In 1991, USA Basketball put together a collection of NBA professionals to represent America in the 1992 Olympics. The organization denied a spot to Isiah Thomas, despite the fact that he had been the lead guard on two of the three previous NBA championship squads. John Stockton, the reigning assists per game leader (at a ridiculous 14.2 per game), was chosen ahead of Thomas, as rumors about Isiah’s dodgy relationship with some of the other players on the USA Men’s Basketball team swirled.
Two weeks into the 1991-92 NBA season, when Thomas’ Detroit Pistons matched up against Stockton’s Utah Jazz, Isiah Thomas hung 44 points on John Stockton.
A month later, Stockton’s teammate Karl Malone did this to Isiah Thomas:
Thomas ended up missing two games with the injury, both Pistons wins, although he did return to play token second half minutes after taking the shot.
In the lead up to a reunion event in Detroit set to take place on March 28, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Pistons’ first championship, Detroit News columnist Terry Foster caught up with Isiah to draw a little blood on his recollections on the incident:
“I think it was the dirtiest play I have experienced in the game of basketball in my life,” Thomas said of the play, which happened on a Pistons pick-and-roll with Malone rotating to cover the middle. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything as vicious and as intentional to a player. I still don’t understand it.”
“My head; it was just ugly,” Thomas said. “When I got home my wife started crying. There was so much swelling on my head.”
“It was horrific,” Thomas said. “That was the cheapest (bleep) in my mind in the history of the game.”
We’ve seen cheaper, in many ways Malone was partially making a basketball play, but there’s no denying that Malone went into the tinier Thomas with an intent to maim, and he was successful in that regard. One can purposely follow through on a hard foul, ostensibly in support of a teammate (who was no slouch in either the scoring and hard-fouling areas, it should be noted) while executing safely. Malone was just reckless in ways that would have been shameful even if Thomas was the Mailman’s size and weight.
Thomas clearly isn’t that size, which lends all the more credibility to his storied NBA career when you factor in that he was by far the smallest team MVP to lead an NBA team to a title. That’s not a shot at Thomas’ fabled Bad Boy teammates, but several other franchise-level NBA title winners had Hall of Fame big men or swingmen at their side.
Isiah had his fair share of haymaker-makers down low, as Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, and Rick Mahorn (who had moved on from the Pistons at the time of Malone’s move) certainly got their fair share of digs in, and Isiah Thomas certainly wasn’t above throwing a punch or two, or needling with elbows while setting cross screens.
Still, some 22 years on, that certainly is some cheap [stuff], and well worth revisiting. If only to note that it is possible to send a message with a hard foul without rearranging another player’s face, something Malone and the NBA have hopefully learned since then.
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