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Celtics

Ex-Celtics staffer disputes Isiah Thomas’s claim in 'Last Dance’ about the 1988 team walking off in playoffs

Ex-Celtics staffer Jon Jennings said coach K.C. Jones ordered his starters off the court in the waning seconds of their 1988 playoff loss in Detroit out of concern for their safe exit from the floor at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Ex-Celtics staffer Jon Jennings said coach K.C. Jones ordered his starters off the court in the waning seconds of their 1988 playoff loss in Detroit out of concern for their safe exit from the floor at the Pontiac Silverdome.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Late in Game 4 of the 1991 NBA Eastern Conference finals, many Pistons left the court without congratulating the Bulls on their four-game sweep that had sent Michael Jordan to the NBA Finals for the first time.

The late-game snub was revisited in Sunday’s installment of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s documentary on the Jordan Bulls. And part of Isiah Thomas’s explanation was that, well, the Celtics did it first. But former Boston staffer Jon Jennings on Monday disputed the recollection of the Pistons All-Star guard.

“What Isiah said simply isn’t true,” Jennings said by phone. “I was sitting right behind [head coach] K.C. Jones.”

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In 1988, the Pistons won Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in the Pontiac Silverdome, snapping Boston’s four-year streak of Finals appearances. Celtics stars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Danny Ainge were on the bench in the final minute, with the outcome all but decided.

Those players ultimately left the court before the final buzzer, with Thomas and McHale having a brief and cordial meeting near midcourt. But Jennings, who was a Celtics video coordinator at the time and later became an assistant coach, insists the decision had nothing to do with sour grapes or disrespect.

“K.C. and [assistant coaches] Jimmy Rodgers and Chris Ford were all talking about getting guys off the floor, because we were in the Silverdome, and you could just tell these folks were ready to storm the court,” Jennings said. “That is honest-to-goodness what that was about. It had nothing whatsoever to do with trying to show up the Pistons or a lack of sportsmanship. It was really the safety of those guys. I remember K.C. pointing at the guys, going down the bench and saying ‘OK, go to the locker room.’”

A video replay of the game shows that fans started to come onto the court when they believed the game had ended. But the referees had called a foul on Boston with three seconds left. The arena’s public address announcer can be heard on the CBS broadcast asking fans to return to their seats.

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“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “the game is not over.”

Isiah Thomas says one of the reasons the Pistons left the floor early after being swept by the Bulls was because the Celtics did it when they beat Boston in 1988. That might not be altogether true.
Isiah Thomas says one of the reasons the Pistons left the floor early after being swept by the Bulls was because the Celtics did it when they beat Boston in 1988. That might not be altogether true.Duane Burleson

At that point, the Celtics starters headed toward the tunnel that led to their locker room. The coaches and the five reserves in the game remained on the floor, and when the final buzzer sounded soon after, they were quickly enveloped in the swarm.

“One of the scariest experiences of my entire life was after that game ended,” Jennings said. “I was literally behind K.C. as we were trying to make our way to the locker room and you had all these people — it was a domed stadium — so you had this massive crowd and they were coming onto the floor excited and jumping up and down. It was crazy. It was absolutely pandemonium. Of course, they finally beat us, so you get it. It’s nothing against the Detroit fans. But I’ve never forgotten that feeling of trying to make our way to the locker room.”

Jennings said that when he reached the locker room, McHale shared the details of his brief encounter with Thomas.

“He was saying he had told Isiah to go beat the Lakers,” Jennings said. “We knew they were going to play them and none of us liked the Lakers.”

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Jennings, who founded the Maine Red Claws and now serves as the City Manager in Portland, said he has enjoyed the jog down memory lane while watching “The Last Dance” in recent weeks. He started his pro basketball career as a low-level staffer with the Pacers in 1984, and he said his first assignment was to videotape Jordan’s first pro game, a Bulls preseason matchup in Peoria, Ill.

“There’s no way in the world anybody thought he was going to be what he became,” Jennings said.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.