A flaw on the golden aura of America’s 1992 Olympic Dream Team basketball champions can never be buffed out by time and should make basketball purists blink over the pettiness that left an imperfection on the closest thing possible to creating the perfect team.
The exclusion of Isiah Thomas, one of the greatest guards in NBA history and the best player in Pistons history, is the scratch that has come into focus in the 20th anniversary retrospective of the Dream Team.
The men’s champions are deservedly being hailed for their dominating drive to the Gold Medal in the Barcelona Olympics. Nothing can diminish the accomplishments of those 12 players, led and molded on the court by the late Chuck Daly, the perfect coach for the perfect team.
The NBA sent its brightest stars to the Olympics for the first time, and the world saw basketball at a level never seen before or since. They swept to victory in all eight games, with an average victory margin of 44 points per game.
Outclassed opponents whose players were as interested in having their pictures taken on the court with America’s superstars and fans watching on world-wide television saw legends in action — Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and a faded, injured version of Larry Bird in the lead roles.
One player they did not see was Isiah Thomas, the point guard of the two-time NBA champion Pistons and unquestioned leader of a team known as the Bad Boys.
If Johnson, Jordan and Bird were the Big Three of that era, then Thomas was No. 4. He was as tough as any player who ever laced on a pair of sneakers — a ruthless competitor whom basketball coaching legend Hubie Brown once referred to as “an assassin” for his ability to produce in the clutch.
Every stat, every award, every accomplishment dictated that Isiah Thomas should have been on the Dream Team.
The Dream Team had style and substance, and the world climate was right for their appearance in the Olympics. Basketball was becoming a more global game, and the Americans wanted to reclaim their unquestioned role as the dominant world power.
The NBA stars were the gold standard — on and off the court — for excellence.
They had their final training session in Monte Carlo, and their arrival was like the Beatles invading Shea Stadium for their historic tour in 1965.
But for Thomas, he couldn’t even be considered the fifth Beatle, like former drummer Pete Best, who was replaced by Ringo Starr.
Thomas was never invited to the first rehearsal, let alone play with the band.
The controversy over Thomas’ exclusion has been rekindled in the celebration of the Dream Team.
The suspicion today is unchanged from 20 years ago when the team was formed without Thomas: Jordan led a group that didn’t want Thomas on the team.
Other factors may have contributed — Thomas’ ultra-competitive nature on the court, personality clashes off the court, lingering resentment of the Bad Boys’ swagger and single-minded destruction of opponents.
A 90-mimute documentary on the Dream Team, which debuted Wednesday night on NBA TV, confirms the enmity toward Thomas.
Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s teammate on the Chicago Bulls, said sentiment against Thomas ran deep on the team.
“I despised how he played the game,” Pippen said.
“Isiah was the general,” Pippen said, referring to how Thomas led the Pistons. “He was the guy who would yap at his teammates and say, ‘Kick them on their (rear). Do whatever you have to do.’
“No, I didn’t want him on the Dream Team.”
When asked if Jordan wanted Thomas on the team, Pippen replied: “I can’t speak for Michael, but I don’t think he wanted him on the team.”
Also in the documentary, Jordan said he was hesitant to join the Dream Team but decided to play when Bird, Johnson and Patrick Ewing were added to the roster — but not Thomas.
“That was one of the stipulations put to me that Isiah wasn’t part of the team,” Jordan said.
And Magic Johnson, who once had a long friendship with Thomas that unraveled in later years, said there was no doubt that Thomas belonged on the team, but he “rubbed people the wrong way.”
His credentials made Thomas a worthy Olympian. He led Indiana University to the 1981 NCAA championship and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
He led the Pistons to three straight appearances in the NBA Finals. The Pistons won the championship in 1989 and 1990, and Thomas was MVP of the 1990 Finals.
He made the All-Star team 12 times in his 13-year NBA career and was twice the game’s MVP.
But none of that could get Thomas a place on the Dream Team. Clearly, he should have been picked ahead of such players as Clyde Drexler, a young John Stockton, and Christian Laettner of Duke, chosen as the only collegian.
Daly, the Pistons’ coach from 1983-92 who died in 2009, did not take a strong stand for Thomas. There was speculation that Daly would have favored Joe Dumars, like Thomas a Hall of Fame member and MVP of the 1989 Finals.
As coach of the Dream Team, Daly forged a relationship with Jordan, often playing golf with the Pistons’ fiercest adversary.
Jack McCallum, who covered the NBA for Sports Illustrated, talked to all 12 players for his upcoming “Dream Team” book.
In an interview on the FOX Network’s Dan Patrick Show this week, McCallum explained the exclusion of Thomas in simple terms.
“The easy answer is no one wanted him,” McCallum said. “He just did not have anyone speaking up for him, and that includes Magic. It certainly includes Michael Jordan.”
Stockton was injured before the Games began and could have been replaced. He played sparingly in the Games — not that it mattered.
Not making a strong stand for Thomas left a mark on Daly, McCallum said.
“I think it really haunted Chuck,” McCallum said. “Had Chuck come in forcefully and said, ‘I want my guy, he was the captain of two championship teams,’ the committee might have listened, especially after John Stockton was injured.
“But I think what happened was just too many guys did not want Isiah on that team, and when Stockton went down, the decision was not to go to Isiah.
“They probably would have gone to Joe Dumars, but they decided, ‘Let’s just stick with 11 guys.'”
Thomas has had other negative issues in coaching and management, but all of those occurred years after the Barcelona Olympics.
He has been quiet on the subject, but anyone who knows him realizes he feels wronged by the Olympic slight.
Thomas shed little light on his feelings in an interview in The Detroit News this week.
“I think I will bypass that today as I have before,” Thomas told reporter Terry Foster. “I will have no comment on that.”
Later, Thomas added: “I will just let it go.”
But history won’t let it go — and shouldn’t.
The flaw on the Dream Team’s golden memory will never fade.