Isiah Thomas loved to play road games, and the ones he could have been part of in 1980 might have been unlike any other in his career.
The Olympics. Inside the Soviet Union. During the Cold War.
Much still gets made of how Thomas was famously left off the U.S. Olympic team — the first Dream Team — that won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with ease. But he could have been an Olympian 12 years earlier, had the Americans not boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.
Thomas, then a 19-year-old, would have been on that team. When the decision was made to boycott, he remembers crying.
“You know how competitive I am and how I want to win in somebody else’s building, on somebody else’s turf and territory,” Thomas said. “Hey, that’s right up my alley. From a competitive standpoint, I was ready to go in 1980. I was definitely ready, and we all wanted to go and win and compete.”
So, Thomas missed his chance at Olympic gold.
History repeated itself, sort of, for Thomas in 1992. It was no secret that Thomas and Michael Jordan weren’t exactly the best of friends — Thomas was part of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, the team that battled Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for years. And it been largely believed for the better part of three decades that Jordan, at least on some level, played a role in keeping Thomas off the 1992 team.
“The Dream Team, based on the environment and the camaraderie that happened on that team, it was the best harmony,” Jordan said in the ESPN-Netflix series “The Last Dance” that aired earlier this year. “Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes.”
Thomas was amused that so much was made of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Jordan during the documentary series. He played for the U.S. team that won gold at the 1979 Pan Am Games and felt he should have had some backing by decision-makers, whether that meant what was then called the U.S. Olympic Committee or USA Basketball in 1992.
“I thought I had built up enough goodwill with the USOC and USA Basketball and what I had done in the Pan Am Games,” Thomas said. “And, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Larry Brown was one of the assistant coaches on the 1980 Olympic team that never made it to Moscow; it wound up making a six-city tour of the U.S. against an NBA All-Star team and the 1976 U.S. Olympic squad, going 5-1 in those games.
Thomas would have been the second-youngest player on that team, just a couple months older than Rodney McCray. But Brown didn’t need any convincing that Thomas, then a guard for Bob Knight at Indiana, belonged.
“He was phenomenal,” Brown said. “He wasn’t just good. He was phenomenal. You never know what would have happened at those Olympics, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Isiah was going to be a star.”
Olympic gold is all that could be argued is missing from Thomas’ collection. He won an NCAA title at Indiana, two NBA titles with the Pistons, was the NBA Finals MVP in 1990 and went into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.
These days, he’s a television analyst and his business portfolio is booming — highlighted by Cheurlin Champagne, which has partnerships with the Pistons, the Phoenix Suns and the National Basketball Players Association. He’s also invested in cannabis oil and CBD companies.
As someone who grew up impoverished on the west side of Chicago, he’s not complaining about missed Olympic chances.
“I’m not one that holds on to stuff,” Thomas said. “People are like, ‘Why do you smile all the time?’ Well … I’m happy. I mean, coming from where I came from, wouldn’t you be happy too?”