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Ball Don't Lie

Lockout videos: Isiah Thomas and the 1988 Finals

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Since basic cable has given way to myriad channels up to and including NBA TV, we've lost some of the splendor that comes with the odd showing of something seemingly ancient on basic cable.

YouTube helps, though. And in the case of a forgotten legend like Isiah Thomas, whose playoff (if not career and/or statistical) accomplishments have been rightfully overshadowed by his pathetic turn as a broadcaster, league owner, coach, and team executive, YouTube is necessary.

It helps you remember instances like this: When CBS was in charge. More specifically, it's the time he badly sprained his ankle and still managed to drop 25 points in a quarter in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the defending (and eventual) champion Los Angeles Lakers:

Detroit lost that game. They shouldn't have, mainly because their best player badly sprained his ankle (though he didn't exactly score all 25 on one ankle). They shouldn't have lost the Game 7 of this series, either, mainly because their leader sprained his ankle. Detroit was the better team.

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To those of us whose recollections of NBA messes gone by were relegated to our own 1980s memories, the odd Sports Illustrated cover, and absolutely nothing else?

There was a show on ESPN in the mid 1990s, hosted by a slumming (yet enjoying it) Dan Patrick (that heralded Mason Comet), that managed to break down classic NBA playoff contests in 22 minutes or less. Usually sponsored by a famous terrible-taco chain. For those that dared think outside the bun, a between-gigs Isiah Thomas, talking about his team's "failures" in the 1988 Finals, was suitable for bronzing. Even without Zeke's tears, it was a hoop junkie's dream. I wish I could link to the clips.

The Pistons' captain attempted to explain, decked out in a ridiculous burgundy'ish blazer, why he could not attempt to articulate just how much that 1988 run to runner-up status meant to him. Thomas had, maybe, two minutes to explain to Patrick why he was so emotional over a Finals loss that happened just a half-decade before (as if, in 1994, 1988 was ancient history), and he just could not.

"You wouldn't understand," he kept telling Patrick. Not in a dismissive way. Not in some jock-ish way that precludes anyone from dropping 40 in an NBA game from ever "getting it."

Perhaps there was some of that. But less in Isiah at that point than I've seen in just about any other athlete who wants to tell me what's what.

No, it was in the same way that none of us will ever understand another person's greatest regret in life. Their longest fall. Their toughest defeat. The quip that could have worked. The line that may have sealed it. For love, for money, for happiness. The thing that meant the most, even if it meant the worst. I wish Isiah's interview with Patrick were online. It's in my garage somewhere, on a VHS tape, but you'll have to pardon me for not digging through the crates to find it. It's not like I've had an entire summer off to find it.

"You wouldn't understand," he told Patrick. After that he mentioned a few of his teammates. His "defeated" teammates, even though most observers knew that the 1987-88 Detroit Pistons were superior to the 1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers. Even though those teammates, outside of mainstay Adrian Dantley, were with Thomas as the Pistons went on to match the Lakers and win two consecutive championships in 1989 and 1990.

"You wouldn't understand," Thomas kept saying.

Also, there's one line beyond that, that I remember.

"To see Dennis, the way he was ..."

This interview with Patrick wasn't filmed with Dennis Rodman in Chicago, sporting the wedding dress. This wasn't Dennis, in Los Angeles, begging his way onto a team that could have used him but really should have had nothing to do with him. This wasn't Dennis, on basic cable, last year.

No, this was Dennis in San Antonio. Feuding with respected basketball minds, "dating" Madonna (a lot of "dates" down in San Antonio Mrs. Ciccone? A nice night out, wondering how far things should go beyond a peck in the back of a taxi?), throwing it all away. Figuring it all out, as we often do, while we mess it all up.

This was before "Dennis," the thing you'd gawk at, with an absence of tact. But it was during the idea of "Dennis," the guy that had a lot to figure out. Even if he was spending nights in a hotel room with, quite literally, the most famous woman in the Western world. In 1994, at least.

And it wasn't a comment, from Isiah. Nothing was planned. Nothing was set, to secure the legacy.

It was just a guy that missed the thing that happened 100 nights a year. The part of your night where some big guy would try to tap a basketball back to you at the start of a game, so that you could orchestrate a team as you saw fit.

At some point, I'll find that video. ESPN might sue the pants off of me, but I'll discover a way to post my second YouTube video beyond this one.

Until then? Watch these videos. Because Isiah Thomas, before he was a joke, was no joke. Who cares about a legacy, when your game speaks volumes?

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