Hey, Isiah Thomas, leave the Celtics the hell out of it.
The ESPN Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,” is only 4 of 10 episodes in, but may already have claimed the title of greatest sports documentary of all time. The story of Jordan and his Bulls, across six championships in the 1990s, has been compelling, must-see TV, and Sunday night’s Episode Four was no exception.
But for a documentary focusing on the Chicago Bulls, there were a whole lot of 1980s Boston Celtics fans doing a serious “WTF?” before Sunday’s installment was over.
Needless to say, there has never been any love lost between Celtics and Pistons fans after the two playoff years of 1987 and ’88. The Celtics were the defending champions in ’87, but starting their decline as injuries took their toll on the Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. The Pistons, led by Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Vinny Johnson and a rookie rebounder named Dennis Rodman, were the up-and-comers, the next Eastern power in waiting.
The 1987 Eastern Conference finals featured no fewer than two brawls, one miracle steal and a Celtics victory in Game 7. But the Pistons finally got to the top of the mountain in ’88, capturing the conference finals rematch with a series-clinching Game 6 victory at the Silverdome.
It was the ending of that sixth game in ’88 that made its way into the Jordan documentary Sunday night, and reminded Celtics fans everywhere, 32 years later, why they hated Isiah so much.
Sure, Laimbeer was a thug who tried to take Bird’s head off in Game 3 in ’87. Sure, Rodman said Bird was overrated because he’s white after Game 7. Those guys are on the list.
But no one was more two-faced, more phony, more dirty, more detestable and more loathed in Boston – and Chicago, too, for that matter – than Isiah Thomas.
Laimbeer owned his thuggery. Thomas would smile one second, then put his elbow in the back of your head the next, then go back to smiling and pretend he never did it. The truth has never been Thomas’ strong suit, on and off the court.
And Thomas’ struggles with the truth, and owning up to his own reprehensible behavior, was on full display in “The Last Dance.”
The issue at hand, as far as Jordan and the Bulls are concerned, was the final moments of Game 4 of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. Like the Pistons with the Celtics just years earlier, it was the Bulls who had to overcome bitter playoff defeats in 1989 and ’90 against Detroit to finally ascend the mountain and reach the Finals.
But in 1991, the two-time defending champion Pistons, facing a decline similar to the 80s Celtics they dethroned, found themselves on the wrong side of history as the Bulls completed a series sweep. And in a scene left indelible on the minds of sports fans for decades, instead of congratulating the Bulls at the conclusion of Game 4, the Pistons, led by the ungrateful poor sport Isiah Thomas, stalked off the court, literally walking past a stunned, furious Jordan and the Bulls’ bench, with time still on the clock.
No handshakes. No sportsmanship. No class. Those there the Thomas Rules.
Ever since, Thomas has tried to rehab his image, and those of his churlish teammates, over this incident. But in “The Last Dance,” Thomas tried out a new theory, and left Celtics fans choking on their shillelaghs.
To hear Thomas tell it, the reason the Pistons’ starters walked off the court early and snubbed the Bulls in the process was because the Celtics had done the same thing to them at the end of Game 6 in 1988.
It was just the way things were done back then, Thomas shrugged.
And as the documentary showed, the Celtics starters did indeed leave the floor with three seconds left on the clock, and Kevin McHale did slap a handshake with Thomas, although Thomas makes it sound like he had to chase McHale down to get it.
Lies, distortions, and, dare I say it, fake news. That’s the Thomas Rules.
Yes, the Celtics left the court with three seconds left. No, they didn’t do it because they were sore losers, like the 1991 Pistons were. The Celtics left because they were the road team at the Silverdome, where delirious fans were already streaming onto the floor as the game and series ended, sending them to the Finals for the first time. It’s all there for everyone to see on YouTube. Security intervened and escorted the Celtics starters to their locker room for their own safety. CBS analyst Hubie Brown even says this is the reason as it unfolded before his eyes.
And McHale? He went the wrong way off the floor, cutting across the court, instead of leaving by the bench. So not only does he address Thomas – he told him to finish the job in the Finals against the Lakers – he also shook Laimbeer’s hand and lingered on the court long enough to track down Vinnie Johnson and shake his hand, too.
Flash forward to 1991. This game was also at the Silverdome. But the Pistons are now the home team, and no one is rushing the court. There is simply nothing analogous about the two scenarios – unless you’re a snake like Isiah Thomas and need some kind of plausible excuse for acting like an asshole and being exposed for the world to see.
The highlight of the night is when Jordan is shown the clip of Thomas trying to justify his actions. Jordan laughs and calls Thomas out for his BS. And in that one moment, Celtics fans everywhere were exactly like Mike.