08/10/2010 05:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Isiah Thomas Memory: Big Heat in the Racial Kitchen

With Isiah Thomas back in the front office of the Knicks, people around New York and the National Basketball Association are launching attacks on his character and botched business dealings to illustrate the depth of dysfunction at Madison Square Garden.

Much of what they say is true. Since retiring as captain of the Detroit Pistons, Thomas has failed upward from job to job. His sly smile seems sinister when it once was charming. His track record is not good. That makes him perfect for James Dolan and the Garden.

But it might be appropriate now to recall one of the most bitter and sensitive moments of Thomas' career, when Thomas made a difficult choice even when it hurt him. I was there when it happened, and it is one of the most vivid memories of my sports reporting.

In the spring of 1987, the Pistons and Boston Celtics played one of the angriest playoff rounds ever, the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics won Game 7 in Boston Garden, 117-114, and the Pistons came off as sore losers. This was their "Bad Boys" era when they were getting good, about to win two consecutive titles.

Minutes after the game, I stood in the Celtics' locker room in the back of a semi-circle of reporters listening to Boston's Larry Bird. I heard Bird say he did not have to apologize for being white. This is not the usual conversation heard after a major victory, so I asked a guy nearby what prompted Bird's words.

"Dennis Rodman said Bird was overrated because he is white,'' the man said.

I walked quickly down the corridor to the Pistons' locker room to find out if this was so. I saw Rodman, dressed in street clothes, moving briskly out the door to exit the building. This was before Rodman's flamboyant era of dyed hair and tatoos. Back then, he was still an awkward, unsophisticated guy trying to find his true personality.

But as Rodman left, Thomas drew to him the growing gang of journalists. He was a veteran captain and he had heard about what Rodman had said. Many black players of that time, perhaps unfairly, also felt that the news media exaggerated Bird's skills due to race.

Thomas realized that Rodman had unleashed a nasty debate that would last more than a day and would bring to a boil the racial animosity that always bubbles beneath the American social surface. And Thomas knew Rodman could not handle it.

So Thomas became the focus of the story. Thomas offered his support of Rodman immediately and said Rodman's feelings were justified. The debate raged for days and it became almost entirely a Thomas story, not a Rodman story.

Although Thomas survived the word storm that followed, the affair tarnished his reputation, perhaps the first major taint to his image. Rodman avoided most of the fallout and evolved into the talented, clownish, troubled celebrity he became in the 1990s.

The long lens of history reminds us that Bird was, indeed, one of the greatest basketball players ever. Thomas, at least in that instance, showed he was willing to take the heat for a teammate, even in a lose-lose situation. Perhaps I am damning him with faint praise in recalling this episode, but I thought, in this instance, he did the right thing, even when what he said was wrong.