Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas ‘Last Dance’ Beef Proves It’s Okay To Be a Bad Sport

Here's what our kids can learn from it.

Originally Published: 
A collage of Michael Jordan's and Isiah Thomas' photos

The Last Dance has brought an old NBA beef back with a vengeance. But, does it matter? Is it okay for MJ and Isiah to be bad sports about this?

Even among the classic NBA beefs — Bird vs. Magic, Russell vs. Wilt, Ron Artest vs. the dude who chucked a soda at him — the rivalry between Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan in the early ’90s was particularly heated. Thomas’s “Bad Boys” Pistons beat the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals in ’88, ’89, and ’90, winning NBA titles the last two times, a dynasty in the making.

The teams met in the same series the following year, but this time the Bulls were victorious. They swept the Pistons in four straight games, ending the Pistons’ hopes for a three-peat while starting their own. But it’s how the last game ended that’s truly memorable.

With 7.9 seconds remaining in their season, the Pistons did something dramatic. Led by Bill Laimbeer, who calls the Bulls “whiners” to this day, they walked off the court, refusing to shake hands or congratulate their bitter rivals. The Bulls went on to win the NBA Finals, their first of six in eight years, a historic run that overshadowed the Pistons’ lesser dominance.

Without live games (and beefs) to talk about, the sports world is obsessing over this 30-year old incident yet again after it was chronicled on an episode of The Last Dance that aired last Saturday.

Isiah Thomas talked to ESPN’s Get Up about how he regrets his participation in the walk-out, for which he paid “a heavy price.”

“Looking back over it in terms of how we felt at that particular time, our emotional state and how we exited the floor — we actually gave the world the opportunity to look at us in a way that we never really tried to position ourselves in or project ourselves in that way.”

The Jordan-sanctioned documentary somewhat conveniently omits what he said the day between games 3 and 4 in Detroit: “The Pistons are undeserving champions. The Bad Boys are bad for basketball.” Those are disrespectful words that create a clearer picture of why the Pistons did what they did and why this conflict will never be resolved.

Jordan says it himself in a modern-day interview: “There’s no way you can convince he wasn’t an asshole.”

So this argument, while fun, is also a waste of time if the goal is to come to a conclusion or change minds. It’s the perfect never-ending controversy for sports media desperate for argument, but it’s not productive for the rest of us, especially parents.

If it were, we’d be talking about what this rivalry actually reveals: The expectations of professional athletes to be world-class competitors and world-class role models are at best in tension and at worst unfair.

Think about it. The pressure on Thomas and Jordan from their fans, coaches, teammates, families, and selves was to be successful, to win. And to be one of the tiny fraction of basketball players to make it to the NBA, much less to the Hall of Fame superstar level both achieved, is impossible without a level of competitiveness that’s unhealthy in pretty much every other context.

And if winning is the paramount focus of your life, is it really surprising that sportsmanship is neglected? Put differently, is the criticism Jordan and Thomas received for their unsportsmanlike actions anywhere near the criticism they’d receive for not “hustling,” for sacrificing everything to win?

You can almost hear the sports talk radio callers, an extreme but not entirely unrepresentative group of fans, complaining about the laziness of “guys paid millions to play a game,” unfair criticisms with, let’s face it, unfortunate racial connotations. You can hardly blame Thomas, Jordan, or any other professional athlete for losing their cool under such stressful conditions.

So while you might be disappointed if your kid doesn’t shake hands after losing a soccer game, feeling a similar sense of disappointment or anger when its grown-ass men whose professional success (and ability to support their families) in their chosen field depends on developing a hypercompetitive personality is crazy.

It simply isn’t fair to celebrate players like Thomas and Jordan for playing with passion one minute while scolding them for speaking with it the next. And any parent worth their salt will look inward to explain why their kid acts like a bad sport, not to professional athletes who simply shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of their young acolytes, though they often are.

In this light, The Last Dance isn’t a bad thing for kids to watch. You shouldn’t see it as a potentially corrupting influence but rather an opportunity to teach a lesson about empathy, a value that is more meaningful than sportsmanship in the long run.

The Last Dance is streaming its new episodes on ESPN.

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