ESPN’s “The Last Dance” has brought the long-standing — and apparently never-ending — feud between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas back to prominence, and comments Thomas recently made seem hardly likely to cool things down.


The disdain that Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas have for each other persists in 2020, almost 30 years after it began. John Swart/The Associated Press

Thomas was asked to rank the top five players he ever faced, and while many people regard Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time, he didn’t even crack the former Detroit Pistons star’s top three. Thomas ranked Jordan fourth, ahead of Julius “Dr. J” Erving but behind, in order, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

As we have been reminded by “The Last Dance,” Jordan might be the most competitive athlete of all time, so chances are he won’t be thrilled with Thomas’ assessment. Then again, as ESPN viewers were shown in no uncertain terms, Jordan considered Thomas “an a—–e,” so His Airness might view the diss as simply more of the same.

Thomas explained to CBS Sports that he puts more weight on how Jordan and his Chicago Bulls, who won six NBA titles from 1991 to 1998, fared in the 1980s. That decade was ruled by Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers, Bird’s Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers of Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson and, at the end, Thomas’s own Pistons.

“When you put Jordan and his basketball team in the ’80s, they weren’t a very successful team,” Thomas said. “They just weren’t. When you talk about Jordan and his team dominating, they dominated the ’90s. But when you put him with those Lakers teams and those Pistons teams and those Celtics teams, they all beat him. They just did.

“What separated Jordan from all of us was he was the first one to three-peat. But he didn’t three-peat against Magic, Larry and Dr. J.”

Jordan did help prevent Thomas’ Pistons from winning a third straight NBA championship in 1991, and as “The Last Dance” recounted, finally toppling the Bulls’ bitter nemesis in the Eastern Conference finals was arguably as gratifying as winning it all a couple of weeks later against the Lakers.

Chicago’s sweep of Detroit ended on a sour note when Thomas and other Pistons players walked straight off the court as Game 4 was ending, snubbing Jordan and his teammates by declining to shake hands. That lack of sportsmanship clearly still angers Jordan, who gave ESPN a stinging rebuttal to Thomas’ claim that the Pistons were merely following an example set by the Celtics in the playoffs a few years earlier.

“Well, I know it’s all [expletive],” Jordan said in the documentary series. “Whatever [Thomas] says now, it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it, or the reaction of the public has changed his perspective.

“You can show me anything you want; there’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a—–e.”

If asked about Thomas’ reasoning in ranking Jordan fourth, Jordan could point to the fact that he didn’t even enter the NBA until 1984 and then missed most of the following season with a foot injury. It wasn’t until 1987 that Chicago drafted his most essential running mate, Scottie Pippen, so in fairness Jordan did not have much of a chance to enjoy a huge amount of team success in that decade.

Thomas, who played from 1981 to 1994 and earned 12 all-star nods — but not an Olympic gold medal after he was left off the 1992 “Dream Team” at, as is widely suspected, Jordan’s insistence — said he was taken aback at being labeled in such a derogatory fashion in “The Last Dance.”

“I was definitely surprised,” Thomas told CBS Sports. “Because we’ve been in each other’s presence before, and I’ve never gotten that type of reaction from [Jordan]. We were even at dinner a couple times and he was always pleasant. Always good to my kids. Always good to my son. He even gave my son a pair of gym shoes.

“The competition that we all had on the floor, I truly just thought it was on the floor.”

Thomas added that, for his part, he did not “have anything against” Jordan. “I definitely admire him as a basketball player,” Thomas said.

Apparently, though, there are at least three NBA legends who earned even greater admiration from Thomas. While that undoubtedly won’t go over well at Casa Jordan, Thomas’s rankings might put a smile on the face of Abdul-Jabbar, who has seemingly been dropped from a greatest-ever debate that now mostly pits Jordan against LeBron James, with some Bill Russell advocates chiming in to remind everyone that he won a whopping 11 rings.

It is Jordan, though, who is basking in the extended spotlight of a five-week, 10-part series on ESPN, a tribute to his greatness that is getting extra attention because of the lack of almost anything else happening at the moment in the sports world.

Even Thomas has not only been watching but, as he told CBS sports, “glued to the television” for the series. “It’s interesting watching the doc, getting a peek behind the curtain,” he said, “because you don’t know how other teams work.”

For Thomas, one of the most fascinating aspects of “The Last Dance” has been seeing how much disdain Jordan expressed during his playing days for former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Contrasting that with the way his Pistons “revered” their team’s architect, Jack McCloskey, as well as how the Celtics similarly looked up to Red Auerbach, Thomas said, “I found that interesting.”

That could be viewed as another jab at Jordan, an attempt to suggest that Thomas is among a number of people mistreated by the six-time champion. Unfortunately for Thomas, Jordan has the bully pulpit these days, and his interviews with ESPN have revealed someone in no mood to dance around the details of an old feud.

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