larry and isiah

Editor's Note: Originally, I was going to publish a single entry listing the players I hate most. However, I apparently can't write anything short, so it's going to be a series of posts.

As most of you already know, there are plenty of reasons to hate Isiah Thomas, from his one-man decimation of the CBA to how he mismanaged the Knicks into a hilarious running joke.

Oh, wait, that last feat almost made me like him again.

Still, my enmity for the so-called "Baby Faced Assassin" goes all the way back to May 30, 1987 when, after the Celtics had eliminated the Pistons in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Isiah responded to rookie teammate Dennis Rodman's claim that Larry Bird was overrated because of his skin color by uttering the following very unfortunate statement:

"I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player. An exceptional talent, but I have to agree with Rodman. If he were black, he'd be just another good guy."

His dumbass statement ignited an instant firestorm. As dumbass statements often do.

Now, looking back, the adult me can understand why Isiah jammed a sweaty foot in his mouth and proceeded to choke on it. After all, his team had just lost to a hated rival in a brutal playoff series during which a teammate was punched in full view of an official without the offending player getting ejected or even called for a foul, and he himself had probably cost his team the series by throwing one of the most ill-advised inbounds passes of all time.

I can feel the crackling frustration even through the mists of time.

That said, 12-year-old me wasn't nearly as forgiving. As far as I was concerned, Isiah had committed an unforgivable blasphemy. To the adolescent me, Larry Bird was the Basketball God. And nobody takes a whiz on Basketball God without an instant and immediate death by lightning strike. Nobody.

Of course, Isiah didn't help matters by not just saying, "I was frustrated and made a verbal poop," and leaving it at that. He claimed the remark was made "sarcastically and humorously."

Said Isiah: "In print, you don't get the laughter. In print, you don't get the sarcasm. In print, you get what you get."

In print you don't get the laughter. Or complete double rainbows. You only get pure, unfiltered, undiluted honesty (read that: idiocy).

"My mistake was in joking in a manner and with someone who did not fully understand that I was joking. I'm really hurting about this."

Poor Isiah. Sad face for him, everybody.

Zeke's comments were so clearly bullshit that he then went on to make a clumsy commentary on racism and stereotypes in sports:

"The big controversy isn't about my saying professional athletes are stereotyped. The controversy is that I said Larry Bird, if he was black, would be just another good guy. But I think you would all agree that the stereotypes do exist.

"Larry definitely had to work hard to get where he is at, but so many times it's been said about black athletes that their talent is 'God-given' or that it's 'natural ability.' I had to work just as hard to get where I am. It's not God-given or instinctive. Basketball is a game where you do things over and over again. When someone makes a great play it's not a matter of instinct, but how quickly you can recall."

If only he had stopped there. But, of course, he didn't:

"What I was referring to was not so much Larry Bird, but the perception of stereotypes about blacks. When Bird makes a great play, it's due to his thinking, and his work habits. It's all planned out by him. It's not the case for blacks. All we do is run and jump. We never practice or give a thought to how we play. Magic and Michael Jordan and me, for example, we're playing only on God-given talent, like we're animals, lions and tigers, who run around wild in the jungle, while Larry's success is due to intelligence and hard work."

Lions and tigers. Running wild in the jungle. Rawr.

Isiah still wasn't finished:

"Blacks have been fighting that stereotype about playing on pure instinct for so long, and basically it still exists -- regardless of whether people want to believe it or not. Maybe I was more sensitive to it because Boston has more white players than any other pro team, and maybe because it's so hard to win in Boston Garden. I feel that it's not so much the fouls the referees call there, but the ones they don't call.

"Like the punches that Parish hit Laimbeer with. I guarantee you that if it was in Atlanta, and Tree Rollins did that to Laimbeer, Rollins is thrown out of the game so fast you wouldn't believe it."

So the Celtics had too many whites and therefore Parish, a black player, was allowed to pummel Laimbeer, a white player, with no penalty. Such was the amazing Bizarro logic of Isiah Thomas.

Hey, again, adult me can understand what he was getting at. But 12-year-old me -- and most people following basketball at the time -- construed Isiah's comments as whining at best and racist (or reverse racist) at worst. Beaten by a better team, unable to go down with dignity and respect, he blindly attacked a man who was, at the time, considered the best and most beloved player in the league. Then flopped all over himself trying to talk his way out of it.

