Bridge burning starring Isiah Thomas

At 6’1”, Isiah Thomas is generally considered to be one of the top two or three “undersized” players in the history of the NBA. He also happens to be at the center of the most famous bridge burning incident in professional basketball history. Although he is generally acknowledged to be a horrible coach and bad GM, his accomplishments as a player by few people who have ever played the game.



Check out his NBA.com biography if you don’t believe me.In addition to his professional accomplishments, Thomas was the leader of the Indiana University team that won the 1981 NCAA tournament. He went on to earn almost every significant achievement a basketball player can earn, but one in particular eluded him: an Olympic gold medal.Thomas was to be a key figure on the 1980 U.S. Olympic basketball team. The U.S. boycott of the Moscow-hosted games, in protest to the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, kept Thomas and many other athletes from pursuing their Olympic dreams. For most of his professional career, Olympic basketball was reserved for players with amateur status and he was therefore not eligible to play.

For the 1992 Barcelona games, however, basketball’s international governing body altered the rules to allow professionals to participate. As a highly decorated player who had missed his previous chance for reasons beyond his control, Thomas was an early favorite to be named to what came to be known as the U.S. “Dream Team”. Despite his overwhelming body of work, he was not. Why?

To answer that, you have to go back to the 1985 NBA All-Star Game. Allegedly, Thomas convinced his teammates on the Eastern Conference All-Stars to pass the ball as little as possible to the lone rookie to make the team that year. The attempt was sort of a hazing ritual, but it was not forgotten by the player who was targeted: Michael Jordan. This began a longstanding embittered relationship between the two players, which continued when Thomas’ Detroit Pistons used rough defensive tactics against Jordan in the four consecutive seasons they met in the play-offs during the late 1980’s and early 90’s. Detroit won the first three of those post-season meetings, capturing two NBA Championships in the process, before the Chicago Bulls finally prevailed in 1991 in route to their first title. During that last encounter, Thomas encouraged teammates to avoid shaking hands with the victorious Bulls in a show of poor sportsmanship that escalated the dispute between the two players even more.

Reportedly, when the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team was being assembled, Jordan told the selection committee that his only condition for participating on the team was that Thomas would not be on the roster. With leverage as the world’s most talented and popular player, Jordan got what he wanted and Thomas was left off the team despite having a more impressive resume than many of the players who were named to the team.

What Thomas failed to see was how his interactions with Jordan might affect his future goals. Upon Jordan’s arrival in the league for the 1984-85 season, Thomas was a veteran who had already been named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game and clearly had more authority. As time went on, any NBA fan can tell you how that power shifted, resulting in Jordan being one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.

Why is this important? This same scenario can happen to anybody in any career. Today’s peer can easily become tomorrow’s executive vice president. Do you want an ally or an enemy to be the person in power?

You never know where that person is going to come from, so the best approach is to leave everyone with as positive impression of you as possible, even if they are a jerk to you. If you return the favor and treat them just as poorly, you potentially set yourself up for career problems later on. Treat others the way that you want to be treated, regardless of how they treat you, so that your options are open at all times.

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4 Responses to “Bridge burning starring Isiah Thomas”

  1. Running Diary: The Engineering Summit, Part 1 | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] not all of them have technical jobs, per se. It wasn’t anything worth hurting feelings and burning bridges over either, though. I also wanted to have some people from a separate research group that we have […]

  2. Being a suck-up | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] Still, this topic goes towards building relationships which helps with that all important performance evaluation (more people to pull positive impressions from) and in finding your next job. Do too much sucking up, though, and you can burn bridges with others. […]

  3. Alienate teammates the Brady Quinn way | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] is the kind of scenario where, if you aren’t careful, you can burn bridges in your long term relationships and that will eventually come back to negatively impact you in some way. Unlike Brady Quinn, our […]

  4. Avoid trouble with the generic personal commitment | Nerd Guru Says:

    […] after thinking about this awhile, I think there is a way out of these situations without having to burn bridges at […]

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