Pistons great Isiah Thomas commiserates with UM punter

Terry Foster
The Detroit News

Former Pistons great Isiah Thomas watched from his couch as the most devastating play in University of Michigan football history unfolded before him.

Pistons' Isiah Thomas, here battling with the Celtics' Danny Ainge in Game 5 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals, understands what Michigan punter Blake O'Neill is going through.

Wolverine punter Blake O'Neill dropped the snap, which turned a 99.8 percent Michigan victory into a stunning 27-23 loss to rival Michigan State on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

That brought back memories of Thomas' world famous pass that was stolen by Larry Bird in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. Thomas ached after that play and knew what O'Neill was going through. That is why he wanted to reach out to O'Neill Wednesday by phone simply to say all will be fine in time.

Niyo: No worries, mate, Michigan punter is doing fine

O'Neill's play will probably be the play of the year and be remembered here for years to come. It was the same for Thomas. Many have not forgotten his mishap.

The Pistons were up 107-106 in Game 5 at the Boston Garden and were five seconds from going up 3-2 in the series.

Thomas hurriedly hurled a pass toward teammate Bill Laimbeer under the basket. Bird swooped in and fed Dennis Johnson whose reverse layup gave the Celtics a 108-107 victory.

Coach Chuck Daly was calling a timeout from the bench, but Thomas did not see him. It is believed the Pistons would have gone to their first NBA Finals if not for the mistake.

Thomas felt the same pain and ridicule as O'Neill and wanted to pass along his story and console him.

"I always go back to my situation when I made the huge error against the Celtics and how terrible I felt," said Thomas, who is president of the WNBA's New York Liberty. "I felt like I let the team down, the city down and everyone down."

The next day Thomas received a call he did not expect. Celtics legend Bill Russell told him to keep pushing and do his best to put the play behind him. Before Game 6 at the Pontiac Silverdome, Celtics M.L Carr and Kevin McHale wanted to know if Thomas was OK.

Bird said nothing. He just winked at Thomas.

The Pistons lost the series in seven games.

It was a history-making blunder and that is why Thomas wanted to reach out to O'Neill to tell his story. He believes athletes should bond in situations like this and help others.

"I got the call from Bill Russell, who is Mr. Celtic," Thomas said. "He was saying you got to get back up. You got to keep pushing. And I wanted to give (O'Neill) that same talk and inspiration that Russell gave to me and let me know it was going to be all right."

Thomas believes the understanding of teammates, coaches and fans helps heal the pain sooner.

"Just understand your teammates love you, your coaches love you and the fans still love you," Thomas said. "But the biggest thing is you just feel so loathed. You feel like you let everybody down, but when you walk back on that stadium the 100,000 plus fans are clapping and cheering for him.

"That takes all the pain away and gives him acceptance again. That is all you are really looking for, just to be forgiven for that mistake."

Thomas did not receive death threats or many ill-wishes. He made his blunder before Facebook and Twitter, and that helped.

"But there was Twitter and Facebook in the locker room," Thomas said. "It wasn't like teammates are walking over to me, saying that it is all right. Out of all of the people how could you make that mistake?

"I was supposed to be the clutch guy and always was the clutch guy and had just made a clutch shot to put us up. When I made that mistake it was like total shock to everyone, including myself."

Thomas and the Pistons rebounded to advance to three straight NBA Finals and won championships in 1989 and 1990.

"Had I not won back to back championships, no, I would not be over it," Thomas said. "Because I won I am over it and I can help somebody else get over it."