Somewhat ironically, Bird himself could have cared less about Isiah's comments. To help diffuse the situation, Bird appeared with Isiah at a press conference and basically gave the press a big "whatever."

Said Bird: "If what he said doesn't bother me, it shouldn't bother anybody. He's my friend and if he said he was joking around, I believe him."

Even after Larry's presidential-style pardon, Isiah couldn't stop whining:

"It was definitely one of the worst days of my life. I lost a game, was accused of being a racist and I'm a bad guy now."

That woe-is-me, it's-not-my-fault attitude has followed Isiah the rest of his life. Mismanage the Raptors? Not my fault. Destroy the CBA? Not my fault. Fired as coach of the Pacers? Larry was getting back at me. Accused of sexual harassment? Not guilty. Mismanage the Knicks into NBA oblivion? I actually did a pretty good job there. Accidental drug overdose? It was my daughter.

The saddest (or, depending on your outlook, funniest) part of all this? Isiah is still taking swipes at Larry all these years later:

"I have no problem saying this at all. [Larry and Magic were] 6-(feet)-9 and Jordan was 6-6 and a half. If they were all 6-1, it wouldn't even be a question. They wouldn't even fucking rate. If they were all my size, shit, they wouldn't even be talked about.

"I beat the shit out of them when they were that big. If we were all the same size, fuck. Make them 6-1 and let's go on the court."

It's actually the ultimate irony that, decades after complaining the accomplishments of black athletes were overlooked due to their physical attributes, Isiah completely minimized Bird's (not to mention Magic's and MJ's) accomplishments...because of their physical attributes.

And that's why I hate the guy.

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Blogger kazam92 said...
And now he coaches my college's basketball team!

And we still suck

Go Golden Panthers.

Blogger The Cruise said...
Malone has your back.

Blogger Paul said...
While I really enjoyed reading the first installment of players "I" hate I think I would enjoy even more a players "most people" hate kind of take. I don't believe Danny Ainge, Paul Pierce or MJ will make your list and that's too sad.
Welcome back btw.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Great post. I always though Isiah (and that whole Pistons crew of Laimbeer, The Microwave, The Worm, Salley, Edwards, basically everyone but Dumars) was a douche. Can't wait to see who else you are gonna mention in the next few posts.

Blogger Leland said...
His most bawful moment of all time has to be throwing is own blood, his own daughter, under the bus when he "accidentally" overdosed on sleep medicine. If it was an accident just say so, if it was an attempt at suicide, then I feel sorry for the man, but to claim it was his daughter is beyond incomprehensible.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Leland, do *you* have kids?

Look. I drink because my kids cry.

Blogger Michael Hsu said...
AI is 6 foot nothing and light years better than Isiah and more exciting too watch. Unfortunately his career turned out the way it did and now he's a joke, but when he played it was all there.

Anonymous Mark said...
Didn't he also make some shitty remark insinuating Magic to be gay when he was first diagnosed with HIV? Cost them their friendship.

Anonymous JJ said...
"Look. I drink because my kids cry."

This is why I'll never have kids.

Blogger Unknown said...
For the mailbag: Any thoughts on our favorite crazy, Ron Artest, joining the next season of Dancing with the Stars?

Blogger chris said...
I love reading the whole sequence as you, Bawful, try your best to just chalk up your view of Zeke back then to, "Hey, I was 12."

Then as the litany of Isiah's career of continued post-championship fail rolls's clear that even today's adults can't help but feel the same exact way.

Blogger Ash said...
Of course Larry is your basketball god, you're white for chrissakes!

Blogger Unknown said...
No mention of him calling Magic "gay" when he was diagnosed with HIV? *That's* why I hate Zeke.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
It's too bad that Zeke and Bird weren't playing in 2010 rather than the 80's, as his remark would be part of a huge ESPN campaign to make a hero out of Isaiah, a la Mike Vick and have Bird be the symbol of everything wrong with white america.

Anonymous Grizzly63 said...
You have to give Ron Artest some credit, he has turned his life around I think.

