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COMMENTARY : Make Room for Isiah Thomas

WASHINGTON POST

The past few days I have been waiting for USA Basketball to correct its dodo-brained, pig-headed mistake of leaving Isiah Thomas off the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

The team is being billed as the Greatest Of All Time. It’s a historic team hand-picked for a historic moment: the first Olympics that allows all the best players in the world -- including, finally, NBA players -- to compete.

So let’s get this straight from the jump: There are only three players from the NBA who are more deserving than Isiah Thomas for this historic event.

Bird. Magic. Jordan.

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Bird and Magic, because they saved the league -- not to mention the fact that one is the greatest forward, and the other the greatest guard in history.

Jordan, because he’s the greatest player. Ever.

The next spot is Isiah’s.

Everyone else has to move over. Everyone else has to wait in line.

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Ewing. Barkley. Malone. Mullin.

Everyone.

On the highest levels you measure players by the championships they’ve won. That’s why it was so critically important for Jordan to win one with the Bulls. Jordan, Magic and Bird have won championships. (So has Scottie Pippen. But his ring is largely courtesy of Air Jordan Jewelers.) Who else on this team has won anything? Patrick Ewing has been in the league for six years and he hasn’t even gotten to the conference finals.

Isiah has two rings.

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Make no mistake, those are his rings. The Pistons were his team. Joe Dumars may have been the MVP of the 1989 finals sweep of L.A., but Isiah was Detroit’s leader in playoff scoring and assists through both of their championship runs.

And if we’re talking about playing well on great teams, Isiah has been the MVP of the NBA All-Star Game two times. Or, once more than Bird, Magic, Jordan, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. And twice more than everyone else.

So what is the reasoning behind keeping Isiah off the team?

Either they think he’s not good enough. Or they don’t like him. Or both.

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Since Isiah’s natural position is point guard, you have to compare him to the point guards who made the Olympic team, Magic and John Stockton. Magic is unassailable, so the focus is on Stockton, the NBA assist leader for the past four seasons. Stockton is a nice player, who had better statistics than Isiah last year. But don’t tell me he’s a better player than Isiah, because even if that were true right now, this team isn’t about right now. This is a team for history. Stockton is a heckuva passer. Isiah belongs to history.

If you make the case that the selection committee took the best right now players -- and you’ll get no vigorous argument from me on nine of the 10 -- what do you say about Bird? The U.S. Olympic team doesn’t need a 34-year-old forward (35 in Barcelona) with a bad back to win the gold medal. The U.S. Olympic team is going to win every game by at least 25 points with or without Bird. You can dump five members of this team, and replace them with Clyde Drexler, James Worthy, Reggie Miller, Kevin Johnson and Dennis Rodman, and still win every game by 25. Larry Bird is on the team because the league and the whole sport owes him. And though the league and the sport don’t owe Isiah nearly as much, they owe him enough to make room for him on this team.

I am amused by people who grudgingly acknowledge Isiah’s talent, but insist that Isiah’s self-absorbed personality has somehow justified his exclusion in a form of poetry. I don’t care if Isiah Thomas was Saddam Hussein, he still should be on this team. Granted, Isiah is one of those narcissists who think everyone else ought to eagerly lay down their coats on mud puddles so his shoes don’t get wet. But who says you have to love somebody to play with him? The greatest team I ever saw, the 1970 Knicks, weren’t exactly The Cowsills. Their idea of a team bus was 10 separate cabs.

It’s disheartening to hear the whispers that Michael Jordan exercised veto power over Isiah, allegedly saying he wouldn’t play if Isiah did. Jordan and members of the committee strenuously deny this, but Jordan’s dislike of Isiah is well known. Clearly, the NBA considers Jordan’s presence at the Olympics an absolute must to advance its worldwide marketing, and until recently Jordan indicated he wasn’t keen to play in Barcelona. Conceivably, Jordan, or someone acting in his interests, could have the power to influence the selection process -- and they could have done it indirectly. Magic Johnson is the only player to express indignation that Isiah isn’t on the team, and he didn’t do it to a national audience on NBC’s hokey show announcing the team, he did it two days after.

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There’s also a suggestion that Chuck Daly could have lobbied harder to get Isiah on the team; the buzz being that Isiah’s own coach didn’t want him. This is unsophisticated deduction. Daly had three players up for consideration -- Isiah, Dumars and Rodman. If he lobbies for one of them, he’s in a no-win situation with the others. Anyway, you shouldn’t have to lobby to get the greatest small player in NBA history on such a historic team.

Isiah’s remaining chances for the Olympics would seem to be slim. He could become the 11th and last NBA player named, or he could be called on if one of the original 10 dropped out. Should Isiah have a great season it would simply look spiteful to leave him off the team. But for now the odds favor adding a shooter, perhaps Reggie Miller, over a third point guard. Maybe Isiah’s dear friend Magic could try and make room by volunteering to take some minutes at forward, a far, far better thing to do for Isiah than the committee did.


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