ABU DHABI: Basketball Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas laughs when he considers the idea of him and his teammates from the Bad Boys-era Detroit Pistons having social media during their playing days in the 1980s and early ‘90s.
One of the most explosive point guards the game has ever seen, Thomas led the ‘Bad Boys’ to two championship titles in 1989 and 1990 and the Pistons were Michael Jordan’s ultimate nemeses as they knocked out the Chicago Bulls three years in a row before the tables finally turned in 1991.
Thomas, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Bill Lambier, Joe Dumars and Rick Mahorn were the poster boys for the Pistons at the time and were the reason the team was labeled as extremely physical and aggressive.
“I can’t imagine Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Bill Lambier on social media back in the day. That would have been funny,” said Thomas with a chuckle as he spoke to Arab News at the NBA District fan zone in Abu Dhabi on Friday.
In the ‘Last Dance’ docu-series released in 2020 that chronicled the Bulls’ journey with Jordan – who produced the series – the Pistons were painted as the villains of the story. It included the infamous moment from 1991 when the Detroit players walked off court before the horn without shaking their opponents’ hands after losing to the Bulls.
The incident saw the Pistons heavily criticized and Thomas reckons the team’s reputation would have been even worse had there been social media at the time.
“Oh, we would have been perceived very differently because the information that was out and about how disparagingly Michael Jordan was talking about, not only the Pistons but also the state of Michigan, those words would have been known worldwide, as opposed to just in a small section,” said Thomas.
“A little bit of it has come out now but I think people are starting to understand why the state of Michigan, in Detroit, felt the way we felt during that particular time.”
Such extreme rivalries between teams have become rare in today’s NBA. Thomas spent his entire 13-season career with the Pistons – something you don’t see often nowadays.
“We have rivalry now between players, but we don’t have the visceral competitiveness that teams used to have for each other and that’s probably because it’s still a young league,” explains Thomas.
“They haven’t developed enough time competing against each other at a high level, where the cities can really like get behind and be like, ‘Oh, we don’t like that city’.
“I think that time (of bitter rivalries between teams) may be gone because people keep moving (between teams). So it’s very rarely do you have one player playing for a franchise as long as we did back then.”
One player committed to a single franchise and looks likely to finish his career with the same team is two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been with the Milwaukee Bucks since 2013 and has led them to the championship title in 2021.
Earlier this year, Shaquille O’Neal said Antetokounmpo will very soon be considered the undisputed best player in the league and Thomas believes “he’s there almost now”.
“His will and his determination, along with his skill, is really the thing that sets him apart,” said Thomas of the Greek Freak.
“He’s talented, he has skill. But he also still has the heart and the will to go out and compete every night. And then he understands his responsibility, not only to his team, but to the fans. So he shows up and he competes and people pay their money to come see him. So he goes out and he performs no night out.”
While Antetokounmpo is one of the top stars of the league right now, French teenager Victor Wembanyama has been getting an incredible amount of attention before even making it to the NBA.
The 18-year-old has been described as “an alien” by LeBron James, was tipped to become one of the greatest ever by Antetokounmpo and has been anointed as a top prospect by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“The hype is deserved. He’s that special of a player, he’s that rare of a player,” said Thomas of Wembanyama.
“And do I think he’ll live up to it? Yes. The thing that you just hope for his sake, is that he has an injury-free career because that’s the key, to stay healthy. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was able to stay healthy, play a long time. LeBron James able to stay healthy, play a long time. And they were game-changers. He has a chance to be that. We just hope that he can stay healthy.”
Thomas, who is currently an analyst for NBA TV, is looking forward to the upcoming new season and expects the New Orleans Pelicans to be the “surprise team” of the 2022-2023 campaign.
“With Zion Williams coming back; he’s another different kind of athlete, and by him being away from the game for a year and then Covid a little bit, so he’s got a chance to be pretty special. And I think the Pelicans could be a surprise team,” he added.
Thomas is one of five legends invited to help promote the historic NBA Games in Abu Dhabi, alongside O’Neal, Vince Carter, Chris Bosch and Dominique Wilkins.
The 61-year-old believes the Games – the first-ever to be held in the Gulf and Arab world – will leave a lasting legacy in the region.
“I think it will be more because I think the NBA will continue to come,” said Thomas.
“When you’re welcomed as much as we’ve been welcomed, it’s impressive. You want to continue to build, you want to continue to come back and really show your gratitude for the way you’ve been treated. So I don’t think this is a one off and I think it will be long lasting.
“It’s definitely special to be a person who’s chosen to come over to introduce the sport.
“To still be relevant now and to still have people know your story 30 years later. It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool.
“The country is just overwhelmingly beautiful,” he said of the UAE. “Not only that, but just how hospitable the people have been.
“You don’t realize how impactful you’ve been from afar. So seeing the kids and in the way people have reacted to the players and NBA and knowing the history, it’s been impressive.”