Thomas Got Screwed

WHO KNOWS what Michael Jordan was doing when he received word that he would play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team in Barcelona next year? Maybe he was sitting at the end of his huge dining room table, wearing a tuxedo, when a butler entered and handed him an invitation on a silver plate. Or maybe he was watching TV in his underwear when the phone rang.

No matter the situation, the fact is that that same day was just another ordinary day in the suburban Detroit home of Isiah Thomas. No engraved invitation came. The next day, he probably read about America's Olympic selections in the newspaper: Jordan, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird. No Isiah Thomas.

And then he got angry. Angry at his coach on the Detroit Pistons, Chuck Daly, who had passed him up for the national squad. Angry at Jordan, whose personal antagonism with Thomas has been blamed for Isiah's exclusion. And angry at the arbitrary, unmeritocratic process by which Thomas had been left out.

Thomas's teammate, Bill Laimbeer, got even angrier. He filed a grievance on behalf of the multitude of players who had been left off the team without the benefit of a tryout.

MOST PEOPLE who don't live in Detroit--myself (a Knicks fan) included--hate Thomas and Laimbeer. We all got a good chuckle out of Utah Jazz President Frank Layden's comments Monday.


"I'd say to [Thomas], 'Nobody likes you, and we don't want you on our team,"' Layden said.

"Laimbeer couldn't make the Czechoslovakian Olympic team," he added. "In nine million years he couldn't make our Olympic team."

As much as I enjoyed reading Layden's comments, I think that this is one time when we have to swallow that bitter pill known as hatred and support the bad guys, even though it's about as enjoyable as kissing a lizard.

Laimbeer, the physical, nay, Neanderthalish Pistons power forward, has a point: the foundation, the cornerstone, the Magna Carta of sports is The Tryout. At a pro baseball game, players have tried out and made the team. The umps have gone through a rigorous process of schooling and elimination. Who knows? Maybe the best grass-snippers were selected to comprise the groundskeeping crews.

Why should we suddenly abandon this system when dealing with established, high-paid, high-profile professional athletes? Would Jordan consider it demeaning to compete for a spot on any basketball squad? If so, should we value his feelings more than an age-old and democratic practice? Presumably, he'd have nothing to worry about.

Don't get me wrong; not every NBA player should be allowed to compete for a spot on the team. Imagine hundreds of these guys migrating to some mammoth gym in the Midwest. Clusters of Kurt Rambises and Greg Kites would stand on the gym floor, vowing to bang and bruise the bigshots for the next few days.

No one wants to see Jordan compete with Rambis in layup lines--and no one wants to see Jordan get nailed by a Rambis elbow. So some sort of pre-selection should take place. NBA games do tell us that Greg Butler ain't too good.

But they don't tell us that Thomas has no right to be on the Olympic squad. An upper echelon of at least 50 top-notch NBA stars should at least be invited to try out.

ONCE THE TRYOUTS BEGIN, the coaches should let the players get down and get dirty. Instead of coddling the big names, they should poke, prod, exhaust, and, in short, test these players to the utmost.

Disregarding for a moment the obvious democratic principles that argue against Daly's system, Americans should be incensed at this "selection" process simply because it will hurt our team's chances of winning next year in Spain.

First, it seems that the most well-known, not necessarily the most talented, hoopsters have been selected. Admittedly, the team is awesome, and probably a near-lock for the gold in '92. But is aging, perennially injured Larry Bird worth an automatic bid, as opposed to Dominique Wilkins and Mitch Richmond? Instead of a well-constructed squad, we are sending to Barcelona the Olympic equivalent of an All-Star team. Other players, perhaps unsung but nonetheless solid, would possibly have fit in better with the workings of the team. Can you really see 10 or 12 of the biggest egos in basketball not turning the Olympics into a one-on-five slam dunk contest?

Again, the most painful aspect in writing this is having to agree with Bill Laimbeer, but if we actually want to beat the Russians in basketball at next year's Games (something we haven't done in 20 years), we'd better start listening to him rather than Layden. Even though the latter is far funnier (and slightly funnier-looking) than the former.

If Phillip M. Rubin '93 were coaching the Olympic team, he'd make sure there was room for Mark Jackson, Kiki Vanderwege and Brian Quinnett somewhere on the roster.

Isiah Thomas, that is. The selection process for the U.S. Olympic basketball team was a sham.

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