Ron Artest, in his continued campaign to become beloved in all corners of America, has joined the season 13 cast of Dancing With the Stars, where he'll attempt to out-step Hope Solo, Famous Rob Kardashian and paragon of calm Nancy Grace. Why did Ron-Ron agree to dance? For more publicity, right?

Nope. He's doing it to raise money for cancer research, because his eight-year-old daughter Diamond, who beat cancer at age four, asked him to.

Unflappable Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times spoke to Ron-Ron about the decision to join the cast.

"[Diamond] said, 'Daddy, you can do it,' " Artest recalled Monday in a phone interview. "It's going to be fun."

It wasn't just a case of Artest being unable to say no to his daughter. At age 4 in 2007, Diamond was diagnosed with wilms tumor, Artest said, a kidney cancer that affects children. So in honor of his daughter successfully fighting the illness, Artest said he plans to donate the money he earns on "Dancing with the Stars" to the Cancer Research Foundation.

This isn't the first time Artest has used his fame and wealth for good: he auctioned off his 2010 NBA Championship ring to raise money for a mental health charity.

Anonymous JJ said...
I think Isiah was LeBron before LeBron became LeBron. They're both very talented players who (once their true nature was revealed) always took the low road, and always reminded us of how petty they were whenever they opened their mouths.

This makes me wonder... Anyone else think LeBron will become a GM someday? *shudder*

Anonymous Anonymous said...
There are kernels of truth in what Zeke said. Black athletes are still often described with words like 'athleticism' and 'physique' while white players are often described with words like 'heady' and 'gym rat.' It is unfortunate for everyone involved, as it sells both groups short.

However, that does not change the fact that Zeke is one of my least favorite players ever too. No mention of the freeze out that Zeke supposedly organized in MJ's first All-Star game?

Blogger Leland said...
BadDave, No I don't have kids, at least not any that I am aware of, nonetheless blaming a failed suicide attempt on one's daughter is pretty pathetic.

Isiah's thoughts after waking up in the hospital and realizing he failed to take his own life:
"Uh, shit! Damnit! I'm still here?! Who can I blame this on? Let's see...hmmm" (daughter comes in room) "Hi Daddy, how are you feeling?" Isiah, "Much, much better honey." (evil smile)

Anonymous Tree said...
Agreed @Grizzly63. Artest is without a doubt crazy, but I don't see him as a bad person in any way. To me, 'crazy' may even be too harsh; the dude's got money and does good things (mostly) with it and his image, I think it's time to start calling him 'eccentric'. Time for him to get some credit for the good things he's done.

As for the list, Bawful, I hope I see one 'Carter, Vincent Lamar' on here ... if you need a Torontonian to help, there are approximately 1M of us willing to help out ...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
anyone read that article on the net where it´s said that Vince Carter was just one Allen-Iverson-heart away from probably becoming the greatest ever?

Blogger Cortez said...
"AI is 6 foot nothing and light years better than Isiah"

Yeah, right.

"There are kernels of truth in what Zeke said."

There are boulders of truth in what he said.

...except for the "just another good player" comment. Show me another 25/10/7 guy with a ironclad reputation for winning as the lead player who is considered "just another good player".

Similar to square circles and leprechauns, they don't exist.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Uhhh, just for the record, my previous comment is sarcasm. My kids are how I find meaning in life. I absolutely agree about Zeke and his daughter.

That being said, I find parenting and marraige jokes both funny and good coping mechanisms.

And Leland, I'm issuing papers that you're my boy's real dad. I don't think it's true, but a little child support would come in handy right now...

Anonymous yeee said...
Isiah Thomas is just a bitter dude, even with his best friend Magic.

Anonymous Dante said...
"It's not God-given or instinctive. Basketball is a game where you do things over and over again. When someone makes a great play it's not a matter of instinct, but how quickly you can recall."

Well, except for Magic and MJ. They just tall...

Blogger Unknown said...
Old Pistons fan here. I loved the Bad Boys and hated the Celtics of that era, so if you want, take what I say with a grain of salt. Zeke's post-NBA days have obviously been a disaster in all sorts of ways. And if you want to dislike him for that, fine, no argument. But two things.

