular time, our emotional state, and how we exited the floor, we actually gave the world the opportunity to look at us in a way that we never really tried to position ourselves in or project ourselves in that way. So it’s unfortunate that it happened.”
Despite the negative portrayal of those Pistons teams, Thomas spoke positively about The Last Dance, saying he has been watching it and the documentary was something the sports world needed.