Isiah Thomas says he got ‘hit and punished’ more than Michael Jordan, or anyone else for that matter


Isiah Thomas and the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons were featured prominently during episodes 3 and 4 of “The Last Dance”, ESPN’s 10-part documentary chronicling Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. As we know, the Bulls and Pistons were heated rivals, and by extension, so, too, were Jordan and Thomas — who is widely believed to have been kept off the 1992 Dream Team at Jordan’s command. 

One of the things the Pistons were famous for were their so-called “Jordan Rules,” which governed their defensive approach to stopping, or at least marginally disrupting, Jordan, who was already becoming a virtually indefensible player by the late 1980s. In the documentary, the Jordan Rules, which were actually pretty simple, were explained by former Pistons assistant coach Brendan Malone. 

If Jordan was at the top of the key, they pushed him left. If he was on the wing, they pushed him to the middle, where a gang of help was waiting, rather than letting him go baseline. If he got the ball in the post, they doubled from the top. Then Malone was asked: What happens when Jordan does make it to the basket?

“That’s when Laimbeer and [Rick] Mahorn would go up and knock him down to the ground,” Malone said. 

Ultimately, that was the real spirit of the Jordan Rules. You can have some basic defensive strategies in place, but at the end of the day, beat the living you-know-what out of Jordan was the goal. 

“As soon as he steps in the paint, hit him,” John Salley said. ” … The referees back then didn’t look to see if Michael was hurt or not. It wasn’t, make sure that the savior is OK. That wasn’t the way it is.”

“Chuck Daly said, ‘this is the Jordan Rules. Every time he comes to the basket, put him on the ground.'” Rodman, who of course played for the Pistons at that time, recalled: “We tried to physically hurt Michael. … I compare Michael Jordan to nobody. Because for him to survive that [kind of punishment] and still maintain that greatness, it’s unparalleled.”

Which brings us to Monday, when Thomas appeared on ESPN’s “Get Up” to speak on a range of topics in the aftermath of episodes 3 and 4. One of those topics was the physical abuse that Jordan took, not just from the Pistons but from every team in that era. Thomas wanted to make it clear: M.J. doesn’t deserve any sort of special sympathy. 

“This generation thinks that the only one getting hit back then was Jordan,” Thomas said. “I can say on this television station here today, there is no player during that period of time that got hit and punished more than myself. And I have all the scars to prove it.”

There’s no doubt Thomas, who was listed at 6-foot-1 but was probably lucky to be six feet, was one of the toughest players the NBA has ever seen. That little dude didn’t back down from anyone. He was Allen Iverson before Allen Iverson, and like Jordan, Thomas was the best player on his team and was thus the same kind of target. Add in the fact that Detroit was such a hated team for the punishment they doled out, and Thomas was no doubt absorbing some particularly spirited revenge shots. 

Indeed, it wasn’t just Jordan. 

There are a lot of misconceptions about ’80s and early ’90s basketball, in fact, and the first one is that this “physical play” was rampant, as if guys were getting knocked to the ground every single possession. It happened, of course, and the general level of physicality was greater than it is today, but it was most the grabbing and hand-checking and the little elbows you caught when you were running through the lane. 

It wasn’t a WWE match, as it is often depicted. Go back and watch those games and count the number of times penetrators are actually clocked. It’s not often. Most of the time, they going up through the same kind of contact guys go up through now. The difference is that contact wasn’t whistled as strictly as it is today, but it’s similar contact for the most part. 

Anyway, that’s another story. in getting back to Thomas’ claim that he took more punishment that anyone else, including Jordan, who’s to say if that’s true. But he certainly took his share. It’s just more romantic to talk about the greatest player ever getting hit over and over and getting back up to win six championships. 



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