The Truth About Michael Jordan And Isiah Thomas' Relationship

Sometimes, you just can't win 'em all. Michael Jordan is known even by those who don't follow sports as arguably the greatest professional basketball player of all time. His glowing individual stats and his numerous championship rings with the Chicago Bulls merely represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his resume. But he hasn't always been the easiest person to get along with, and you can ask any number of former Bulls teammates, including a certain Scottie Pippen, about that.

While Jordan and Pippen's relationship, for one, has been rather complicated, especially in the aftermath of 2020's "The Last Dance" docu-series, His Airness' relationship with fellow backcourt icon Isiah Thomas has been far more cut-and-dry. On a surface level, the two men simply do not like each other and have not liked each other for nearly four decades. Given how Jordan's Bulls were among the fiercest rivals of Thomas' Detroit Pistons back in the late '80s, it's pretty understandable that these two legends have long been at odds. But their feud actually started a few years before the "Bad Boys" Pistons reached their peak and the Bulls got closer than ever to the start of their six-championship dynasty.

Thomas supposedly had a bad first impression of Jordan

As an NBA rookie in 1984-85, Michael Jordan tore up the league, averaging 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 steals for the entire campaign. Not surprisingly, he was selected to play in his first All-Star Game that season, and that was where he had his first interactions with Isiah Thomas. If Jordan is to be believed, his initial encounter with the Detroit Pistons legend was anything but cordial.

Speaking to Playboy in 1992, Jordan admitted that as the Chicago Bulls' only representative on the Eastern Conference All-Stars, he didn't do much socializing; he spent most of his free time in his hotel room. But when he did finally go out, he ended up on the same elevator as Thomas as they both prepared to attend a league meeting. According to Jordan, he asked Thomas how he was doing but otherwise remained silent.

"I was really intimidated because I didn't know him and I didn't want to get on his nerves," Jordan continued, as quoted by Ball is Life. "I didn't want to seem like a rookie ... When I went down in the room for the meeting, I still didn't say anything. After the weekend was over, it got back to me that I was arrogant and cocky and I wouldn't even speak to Isiah on the elevator, that I gave him the cold shoulder. And I'm saying Isiah Thomas initiated it all."

The alleged 1985 All-Star Game freeze-out

During the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, Jordan started for the Eastern Conference All-Stars alongside four other future Hall of Famers — Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Isiah Thomas. When it was all over, Jordan was the least impressive among those five, scoring just 7 points on 2-for-9 shooting as the East lost to the West, 140-129.

All-Star Game stats can arguably be considered irrelevant as they don't count toward regular-season averages. But playing well in the All-Star Game can also be seen as bragging rights, and Jordan has long alleged that Thomas refused to pass him the ball. He told Playboy (via Ball Is Life) that this was what really heated up their beef. "If you go back and look at the film, you can see that Isiah was actually doing that," Jordan said. "Once it started getting around that he was freezing me out, that's when the ill feelings started to grow between us."

Thomas, however, has consistently denied this, and as recently as July 2022, he was taking to Twitter to shoot down MJ's allegations. "Stop lying this story is not factual or accurate, tell the truth man," Thomas wrote. "Dr. J, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Sidney Moncrief and I did not freeze you out. If memory serves me correct I was injured most of the second half and Bird had a broken nose. [Western Conference All-Stars Magic Johnson and Ralph Sampson] dominated the game."

What were the Jordan Rules?

By the late 1980s, the Detroit Pistons were firmly established as one of the Eastern Conference's best — and roughest — teams. These were the "Bad Boys" Pistons, a team that defined itself with its ultra-physical brand of defense, with burly enforcer types like Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn leading the way. But Isiah Thomas was still the best player on those Detroit teams, and despite his diminutive stature, he didn't back down from anyone on defense, especially if it was Michael Jordan.

According to Sports Illustrated, the Pistons' "Jordan Rules," as they were called, stipulated that the team would always be making sure there was someone to help Jordan's primary defender, either through a double-team or through help defense. Thomas was a key part of those "Jordan Rules" schemes, and as the outlet noted, he was instrumental in convincing head coach Chuck Daly to bring back the rules after temporarily relaxing them in Game 3 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals — which the Chicago Bulls won. That helped the Pistons win the remaining three games of the series, en route to a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in that year's NBA Finals.

If you think that sounds like a sanitized summary of the rules, you're probably right. The "Bad Boys" Pistons practically mugged Jordan on defense, and this clip clearly shows Thomas aggressively fouling MJ, all to prevent what would normally be an easy basket. "You had to be physical with him," explained Detroit News columnist Terry Foster. "If Jordan got loose, he was gonna get hit, and he knew it." Pistons commentator Greg Kelser also chimed in, recalling that "the only way you were going to slow him down ... was to at least give him the thought that he could get hurt."

Did Jordan have a hand in Thomas not getting a Dream Team invite?

The 1992 United States men's Olympic basketball team, aka the Dream Team, made history as the first to feature current NBA players, and it had quite the lineup indeed, with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson all sharing the court with eight other would-be NBA legends ... and Christian Laettner. Unfortunately, Isiah Thomas was not among the future Hall of Famers invited to join the Dream Team. One could say that he was entering the twilight of his career or that fellow point guards Johnson and John Stockton were just as deserving to represent the U.S. in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. But the prevailing narrative is that Jordan did everything in his power to make sure Thomas was not on the team.

As quoted by USA Today, author Jack McCallum alleged in his book, "Dream Team," that Jordan was the one person most responsible for Thomas not getting the Dream Team invite, having told NBA head of basketball operations Rod Thorn in 1991 that he "[doesn't] want to play [in the Olympics] if Isiah is on the team."

Jordan denied these accusations in the 2020 Netflix/ESPN documentary "The Last Dance" and even ranked Thomas as the second-best point guard of all time behind Magic Johnson. However, he suggested that there is still no love lost between him and his former rival. "No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game," he said. "Now, it was insinuated that I was asking about him; but I never threw his name in there."

Given those comments, as well as Thomas' recent angry reaction to the decades-old freeze-out allegations, it's safe to say Zeke and MJ are still beefing to this very day.