NBA fans of the '80s and '90s, or modern fans schooled in basketball history, know that the relationship between Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas got off to a rocky start at the 1985 All-Star game. Thomas, the established star of the Detroit "Prepare to Have Everyone on Your Team, Including Your Middle-School-Aged Equipment Manager Sent to the ER" Pistons, gave the very cold shoulder in the infamous "Freezeout" to Jordan, the Bulls' rookie phenom.
After the game, the two might have drifted apart into a bitter, icy relationship if Jordan hadn't taken the first step toward reconciliation. True fans of history will recall that Jordan met with Thomas after the game, and over coffee, the two shared their feelings, shed some tears, and "hugged it out" in an embrace of mutual respect and deeper understanding.
Isn't that how the story goes?
Yeah, right! This was the '80s. Back when men were men, and basketball players were allowed to hate each others' guts. Men weren't pressured to talk about "feelings" and be "emotionally available", like the pathetic weaklings in this pandering commercial from Kleenex. (If someone approached me in the street with a couch and a box of tissues, I hope I'd at least have the decency to pull his underwear over his head and throw his wallet in the sewer drain.)
Jordan and Thomas' relationship only got worse after the "Freezeout," and developed into a bitter rivalry. That relationship is the focus of the first season of "Sports Wars", a podcast detailing sports rivalries from the modern era and years past.
(I have no affiliation with Wondery, the company behind the podcast Sports Wars, or the show itself. I only wanted to mention it here because I think NBA fans would enjoy it. Of course, there are some members of the community producing their own great podcasts right here on Scorum.)
I've heard some good podcasts from Wondery before, and was inclined to give it a try when I heard MJ and Isaiah Thomas' rivalry was one of the subjects.
I may not follow the NBA closely any more, but growing up, I was like most other young American wannabe-ballers in that I idolized Air Jordan. By the time I was old enough to even really watch and comprehend the games, the Pistons/Bulls rivalry was past its prime, and my memories of Chicago's appearances in the NBA finals are more in the era of Karl "The Mailman" Malone and the Utah Jazz. (Remember John Stockton, the guy who looked like a tall tax accountant in short shorts, but was always able to break anyone's ankles and had an absolutely uncanny ability to find the open man on the court?)
Though I was a little late to the party, the Pistons' lasting reputation left an impression on me. I can still remember shuddering when seeing the team on TV. Hearing how physical and "dirty" they played, I imagined the worst.
When an opposing player drove in for a layup, I feared for their lives, afraid a Piston defender might whip a switchblade out of his sock, stab him in the neck, and then act indignant when the ref blew the whistle: "You call that a foul?!"
But the podcast doesn't focus solely on the Piston's prone-to-violence play style. It starts with the aforementioned "Freezeout", and follows both Thomas and Jordan as each star grows the group of players around them into championship contenders.
There's a lot to flesh out the story that "Sports Wars" touches on: Thomas feeling betrayed by his hometown of Chicago casting all affection for him aside for Jordan; MJ's unquenchable thirst for competition driving him to greatness, even at costs in his personal life; Phil Jackson taking over the helm of the Bulls and winning over Jordan, and so on.
For someone who caught Jordan in the later phase of his career (I was unable to watch the '85 All-Star game, seeing how I was negative four at the time), there's a lot to appreciate and learn here. I remember Dennis Rodman as a dude wearing a wedding dress, going to North Korea, and playing with funky-colored hair in a Bulls uniform. It's easy to forget that he was a fixture on the Pistons before "hopping across the pond" (in this case the pond being Lake Michigan).
There's also descriptions of Jordan's frustration with his team in his early years in the league. Stories like him pegging a teammate in the face because he had trouble catching the ball take a bit of the sheen off the widely-beloved star of Space Jam! (Bugs Bunny would not approve - take that crap to Moron Mountain, Michael!)
But that's part of the appeal of this season of "Sports Wars": it touches on the surrounding factors of the rivalry between Thomas and Jordan, but the two remain the focal point. By drawing on their desire to win and to best each other, the context for both teams' rise to glory is laid out in a way that makes sense and is easy to listen to.
The season wraps up nicely as well, following both men past their careers as players.
I'd like to think one day a lot of Scorum members will be able to write for the site full-time, but until then, podcasts are an especially effective pain reliever for the frustrations and doldrums of a day job (especially a job that translates into a lot of "long days"). For any NBA fan, or anyone interested in sports history and rivalries, I'd recommend "Sports Wars".