(1) What he said about steretotypes based on race in the NBA was exactly right and courageous to say at the time. And I don't say that just as a Pistons fan, I say that on behalf of teams like the Lakers -- heck, any team that wasn't the Jazz or Celtics -- in those days. In the NBA finals series when Zeke gave that quote, announcers referred to the Lakers as "a bunch of thoroughbreds" while talking about the Celtics hard work and intelligence. If you don't notice that sort of thing as a 12 year old, I understand. If you don't see Thomas was right -- again, in a very important and brave way -- as an adult, you're missing something big. For what it's worth, I honestly think he was joking about Bird, or at least trying to deflect attention from loose-cannon rookie Rodman. You really think Thomas didn't recognize Bird as a great player?

(2) Zeke was a better all around player than AI, period. He was a leader, cared about the team in a way AI didn't, was incredibly mentally tough, a great passer, so much better on defense than AI it's not even worth debating, and was a truly great scorer pretty much whenever he wanted to be.

So yeah, all the other stuff -- CBA, Knicks, sexual harrassment, stuff about Magic, etc., etc. -- I won't argue. He's unlikeable for all that. As a Pistons fan it makes me sad, but I won't try to dispute it. But Zeke was right about racism in the NBA, and he was better than AI.

Blogger Czernobog said...

Yeah, he addressed a real issue, but consider the context. He did it after losing and while belittling the best player on the team that beat them. It wasn't courageous, it was petty.

Anonymous Matt said...
In the interest of full disclosure, I am also a Pistons fan, but I think jslater hit the nail right on the head.

And, let's face it, that kind of subtle racism hasn't gone away. Black players are typically described in ways that accentuate the physical abilities while white guys are described in ways that accentuate their mental abilities (and team-first attitudes).

When comparing players, it's typically the case that a white guy is going to be compared to another white guy (although that's not as common as it used to be). To take a different point of view, though, I'm not even sure that could be called racism. I think it's just a natural way for most of us to compartmentalize people, which makes the comparison process a little more simple.

I do have Isiah Thomas to thank for a critical change in how I view sports, though. I was 17 years old when Thomas threw the inbounds pass to Bird (I can still hear Johnny Most's gravelly voice squawking "Bird stole the ball") which allowed the Celtics to win Game 5. I went to bed really pissed off until I realized that, when it came down to it, it really didn't matter to me whether the Pistons won or lost. Now I enjoy it when the teams I root for play well, but I don't really care if they play lousy.

I don't think that makes me a "better" or "worse" fan, just a "different" kind of fan than those who live and die with their teams. That type of fandom definitely fits my personality, though, so I guess I only have Isiah to thank for pushing me more quickly in the direction I was going to go in anyways.

Blogger Japes said...
How about freezing Jordan out in the 85 all star game? Or making the entire Pistons team walk out on the Bulls in 91 without shaking hands?

I agree though, he's 10 times better than AI. He could score just as well as AI except he chose not to. It was a travesty that he wasn't on the Dream Team.

Blogger ChrisH said...
IMO zeke is the best little man I've seen play in the nba. no other 6footer has led his team to a ring since i started watching in 1980. AI had better stats though, which surprised me.

liked zeke until the bad boys era. He was a lot of fun to watch in the 1980 olympic team scrimmages vs nba players, and during his run with IU to the ncaa championship. even went to see them play northwestern that year. great little player, nice smile, everybody liked him. then he turned evil, kind of weird.

Blogger The Cruise said...
Ainge always used to be pissed when they said he was a cerebral player who got by on his brains. He pointed out that he could put his palm on the top of the backboard square and play two separate sports at the highest level possible.
And on the flipside, I always thought Magic kind of got by on brains and guile more than natural athletic ability.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I agree that Thomas' comment about the different explanations for the success of black and white players was ill-timed, given that it was given as a defense of a stupid comment he made. But what he said in that regard seems true nonetheless.

Blogger chris said...
As for the list, Bawful, I hope I see one 'Carter, Vincent Lamar' on here ... if you need a Torontonian to help, there are approximately 1M of us willing to help out ...

I often wonder, Tree, if the most famous Toronto Raptor video clip WOULDN'T be Raptor Mascot Loses Control were it not for Carter deciding to sulk his way out of town.

