Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Frozen In Time
Isiah Thomas and the landed gentry of NBA stars conspired to keep the ball away from upstart Michael Jordan at the rookie’s first All-Star Game in 1985.
At least that’s the accepted version of history.
It’s easy to see how that conspiracy has gained traction over the years. It fits into the well-established narrative of Isiah-as-nefarious-meddler, and the young Jordan was such an inconceivable alloy of skills that it had to have been discomfiting for the older generation of stars.
What does the tape reveal? Like the Zapruder film, there are just enough moments to back every side of the argument.
The genesis of the “freeze-out” supposedly came out of Jordan’s unwillingness to show proper deference to the veterans. The audacious young star wore a gold chain over his jersey when he competed in the dunk contest. In the locker room he acted like, well, Michael Jordan. He boasted, he embarrassed teammates, he challenged Moses Malone to a free-throw shooting contest (with MJ winning, of course).
There was also the matter of those shoes. In time, the Air Jordan I would revolutionize basketball footwear and marketing. In 1985, however, it looked like Jordan was putting on airs by refusing to wear the standard-issue all-star apparel. The shoes were even brought up during the broadcast, with color commentator Tommy Heinsohn remarking the shoes “look like they have horns on them.”
So that set the stage for the game at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. In the first minutes, Jordan skied for a defensive rebound, then tipped the ball in on the offensive glass for the game’s first points.
Jordan didn’t put himself above the game. He passed to his point guard —Thomas — immediately after getting rebounds or steals. But why did Thomas, the game’s consummate playmaker at the time, not give the ball right back to Jordan on the fast break early in the first quarter?
Jordan’s next point came on a free throw after he was fouled under the basket, where Thomas had found him with a nice dish. But a few minutes later, Thomas refused to look Jordan’s way again on a break, preferring to give the ball to rumbling big man Malone.
You could also read a lot into the flippant behind-the-back pass that Thomas gave to Jordan, before everyone on the East team cleared out so the Bulls star could go one-on-one against George Gervin. Who was this rookie to call for a solo voyage to the basket when he was on the same team with Thomas, Malone, Julius Erving and Larry Bird?
In the second quarter, Thomas also didn’t pull the trigger on a lob to a backdoor-cutting Jordan. Thomas had connected with Erving on the exact play earlier in the game. As the clock ticked down toward halftime, Jordan drove into the paint before kicking it out to Thomas in the corner for a three-pointer at the buzzer that tied the game at 68.
The second half continued in the same vein. Thomas refused to acknowledge Jordan when the rookie was wide open coming off a screen. Then Thomas would feed Jordan for jumpers on the wing.
In the end, Jordan played only 22 minutes and scored seven points with six rebounds, two assists and three steals. Was East coach K.C. Jones in on the conspiracy or was it hard to divide playing time on the wing with Bernard King and Micheal Ray Richardson? Jordan took nine shots, making two, and was 3 of 4 from the free-throw line. Thomas had 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting in 25 minutes.
Several stories have fingered Dr. Charles Tucker, the agent for Magic Johnson and Thomas at the time, for leaking the “freeze-out” angle to several writers. True or not, Jordan probably latched onto it, as he usually did, to use as grist for his competitiveness.
The conspiracy probably took hold as people filled out the back-story on the animosity-fueled battles between Jordan’s Bulls and Thomas’ Pistons in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Then came the rumors that Jordan was a key voice in keeping Thomas off the 1992 Dream Team.
Of course, nobody has gone on the record in saying that Jordan was denied the ball in 1985. But that hasn’t stopped conspiracy-minded fans from scouring the tapes.