The story behind Isiah Thomas being left off the Dream Team

Isiah Thomas and the Pistons bounced Michael Jordan’s Bulls from the playoffs three times.

It’s the one missing item from his résumé. It’s the only box not checked on his list of career accomplishments. What’s particularly disappointing is that Isiah Thomas didn’t even get the chance to accomplish it.

Isiah was a high school All-American, he was a college All-American, he won an NCAA championship with Indiana, he won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, he was twice the Most Valuable Player of the NBA All-Star Game, he led his team to back-to-back NBA Championships and was named Finals MVP. He was also named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players and elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Many feel he’s the greatest small guard to ever play the game of basketball.

But Isiah never had a chance to win an Olympic Gold Medal for reasons beyond his control. In 1980 as a college freshman, Isiah was selected to represent the U.S. on the national team, and in several exhibitions he led the squad in scoring, assists, and steals. But President Jimmy Carter chose to boycott the games in Moscow in response to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Twelve years later, Isiah was kept off the U.S. team. The reasons have been debated for more than 25 years, and for many of those years the people at fault denied or outright lied about the cabal that left one of the game’s greatest players off USA Basketball’s 1992 Olympic team.

They called it The Dream Team, and for the first time NBA players would represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games. After losing the gold in the 1988 in “their game”, the United States was anxious to prove to the world that they were the dominant force on the court.

But the USA Basketball Committee had never navigated the waters of NBA egos, and they soon encountered problems with the wants and needs of professional superstars. The timing was also perfect for a snub of the Detroit point guard.

Pistons were a thorn in the side of Jordan’s Bulls

In the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals the Pistons reign was ended when Michael Jordan and the Bulls finally vanquished their greatest foe, sweeping Detroit. With seconds left in Game Four and the sweep guaranteed, Isiah led his team off the floor without shaking the hands of their opponents. The move was similar to a snub by the Celtics a few years earlier when the Pistons finally beat their playoff nemesis, but it still didn’t look good. Members of the USA Basketball Committee took note, and with Isiah’s unsportsmanlike action fresh in their minds, several members demanded that Thomas be left off the team. Their efforts prevailed.

Not everyone thought it was fair. Jack McCloskey, general manager of the Pistons, resigned from the USA Basketball Committee in protest of Isiah’s being left off the first ten players to be named to the roster. The head coach, Chuck Daly, also cried foul.      

“I’m disappointed because Isiah is a great player and deserves to be on the team,” Daly said after the team was announced in September of 1991. “If I had my druthers, I would have had three of my players – Isiah, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman – on the team, but I didn’t have a vote and all those chosen are great players in their own right.”

Almost immediately, rumors swirled that the biggest star in the NBA had orchestrated Isiah’s snubbing. Michael Jordan had reportedly agreed to participate on The Dream Team only if Isiah was not on the squad.

“Rod, I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team,” Jordan is quoted as having said to Rod Thorn, a committee member of USA Basketball and the former general manager of the Jordan’s team, the Bulls.

Others on the team piled on, and in ensuing years they’ve opened up about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to keep Detroit’s #11 off The Dream Team.

Pippen hated Isiah

“I despised how he played the game,” Scottie Pippen said of Thomas in a 2012 documentary on the Dream Team. “Isiah was the general, he was the guy who would yap at his teammates and say ‘Kick them on their ass. Do whatever you have to do.’ No, I didn’t want him on the Dream Team.”

Not everyone thinks it was fair for the biggest star in the league to make his participation conditional on leaving off a player he disliked. Not everyone thought the national team should be selected based on who people liked rather than who was qualified to be on the court.

Not everyone on The Dream Team felt Isiah’s absence was fair

“I don’t think Jordan wanted to play with Isiah,” Clyde Drexler said in Jack McCallum’s book Dream Team. “Two championships in a row, always an All-Star. And Isiah can’t make it?

“I didn’t like that. It’s not the players’ choice. It’s who’s supposed to be there. If you don’t like me, I don’t give a fuck. We’re competitors. You’re not supposed to like me. But when one player has the ability to leave another player off, we’ve lost control of the system.

