Tomorrow evening at 7:00PM, ESPN will air “Bad Boys”, a two-hour documentary about the late 1980’s Detroit Pistons.
Sandwiched between the great Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry with the Celtics and the Lakers, and the emergence of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, which went on to capture six championships in the ‘90s, the “Bad Boy” Pistons are often an afterthought.
But they certainly should not be. Those Piston teams, to this day, some 20-plus years after their reign, conjure up a range of loving emotions among their own loyal fans and quantifiable hatred among supporters of the aforementioned NBA royal triumvirate of Magic, Bird and Jordan.
There was no such thing as “liking’ those Pistons. Either you loved them, and what they stood for, or you absolutely despised them.
That team was an eclectic and seemingly incongruous mix of athleticism and toughness. Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer played a brutish style of basketball, while their young, complimentary big men, John Salley and a still-seemingly sane Dennis Rodman, smothered teams on the defensive end with their length, hunger and speed.
Head Coach Chuck Daly was a basketball lifer and an expert tactician, who’d worked his way up from the high school ranks in Pennsylvania to become one of the game’s legendary teachers. But his true talent was managing personalities and getting individuals of disparate backgrounds and skill sets to buy into a collective mindset.
In my view, the back-to-back championships that Detroit won in 1989 and 1990 have never been fully appreciated. What made them so fascinating was the juxtaposition of Mahorn and Laimbeer’s low-post thuggery with the dynamic guard combination of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.
I’ve long argued that Zeke and Joe D are right up there with the greatest NBA backcourt tandem of all-time: Clyde Frazier and Earl Monroe. Isiah is universally accepted as one of the sport’s greatest point guards, but the recognition on Dumars’ behalf is sorely lacking. When you factor in super-sub Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, a compelling argument can be made that they were actually the greatest guard combination in league history.
I’ll never forget Dumars’ announcement to the world, that he was inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound, a man to be reckoned during the ’89 NBA Finals when he was named the series MVP. While the uninformed saw him simply as a complimentary piece to the Piston machinery, he exploded for 27 points per game in the series while connecting on a sizzling 58% of his shot attempts.
In game 3, he lit up the Laker defense like Snoop Dog in a backstage dressing room, scoring 21 points in the third quarter, including a preposterous stretch of 17 straight.
Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Newman wrote : “Each time Dumars buried another shot, L.A. general manager Jerry West and his assistant, Mitch Kupchak, turned in their seats at the Forum and stared at each other, their eyes wide with alarm. ‘That’s how you win when you’re the home team,’ said Kupchak, ‘by trading baskets until the other team begins to miss. But we couldn’t break their backs, because Dumars wouldn’t miss. We kept waiting for him to miss. You could feel the whole building waiting. But it was as if he had forgotten how. He was scary.’”
Dumars was also later acknowledged by Michael Jordan as the greatest defender he’d ever faced throughout his entire illustrious career.
The story of the Bad Boy Pistons is long overdue. I’m excited, on the 25th anniversary of their first title, to re-live that time directly after the wave of Magic and Larry and prior to the emergence of Air Jordan as a dominant cultural and championship force.
An actual case can be made that MJ would not have become MJ had it not been for having to climb the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of the rugged Detroit defense in the late 80’s.
With compelling and complex characters, including the actual city of Detroit, which was spiraling headlong into its current economic abyss and in search of the slightest slivers of hope, the story of the Bad Boy Pistons is among the most unique of any title team in NBA history.
I, for one, look forward to experiencing those days, through the gifted lens of ESPN, once again.