Blogger Lord Kerrance said...
@chris -- I *THINK* you're implying that the Raps would have been more of a contender had VC not lost his smile and left. I think the Nets, Magic and Suns would all agree that he never was/is a difference maker for a team, be they a basement scrubber or contender.

My only question is whether Kobe or LeBron comes in first on this list.

Blogger Wormboy said...
"but so many times it's been said about black athletes that their talent is 'God-given' or that it's 'natural ability.'"

Zeke was spot on target here, of course. And this was FAR more true back in the 80s than it is now.

Doesn't excuse him from douching on Bird. I'm no Bird worshipper (though lots of respect), but that comment is just sour grapes and excuse making. I think Matt nails Isaiah: he may have been a transcendent player (and yes, he was much better than AI), but he doesn't take responsibility. Never did, never will. It's always somebody else's fault. And his damage control was butt ugly. Look, just say "that was stupid of me to say" and it disappears in the annals of history without a ripple. Try to weasel out of it, and it becomes one of your signature moments. Which tells us that Isaiah just doesn't get it. You could play that right because you are a decent person, or you could play that right because you get how you mis-stepped and how to make it right. He did neither. And that's really all we need to say about Isaiah, isn't it?

Now, let's contemplate why Dolan like him so much, and what that says about Dolan. Birds of a feather?

Anonymous Blizzard said...
Isaiah just doesn't get it.

Blogger DC said...
The Cruise said...
Ainge always used to be pissed when they said he was a cerebral player who got by on his brains. He pointed out that he could put his palm on the top of the backboard square and play two separate sports at the highest level possible.
And on the flipside, I always thought Magic kind of got by on brains and guile more than natural athletic ability.

Agree with your take on Ainge. The same can be said about Bird as well, though his physical gifts are less obvious. Those gifts include his ambidexterity and his photographic memory (which allowed him to remember the exact details any play that he has ever seen).

And in Jackie McMullan's book on Bird and Magic, there was an interesting story about the Michigan State trying to figure out how to guard Larry Bird for the upcoming championship game. They needed someone on that team to mimic Bird's play, a tall order to say the least. So Magic steps up to the plate, says "like this?", and starts playing exactly like Larry Bird - hitting fadeaway jumpers and tough layups like they were nothing. The man had the ability to dominate - see his legendary performance in Finals his rookie season, when he had to step up to replace an injured Kareem. But he knew that he had far more value as his team's facilitator and a director of offense.

Blogger Cov said...
Actually Isiah sounds pretty intelligent in his comments. Same issues exist today. Look at black quarterbacks. It's always how instinctual and athletic they are but white quarterbacks are cerebral and calculating.

If you don't like Isiah, you just don't like him. That's fine, a lot of people don't. I understand you're from Indiana (Bird country), actually I am too and a lot of my friends went to Purdue as well. I'm a huge Larry Bird fan but all I'm saying is that Isiah wasn't necessarily wrong in his comments.

Isiah may also have been a prick but he's not an idiot.

Blogger Wormboy said...
@ChrisH: AI had better stats because he was a classic stats padder, trying to fill his box score rather than help his team win. Lots of people think AI was a good defender because of his steal stats, but they don't have a stat for steals attempted and missed, leaving the lane open for the opposing PG to score or get a foul on one of your bigs. Watching AI play you realized that his D wasn't good, despite the good steals stats.

Blogger Unknown said...

Here's how I remember it (and I'm old enough to have been an adult fan at the time). The Pistons had just lost a crushingly disappointing loss to a hated rival (and NBA rivalries were much more heated back then). Dennis Rodman -- then a rookie, already a loose canon (although I loved him as a Piston) said something really dumb about Bird. Zeke then stepped in and said, "yeah, if Bird were white, he would just be another player."

I honestly believe he was joking and/or deflecting from Rodman.

Zeke gave the more extended quotes about racism in the NBA later, during the NBA finals. I'm guessing that wasn't his choice. The earlier comments caused a huge firestorm. There already was a bit of racial tension in how (a decent number of) fans perceived both the Pistons/Celtics rivalry and the Lakers/Celtics rivalry, and that was the last thing the NBA wanted. So I'm pretty sure Zeke got dragged into that interview during the finals. At which point he said some really important, true, and courageous things about racism in sports.

