Bad rap for Stockton in Detroit
For most NBA fans, John Stockton is a fairly uncontroversial
An easy Hall of Famer, Stockton and Karl Malone ran the pick-and-roll approximately
17 trillion times over the years, and no one found a way to stop it.
Stockton wasn't flashy, wore short-shorts long after they were out of style and
played point guard better than all but two or three people in NBA history.
In Detroit, Stockton is seen as something completely different: the player who
took Isiah Thomas' rightful spot on the original Dream Team. Because of the
machinations of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson, Stockton landed
an undeserved trip to Barcelona in 1992, while Isiah was left home to fume.
There's some truth to it, but there are also myths and legends that have become
attached over the years.
The first is that Jordan had some kind of veto power over Thomas being on the
Jordan certainly lobbied against Thomas. The two had clashed all the way back
to the alleged freeze-out of Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game. The feud then
culminated with Thomas' Pistons walking off the floor without congratulating
Jordan's Bulls at the end of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals.
Jordan is quoted in the NBA TV 20th anniversary Dream Team documentary, which
debuts Wednesday night, as saying that the choice had already been made to
exclude Thomas — a decision made by people well above him on the ladder.
“That was one of the stipulations put to me that Isiah wasn’t part of the
team,” Jordan says in the documentary. “It was coming from a higher place who
didn’t want Isiah on the team.”
Russ Granik and Rod Thorn, NBA executives who were involved in the
decision-making process, reportedly back up Jordan's assertion, saying that
Thomas's role in walking off the floor in the playoff series against Chicago
had badly hurt his chances.
“We were picking a group just after the Pistons had been eliminated by the
Bulls,” Granik says in the documentary. “It was very bad timing for Isiah.
Everyone had that impression in their mind, the picture of Isiah walking off
So even though Jordan and others lobbied for Thomas' exclusion from the team,
the documentary seems to make it clear that USA Basketball had decided on its
own that Thomas wasn't going to Spain.
Another myth surrounding the story is that picking Stockton over Thomas was a horrible
The truth is, when the team was picked in the fall of 1991, Stockton was
probably a better point guard.
Early in his career, Thomas had been a regular on the All-NBA teams, making the
first or second team every year between 1983-‘87.
When Stockton hit his prime, things changed. He made the second team in 1988
and locked up a spot for the next decade. Thomas never made one of the squads
By the time the Dream Team was formed, Stockton was dishing out almost twice as
many as assists as Thomas and shooting at a higher percentage, especially from
the 3-point line.
Although Thomas was still the more spectacular player — capable of putting up
40-point nights — that wasn't a skill particularly needed on a team that already
had Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Magic, Patrick Ewing and Pippen.
Thomas had clearly put himself in contention for the Dream Team, especially
after the Pistons had won back-to-back championships in 1989 and ‘90. But it would
have been a major snub if Stockton had been left off the team.
For Thomas to make the team, it likely would have been at the expense of Clyde
Drexler or the token college selection, Christian Laettner.
The fact remains to this day, however, that Thomas and Pistons fans thought
there had been an unforgivable disrespect paid to him, and that Stockton was
That's why on the night of Nov. 15, 1991, a sold-out crowd at The Palace of
Auburn Hills expected something special. The Jazz were in town, meaning Thomas
and Stockton would go head to head for the first time since the team was
selected a few months earlier.
No one went home disappointed. Thomas humiliated Stockton, scoring 44 points by
driving past him again and again for easy baskets.
Stockton had a good offensive game, finishing with 20 points and 13 assists,
but Thomas wasn't worried about defense that night. He just wanted to score —
and did — helping the Pistons to a 123-115 victory.
A month later, the teams met in Salt Lake City, and Thomas was hoping for a
similar performance. This time, it was Karl Malone who got revenge on behalf of
As Thomas drove past Stockton toward another easy basket, Malone laid him out
with a vicious elbow to the forehead. The hit was so hard, the Jazz team doctor
insisted that Thomas get carried off the floor with a neck brace and backboard.
He ended up with a concussion and 40 stitches to close the head wound.
In different circumstances, the Pistons-Jazz rivalry could have ended up like the
Red Wings and Avalanche did a few years later — heated, bloody and must-see. Unfortunately,
with the teams in different conferences and the Bad Boys nearing the end of
their run, things just fizzled out, but the bad feelings never changed for Pistons
For reasons right and wrong, they will always believe that their hero was
cheated out of a gold medal by Stockton and a conspiracy featuring some of the
NBA's biggest stars.