Michael Jordan was right, Isiah Thomas' explanation for the Pistons' walk-off has changed over the years

Jack Baer
Writer

We are now four episodes into ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” and one of the biggest debates that has emerged is a re-litigation of the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons’ now-infamous decision to walk off the floor as the Chicago Bulls finally beat them in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals.

To Michael Jordan and the rest of the Bulls, it was an unsportsmanlike and petty reaction to losing to a rival.

Hearing it from Isiah Thomas in the documentary, though, it was just what great teams did at the time. Specifically, it was what the 1988 Boston Celtics did when they lost to those same Pistons.

Isiah Thomas’ walk-off explanation and Michael Jordan’s reaction

Thomas’ explanation, from “The Last Dance:”

Adrian Dantley was shooting a free throw, and the Boston Celtics were walking off during the game. I grabbed [Kevin] McHale, and then he stopped as he was walking off the floor. That’s how they left the floor. And to us, that was OK.

Knowing what we know now, and the aftermath of what took place, I think all of us would have stopped and said “Hey congratulations,” like they do now. We would have did it, of course we would have done it. But during that period of time, that’s just not how it was passed.

When you lost, you left the floor. That was it.

So Thomas is saying the Pistons did it because the Celtics had done it to them, and they didn’t know it would be such a big deal until after the fact.

When the producers attempted to show Jordan that rationalization from Thomas, the documentary’s subject balked and laid into his rival before he even watched the video:

“Well I know it’s all bulls---. Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He has time enough to think about it. Or the reaction of the public has kinda changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want, there's no way you can convince me he wasn't an a--hole.”

Jordan would later note that even though he was heartbroken to lose to the Pistons in back-to-back Eastern Conference finals the previous years, he still shook everyone’s hand.

“There’s a certain respect to the game that we paid to them,” Jordan said. “That’s sportsmanship. No matter how much it hurts, and believe me it f---ing hurt.”

Clearly, Jordan has no love lost for Thomas. He might also be right about the Hall of Famer’s story changing.

What Isiah Thomas has said in the past about the Pistons’ walk-off

As pointed out by CBS Sports’ Pete Blackburn, Thomas has been asked about the walk-off in the past. His answer has significantly changed.

In 2013, the reason for the Pistons’ walk-off wasn’t that it was the style of the time and what the Celtics did, but a reaction to disrespectful tirades from Jordan and the Bulls.

“We had dethroned the Celtics, we had dethroned the Lakers and we thought that we deserved a little bit of respect as a champion. Everyone and every team could play and act like the Pistons and adopt out philosophy, except the Pistons.

Before the Bulls swept us in '91, I remember clearly Jordan and Phil Jackson, because they swept us in Detroit, they went on a day-and-a-half tirade about how we were bad for the game, how we were bad people, how Laimbeer was a thug. In our town. They were up 3-0 and then they had this press conference just totally disrespecting us as champions.

They went on to sweep us, and the decision was made just to walk off ... It was made on the bench as the game was winding down.”

Not a lot of mention of the Celtics in there. However, “The Last Dance” also didn’t exactly mention Jordan’s tirade against the team. Such is life when you’re basically in charge of a documentary about yourself.

The shift continues when you go all the way back to the November after the walk-off in 1991, when Thomas’ answer was a little more raw.

“In terms of us walking off the court, we don't really make any apologies for that because we were beat. They beat us soundly. At that time, we were mad, we were upset. For me to sit here now and say we didn't really mean it, that would be a lie, because at that time we meant it. Was it unsportsmanlike? Yes. Was it the wrong thing to do? Yes. But at the time, is that the way we felt? Yeah, it was a very emotional response.”

For me to sit here and say now that we really didn't mean it, we didn't feel that way, that would be a lie.”

It’s a bit hard to square that last line and what Thomas said in the documentary.

The whole 1991 response at least lines up with what Dennis Rodman said in the documentary.

A former Celtics staffer also took issue with Thomas’ rationalization in 2020, saying his depiction of the 1988 incident was “simply not true” and noting a very big difference between the 1988 Celtics and 1991 Pistons. As Jon Jennings pointed out, the Celtics were on the road and the Pistons were at home.

From the Boston Globe:

“K.C. and [assistant coaches] Jimmy Rodgers and Chris Ford were all talking about getting guys off the floor, because we were in the Silverdome, and you could just tell these folks were ready to storm the court,” Jennings said. “That is honest-to-goodness what that was about. It had nothing whatsoever to do with trying to show up the Pistons or a lack of sportsmanship. It was really the safety of those guys. I remember K.C. pointing at the guys, going down the bench and saying ‘OK, go to the locker room.’ ”

“One of the scariest experiences of my entire life was after that game ended,” Jennings said. “I was literally behind K.C. as we were trying to make our way to the locker room and you had all these people — it was a domed stadium — so you had this massive crowd and they were coming onto the floor excited and jumping up and down. It was crazy. It was absolutely pandemonium. Of course, they finally beat us, so you get it. It’s nothing against the Detroit fans. But I’ve never forgotten that feeling of trying to make our way to the locker room.”

For what it’s worth, Thomas apologized to the city of Detroit on Monday for the reputational damage the walk-off created. He also tried to again explain the decision.

“In coming down as champions, you have certain emotions,” Thomas said. “I’ve said this many a times, looking back, over the years, had we had the opportunity to do it all over again, I think all of us would make a different decision. Now, me myself personally, I paid a heavy price for that decision.”

“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but that’s just how it was during that period of time.”

Isiah Thomas has a lot of explanations for walking off the court against the Bulls. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

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