“The one thing in sports that’s been important to me is integrity. If someone is good, no matter what, I am never going to say he’s not. If you’re good, you’re good,” Drexler said.

With Drexler, Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and a list of megastars, The Dream Team went on to crush their opposition in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. The NBA legends were rock stars, opposing players even asked for autographs and photos with the NBA stars before and after games. Some teams seemed in awe.

The second point guard on the team, the man who occupied the spot that would have gone to Thomas, was Utah’s John Stockton. It was Stockton, a clearly inferior player to Isiah, who got to stand on the stage and accept a gold medal in Barcelona. 

Thomas has admitted that being left off the team hurt him for a long time. But even more terrible was the fact that one of Isiah’s best friends conspired to keep him off the team as well.

Even Magic Johnson 

When their teams met in the 1988 and 1989 NBA Finals, Magic Johnson and Isiah famously kissed each other on the cheek before each game. The two were intense competitors but very close friends. Thomas had been in Magic’s wedding. But it came out later that Magic supported Jordan’s efforts to freeze Isiah out of The Dream Team.

“Did Isiah Thomas deserve to be on the dream team? No doubt about it,” Magic said in an interview years later where he came clean on the issue. “When you think about a team, everyone must get along. They gotta live to together, they gotta hang out together. Isiah, with his competitive nature, rubbed some of the guys the wrong way.”

A former Isiah teammate saw other problems with the selection process.

Bird’s inclusion is questioned 

“I just think the fact that — I don’t know the issues of Michael (Jordan) and Magic (Johnson) and whoever, (Charles) Barkley, and stuff like that, if they didn’t like Isiah. But for me, I felt Isiah should’ve been on that team because of the fact that he deserved it,” former Pistons’ forward Dennis Rodman said.

“I think that the fact that, even though a lot of people will try to deny it or try to correct me when I’m wrong, he should’ve been there instead of Larry Bird,” Rodman said in a 2015 interview. “Because Larry Bird was hurt, injured, he could barely play, and he was on that last leg of his career.

“I understand, again, the presidential treatment, because he did so much for the game, but I just think for Isiah, I think they should’ve put him on that team without Larry Bird, and that’s my opinion.”

Was race an issue in selection of Dream Team roster?

Was there another, more sinister (or politically correct) reason for the Isiah snub? Noted sportswriter and NBA observer Jason Whitlock thinks so. Whitlock believes the USA Basketball Committee wanted to include a few white stars on the team, which left Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, and Shaquille O’Neal off the team instead of Stockton, Chris Mullin, and Christian Laettner.

“The Dream Team was color coordinated,” Whitlock wrote in 2012 for Fox Sports. “No one will talk about it publicly. But I can guarantee you it’s bitched about privately.”

A few years ago during a basketball program on TNT, Isiah responded to some of the criticism.

“If Jordan is like ‘Look I’m not playing if Isiah plays.’ OK. Aiight. But Scottie Pippen ‘I’m not playing if Isiah play’, man, go to the park.”

As the years have passed the truth has come out, and despite years of denying he was involved in squeezing Isiah off The Dream Team, Michael Jordan has admitted his involvement. Sadly, Magic Johnson has come clean about stabbing his former best pal in the back. Finally in 2017, Thomas and Johnson reconciled and hugged it out.

But the dastardly deeds by USA Basketball and some of the NBA’s biggest egos that led to keeping Isiah off The Dream Team stink for a much larger reason that personality. It’s terrible because it denied a player the chance to earn his way onto a team he deserved a shot at making. It went against the very core of what sports is about: the game is decided in the court.

Isiah has the best take on this. He accepts the fact that everywhere in his playing career where he was given a fair chance, he excelled. He was never given that opportunity in regards to The Dream Team, and since he didn’t have that chance, it was out of hands.  

“When it becomes time for people to judge and you have selection committees and everything else, the politics of it you have no control over,” Isiah said. “But the things I did have control over in terms of winning and winning championships, those are the things I had control over and was proud of.”

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.