Every good drama or action story needs a great villian. The fortitude, courage and charisma of the hero is measured by the degree of difficulty needed to vanquish the bad guys. Without Lex Luthor, Superman is just a cross-dresser running around in tights and a goofy cape.
This is why I submit that Isiah was, in his absence, an important facet in the success of the Dream Team. The documentary emphasized how good the chemistry and comaraderie was with the other players. Any dime store psychiatrist will tell you that this is partially because they all bonded over vanquishing a common enemy. The Dream Team’s first victory was not over Cuba; it was over Isiah. Even if it went unspoken, all of the players who had borne the brunt of the Bad Boys’ tactics could take delicious revenge and revel over Isiah’s banishment. It wouldn’t surprise me if, at one of their legendary all-night card games, Michael or Scottie would look at an empty chair and say, “Your turn, Isiah. Oh. My Bad,” and the whole table busts out in laughter.
And without Isiah Lord Thomas III, the NBA of the mid – late 80’s and the Dream Team would have been a great deal less interesting. This post does not serve to defend Isiah’s actions as the leader of the Bad Boys. I just want to provide an explanation from another perspective. Okay, it’s 1987. Let’s say that you’re Isiah or Coach Daly and you look at your roster in comparison to the defending champion Lakers, the star-studded Celtics and the rising Bulls featuring Micheal Jeffrey Jordan. What would you do? That’s right. Slow the game down, play tough defense, hit the boards, allow no layups or dunks and foul with a purpose. (For you young folks out there, the NBA back then allowed hand checking and there was no such thing as flagrant fouls which carried stiffer penalties. The Bad Boy Pistons were the catalyst for these rule changes.)
Say what you want about them, but you can’t deny that the strategy worked. In 1988, they ended Boston’s run of four straight Eastern Conference Championships. (It would be 20 years before the Celtics went to the Finals again.) In 1989, they squashed the Lakers’ bid for a three-peat. (The Lakers would go 12 years without a title.) And in 1989 and 1990, they beat the stuffing out of Michael and the Bulls, delaying their inevitable championship run. The Pistons 1989 playoff obliteration of the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers is the strongest run of all-time.
So, Isiah had to wear the black hat. Mr. Thomas was comfortable in the villian role, and it’s not hard to understand why. Thanks to “Hoop Dreams,” we know that he got up at 5 A.M., left the mean streets of Chicago’s infamous South Side and was bused to the suburbs to play for the no-nonsense coach Ping. Then, at college, he played for Robert Montgomery Knight. From there, it was onto the NBA and Chuck Daly. Three successful coaches, but they aren’t exactly the Boy Scouts.
Of course, at the end of any good drama or action story, the villian has to get what’s coming to him. Isiah terminated the two most popular teams in NBA history and knocked Magic and Bird off the stage before the league or fans were ready for them to exit. In addition, he played the role of a mafia chief and ordered “hits” on Michael, Scottie and Horace when they weren’t quite ready to fight back. The stage was set for the ultimate payback. Isiah was banned from his well-earned spot on the Dream Team by the other players.
I’m sure Isiah was disappointed, but I’ll bet he shed no tears. He had a job to do and he did it. In a 20-year period when the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls were hogging all the rings, he burst through and got two of them with a lesser supporting cast. The rules at the time allowed for an aggressive style of play. Is that his fault? I’d wager that if the other option was having those guys as friends, making the Dream Team and having no rings, he would not have changed a thing.
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