In their path to creating history, the Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons made a lot of enemies. They wouldn’t have had it any other way.
There I sat in the early hours of Tuesday morning unable to sleep. I grabbed a water bottle from the refrigerator and planted myself at the computer to click play on an advance screening of the highly-anticipated Bad Boys ’30 For 30′ airing next Thursday on ESPN at 8 p.m. Why not take in a history lesson in the dead of night?
For the most part, the Detroit Pistons’ legacy has been popularly recited and passed down generations by fellow players who found themselves on the dark side of the “Bad Boys'” vast array of WWE suplexes and body slams. Or by descendants of a generation who took pride in watching the NBA they knew where physicality became the tattoo of honor for its era.
This recollection would be different. This was hearing it from the horse’s mouth without the slightest hint of filter. This was up close and personal with the most notorious force in basketball history.
“Do you wanna win? Or do you wanna have fun?”
To know the Detroit Pistons is to love them. To know the Detroit Pistons is to also hate them. Yet, either way, the method in which they were built and the heartbreak and frustrations that spawned them into basketball’s version of an organized crime unit is to ultimately respect them.
The Pistons’ common bond throughout the organization was built off a perverse desire to win. General Manager Jack McCloskey was so hellbent on winning he offered anyone on the Pistons in 1979 for the right to draft Magic Johnson. McCloskey is a gunner, a man built with the principles of YOLO long before Drake made it 2012’s most buzzed about word. The youngest Navy skipper in World War II (19), Captain Jack built a team in the identical manner he served his country in – like his life depended on it.
Courageous S.O.B.’s need like-minded spirits around them. Hence the reason why Isiah Thomas was drafted in 1981. And hence the reason why McCloskey made it a personal mission to snag Bill Laimbeer away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and hire someone he trusted to lead a quickly forming band of brothers. The someone was Chuck Daly.
Bad Boys captures an admirable job at documenting the step-by-step process of how the machine was built, in particular the unbreakable bond between Chicago natives Thomas and Laimbeer, who were Birdie and Motaw long before we knew what Above The Rim was. Laimbeer comes off as the film’s most engaging character – one whose physical prowess has long since abandoned him, but whose instigating and combative personality remains razor sharp. He’s funny, introspective and nothing short of a straight shooter.
Of equal importance, the story brings in new characters as the legacy unfolds. There’s Adrian Dantley’s arrival in 1986 because of Detroit’s need to improve on the defensive end, as well as an offensive threat capable of creating his own shot. An offensive threat who had already been a two-time scoring champ, at that. Next were names like Rick Mahorn and Joe Dumars, two completely different personalities as there were on the team. Then draft picks a la the eccentric John Salley and Dennis Rodman, the biggest open book in the film, arrived into the fold.
Diverting attention away from the concoction of personalities is impossible, including how and why Mark Aguirre was brought aboard and the streaky shooting of Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson. All different in their own rights, but all quickly came to understand the reasoning for their union.
In Bad Boys, the domination of the Lakers and Celtics is referred to as “joint monarchy.” Throw in the rising mega-talent that was Michael Jordan and the menu of fan favorites and poster boys was already crowded at the top. The feeling of being left out began a sick obsession, especially for guy like Isiah. His hometown was Chicago. Before being drafted in 1981, he secretly wanted to drop in the draft just to return home. He had already made his mark in the league as the best floor general not named Magic Johnson. He had already led the league in assists.
Yet, there he was and there were the Pistons. Afterthoughts. The B-listers. The have-nots.
Being ignored and under-appreciated produces frustration. Frustration incites paranoia. Paranoia – when stewed at the perfect temperature and with the correct amount of seasoning – creates havoc. The “Bad Boys” and their mantra wasn’t yet born. But the seed had certainly been planted.
High intensity moments are in surplus in Bad Boys. Perhaps none higher, however, than the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. If the Bulls were the Pistons’ little brother, Detroit filled that role for Boston. From Laimbeer and Bird’s ejections in Game 3 to Parish dropping the forearm from hell across Laimbeer’s head two games later, it’s evident these guys were not buying each other Christmas cards later that year. Isiah’s critical turnover in Game 5 even comes off as gut-wrenching.
Yet, the pivotal moment of the film arises when Thomas echoed Rodman’s “if Bird were Black” comments following their Game 7 defeat. The country turned on Zeke, labeling him a racist. The comments were asinine. Bird wasn’t good because he was The Great White Hope. No one gave a shit about his skin tone. Bird was good because he was one of the three-to-five best humans to ever touch a basketball.
Ironically, as the entire country pounced on Isiah, the NBA stood on the precipice of changing forever. Rodman and the rest of the players on the team were deeply moved by Thomas never throwing The Worm under the bus. Zeke took the fall and all the bullets from every non-Detroit media entity nationwide. From that exact moment, it was Detroit vs. The World.
