Isiah Thomas was known to be insanely competitive, but sometimes his emotions got the better of him. His diss at Larry Bird in 1987 is a prime example of this, in which he compares Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to the Celtic.
New NBA fans may not be aware of a time when the league’s best players positively hated each other. Well, they didn’t really hate each other, but it was an element of loathing that came from a competitive place.
The greatest athletes and often the most successful people in the business world tend to have this chip on their shoulder. It drives them to newer heights, makes them put in extra work and go the extra mile.
However, overzealousness as a competitor can also lead to a loss of face. One of the basic attributes every sportsperson worth their salt has is they’ve learned to lose gracefully. And doing that is hard in many, many situations!
Isiah Thomas was guilty of one such incident during his peak playing days with the Pistons.
Isiah Thomas overstepped the line when talking about Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and comparisons between black and white athletes
The 2-time NBA champion hadn’t yet been to the Finals by that point, but Isiah was a superstar of the league. His Pistons had just been dumped out unceremoniously from the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.
He gave an interview to Washington Post in which he unloaded a ton of the frustration he probably felt after the loss. In doing so, however, the Pistons legend went a bit too far. He played down Bird’s ability while talking about contrasting media coverage between black and white NBA players:
“If [Bird] was black, he’d be just another good player.”
“When Bird makes a great play, it’s due to his thinking and his work habits. It’s all planned out by him . . . All we do is run and jump. We never practice or give a thought to how we play. It’s like I came dribbling out of my mother’s womb.”
“Magic and Michael Jordan and me, we’re playing on God-given talent, like we’re animals — lions and tigers who run around wild in a jungle, while Larry’s success is due to intelligence and hard work.”
Isiah later apologized to Bird in public as well as in private. But ultimately, being the competitor that he was, Bird understood exactly where his Hall of Fame opponent was coming from. They may not be the best of chums today, but they maintain a mutual respect for each other.