Again, Zeke has done a ton of bad, stupid stuff since then. But that interview during the Lakers-Celtics series was a very positive moment in his career.

Finally, I co-sign everything Wormboy said about AI.

Anonymous Tree said...
Good points chris & Lord Kerrance ... I think the team could have had a better past 10 years had Carter not pulled that nonsense, but I agree that it wouldn't have made us a contender. However, the thought of Carter and a 'better than his rookie season' Bosh playing together makes me want to punch something.

Either way, the Raps mascot vid will be the most famous Raptor-related video until they win something (or Bargs suffers a laziness-induced heart attack mid game).

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I agree wholeheartedly with Wormboy about AI's defense. I love the guy's tenacity, but I found it ridiculous that people said he "gave 100%" every game. JUST BECAUSE HE'S TIRED AT THE END?! He was one of the most undisciplined players of his generation, but there's no excuse b/c you KNOW he knows "the right way to play." Anyways...

Zeke is the GOAT of smalls and I hate him too.

Blogger Unknown said...
Correction. In my most recent post above, I have Thomas saying, "yeah, if Bird were white. . . " -- obviously, he said "yeah, if Bird were black. . ."

Blogger chris said...
I owe it all to you to post Raptor Mascot Loses Control:

Anonymous jay_uno said...
"AI is 6 foot nothing and light years better than Isiah and more exciting too watch."

wow, AI is a horrible player, he impersonates everything wrong in todays nba.

exiting to watch?

if you like to see a player shot 40 shots a game (at least 20 of the wtf-was-thinking-category), gamble for steals all the time, because his one-on-one defense makes steve nash look like gary payton.. then sure, he´s exiting.. i guess

i´m not trying to defend zeke, but comparing him to AI is like talkin about hakeem and greg ostertag in the same sentence

Blogger Lord Kerrance said...
@Jay: I'm not an Iverson fan. Never have been. He's a me-Me-ME first player with a terrible attitude.

I think it's overzealous to say he's a "horrible" player, though. Dude willed the Sixers into the 2001 Finals and was a Rookie of the year and an MVP. He was a me-first shooter, but his career FG% isn't much worse than Isiah's (40.1% to 45.2%).

I would agree that Zeke made his teams better, but AI is no Ostertag.

Anonymous jay_uno said...

bitter pistons fan here, i never liked AI, i also always dispised that "practise" interview..
but i really thought that AI´s scoring and the pistons remaining core could win a title...

then, when the pistons faced billups for the first time, i saw the denver nuggets bring "no-neck" anthony carter from the bench, only to let him post up against iverson.

teams were gameplaning against this guy and people make him a legend and future HoFer.
the really good one-way players (on winning teams) are defensive-minded. thats were the fishy ostertag refernce somehow originated, but i agree that comparison was off.. let´s try nate robinson. or vince carter

no-neck scored, by the way

Blogger ChrisH said...
"but his career FG% isn't much worse than Isiah's (40.1% to 45.2%)."

that's a pretty significant difference.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Let's not forget Isiah's NBA finish; broke his hand punching Bill Laimbeer from behind during Piston practice. Ouchh.

Blogger The Sports Hayes said...
This is my opinion not a fact.

What bugged me about Isiah's quote is the last part. If you go back to 1987 there were still specs of racism in the media so you can definitely see where he was coming from. A lot's changed in the last 24 years which is why a comment like Isiah's looks preposterous right now, but go back in time and it made a lot of sense.

What bugged me was referring to Larry as "just another player." I can name 45 guys off the top of my head both black and white that could never make the plays Bird did in his prime. I don't see Rick Mahorn scoring 60 points in a game, I don't see Vince Carter breaking a bone in his face and coming back to play, I don't see Brad Lohaus getting in martial arts expert Kareem Abdul Jabbar's face (ok bad example). The point is Larry was NOT just another player, he was every bit of good compared to anyone who played.

That's not even why I can't stand Isiah. The reason I can't stand is he ruined the CBA. Its nice they have the D-League now, but some of those CBA games were very fun to watch.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I've always despised Isiah. He was always the biggest whiner in basketball, and Bill Laimbeer was the biggest thug. So his past sins caught up with him, and Parrish gave him back some of his own medicine. Whine, whine, whine, Isiah.