The “Bad Boys” had officially been born.
“I had half of their motherf*cking team out there thinking about me.”
The film provides few surprises, largely because everything discussed has been common knowledge for over a quarter century. Certain topics are omitted like 1985 All Star Game aka “The Jordan Freeze Out Game” aka “Perhaps The First Reason That Led To Isiah Not Making The ’92 Dream Team.” And why and how Isiah and Magic’s relationship exploded into flames given how closely-knit they were during the better part of the ’80s.
Here’s where Bad Boys excels, however. Detroit was a city torn to shreds over the decades by economic collapses, racial volcanoes and political upheaval. Add in the crack-cocaine big bang of the ’80s and Motown wasn’t nearly as romantic as vintage Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder records made it sound. The “Bad Boys” united a city in many ways.
Race became irrelevant. Economic status did, too, whenever the Pistons were in season. A physical team from a doubly physical city became every Detroit resident’s favorite cousin. They assumed the role of the Oakland Raiders of basketball. More importantly, they were the perfect virus in a league championed by the three perfect anecdotes (Magic, Bird and Jordan).
That brings up the next point. Magic had the Lakers, Showtime, Hollywood and enough celebrities court side he probably could’ve filmed the pilot episode to The Magic Hour during any given home game and few would’ve batted an eye. Bird was the face of the most beloved franchise in NBA history, the most recognizable player in that franchise not named Bill Russell and the owner of three MVPs and three titles. And Jordan, despite not having won any of his six rings yet, was the most marketable and skilled player in the universe.
Here’s where Detroit has never received enough credit though. The “Bad Boys” toe-tagged the Celtics dynasty in 1988, also ending Boston’s seasons in 1989 and 1991. Beantown wouldn’t sniff the Finals again until the Boston Three Party returned hardware to the city in 2008. The “Bad Boys” ended the Lakers dynasty a year later. Los Angeles wouldn’t win another title until Phil Jackson arrived to coach Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant 11 years later. And as long as talent and Father Time allowed, Detroit kept Chicago at arms length thanks in large part to the most violent, intimidating and effective defensive scheme in recorded history (“The Jordan Rules”).
Jordan and the Bulls complained all the way to David Stern’s front door, demanding the physicality in Detroit’s attack be eradicated. And by the start of the 1990-91 season, new flagrant foul rules were in place. For a three-year stretch, that included two titles of their own nonetheless, the Pistons were Suge Knight, Tony Montana, Alonzo (Training Day) Anton Chigurh (No Country For Old Men) and The Joker (Heath Ledger version). The inmates had taken over the asylum.
How their run came to a crashing and ugly conclusion is how the Pistons are ultimately remembered – walking off the floor before the final buzzer in Game 4 of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. In many ways, they proved Michael Jordan right who referred to them as bad for basketball and less than desirable champions.
“You see two different styles with us and them,” Jordan said. “The dirty play and the flagrant fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct, hopefully that will be eliminated from the game with them gone. We don’t go out and try to hurt people and dirty up the game. You never lose respect for the champions. But I haven’t agreed with the methods they’ve used. I think people are happy the game will get back to a clean game.”
From the shoving, to perceived dirty play, to the aura of unmitigated scare tactics all the way down to the fist fights themselves, the darkest stain on the Pistons remains not accepting defeat graciously. The most ominous statement from the era (not in the documentary itself) came from Dennis Rodman. “They still haven’t proved anything. They’ve got to win about five or six championships before they’re a great team,” said The Worm. “But they can go home now and rest in peace because the world is safe again. Life without the Pistons is safe.”
Whether or not life was safe is subjective. Life did, however, move on. The league became a billion dollar international revenue stream, led at the forefront by Jordan and Pippen. Six championships later – the last three involving Rodman, no less – much of what Chicago had to endure on the path to become larger than life pop culture deities was swept under the rug. Everyone remembers the success, few appreciate the tears, sleepless nights and self-doubt.
Not by those who lived in the era of lawlessness though. Not by Jordan himself who credits the beatings he took at the hands of Detroit in the documentary as one of the motivating factors that drove him in the ’90s (to be fair, it was a clip from his sit-down with Ahmad Rashad). And definitely not by the men who provided basketball its greatest antagonist before or since. A group of men who, in fact, gleefully embraced sending men, women and children back to their cars emotional wrecks because a team from The Motor City with the most destructive nickname in sports not only beat their favorite squad, but royally kicked their ass in a street fight, too.
I guess I’ve typed the previous 1800+ words to simply say one thing. Watch Bad Boys next Thursday (April 18th) on ESPN. Chuck Daly sure would appreciate it.
Artwork: Anthony Holt