Athletes, especially professional basketball players, are known to use any perceived slight, however minor, as motivation for a run-of-the mill game. Michael Jordan is famously the game’s most frequent practitioner of this logic.
But what happens when there is actual, blatant disrespect to a great player? Probably the best example of this came on Nov. 15, 1991, when Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons hosted John Stockton and the Utah Jazz at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Two months earlier, the first 10 roster spots to the U.S. Olympic Team had been named. For the first time in Olympics history NBA players would be allowed to participate, and a squad that featured Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson was quickly dubbed “The Dream Team.” Two spots on the roster still were open, but at least one was reserved for a college player.
Stockton made the list. But the most conspicuous absence was Thomas, who had been voted to every All-Star Game since 1982 and was a three-time member of the first-team All-NBA. Thomas’ own coach with the Pistons, Chuck Daly, was charged with overseeing the collection of talent. It was an out-and-out slap in the face to Thomas, but the snub couldn’t have been seen as completely unexpected.
Thomas had issues with the three most famous faces of the Dream Team. There were rumors, still unconfirmed, that Thomas had led an offensive “freeze out” of a then-rookie Jordan at the 1985 All-Star Game. In 1987, Thomas caused a media furor when he stated that if Bird were black he would be just another above-average player and not a superstar. Johnson was vociferously against putting Thomas on the Olympic team after Magic’s former close friend questioned Johnson’s sexuality in the wake of the star’s announcement that he was HIV-positive.
Thomas was stung and embarrassed by the exclusion, and took it out on the Jazz and Stockton. The Pistons guard began the eighth game of his 11th season with the energy of an undrafted free agent.
On the Jazz’s first possession, Thomas hungrily chased Stockton around a maze of screens until Stockton drained a 16-footer as the shot clock wound down. Thomas was visibly upset that he let Stockton score, and from that point on Isiah seemed to steel his resolve to show up the USA Basketball selection committee.
Thomas missed his first shot — an 18-foot jumper on the baseline — but on the Pistons’ next offensive possession, Thomas got a pick from Bill Laimbeer and blew by Jazz center Mark Eaton before making a twisting layup around Jeff Malone.
The basket was wide open for Thomas after that. His next points came on a long jumper where a wide-open Thomas actually waited for Stockton so he could drain it over one of the game’s best defensive guards. Thomas had nine points in the first period, and also a couple of turnovers in trying to force a spectacular pass. Joe Dumars even ran the point for the Pistons on several possessions so Thomas could look for a shot.
Thomas took an extended rest in the second quarter, but scored six points in the final three minutes before halftime. The game really heated up in the third quarter, when the teams combined for 77 points. There was no mistaking that Thomas was looking to embarrass Stockton. Thomas scored 16 points in the quarter, making all seven of his field-goal attempts as the Pistons took an 87-82 lead into the final quarter.
Thomas never seemed to say anything or bring attention to the fact that he was torching Stockton. Isiah had Dennis Rodman for that. Stockton and Rodman got tangled up on a screen, with the notoriously dirty Stockton tripping Rodman on the roll. Rodman grabbed Stockton on the way down, then the pair exchanged elbows on the court. That ignited a classic NBA scrum with players milling about and threatening each other with half-hearted pushes. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan had to be restrained from going after Rodman, who was ejected after making one free throw then pointing at Sloan.
Stockton was spurred on by all the emotion in this game. He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a three-pointer that cut the Pistons’ lead to 110-104. But with 1:40 left in the game, Thomas cleared the right side of the court to go one-on-one with Stockton. After employing some nasty shake-and-bake moves, Thomas sank a long jumper over Stockton to give Detroit a 114-107 lead.
The Pistons held on for a 123-115 victory, and Thomas added two free throws to finish with 44 points, three shy of his career high set in 1983 during the NBA’s highest-scoring game. Stockton had 20 points and 13 assists.
Of course, after the game there were the usual platitudes by the Pistons that this was just another game. Thomas took 22 shots, well above his average that season of 16 FGA per game, and also got to the line for 16 free throws.
This was not just another game, and the Jazz certainly remembered it. One month later, the Jazz’s Karl Malone, another Dream Teamer, fouled Thomas hard on a layup, resulting in 40 stitches. The Pistons crowed that it was retribution for Thomas embarrassing Stockton.
Thomas might have proven his point that he was still among the game’s elite, but the manner he went about it was consistent with his contentious personality. Thomas’ conflictive nature kept him from being one of the first 10 players named to the Dream Team, so it wasn’t a surprise that the final two spots went to Clyde Drexler and Duke’s Christian Laettner.