A Look At The Detroit Pistons Bad Boys Teams
The Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys teams are in the news right now because of ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary about Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams. I was a major fan and watched the Pistons rise up from 87-90. I wrote this article for Slam in 1999, marking the 10th anniversary of their first title. I see some things I’d change and a lot of info I’d add, but it is what it is: a really fun read.
“I sort of came up with the whole Bad Boys thing,” Isiah Thomas says.
He’s not exactly bragging, but neither does he need to be prodded. He’s simply answering a straightforward question about the origin of the nickname and outlaw image so proudly sported by his two-time champion Detroit Pistons teams a decade ago. The name gave the team a strong identity in their quest to unseat the reigning Lakers and Celtics and hold off the surging Bulls, but it has also obscured their greatness and the ferocity of their climb to the top. Ten years later, it’s easy to forget that more than brawling brawn was behind the Pistons’ success. The 89 champs had a 63-19 record and romped through the playoffs with a 15-2 record. They were the last great team before Jordan’s royal reign, and were recently hailed by the NBA as one of the league’s 10 all-time greatest squads.
“It’s not that I or any of us wanted to be the bad guys,” Thomas insists. “We had to wear the black hats because the Celtics and Lakers were wearing the white hats. They were the good guys and all of America was rooting for them, so we just figured we’d be the guys who no one was rooting for, the bad guys.
The Bad Boys. The Pistons began to be widely referred to as such in January ‘88, after Rick Mahorn floored Michael Jordan, then took on the entire Bulls bench, including coach Doug Collins, when they came to the aid of their battered star. Collins ended up sprawled across the press table and the Pistons had shown the world that they would bow to no one.
“I don’t take any shit from anyone,” says Mahorn. “I had a lot of confrontations with a lot of people, but that was definitely one of the more significant ones that labeled us.”
The next day, the Pistons read in the paper that Jordan had called them the dirtiest team in the league and claimed they intentionally tried to hurt people. Their first reaction wasn’t exactly to sue for libel.
“I thought, ‘Here’s our opening, our chance to establish a niche,’” Thomas recalls. “You’d go to Boston Garden and everyone would talk about the mystique, then Kevin McHale, Larry Bird and Robert Parish would kill you – they beat you, not some leprechauns, but the talk distracted you. I figured we could get the same kind of thing going. We could make it work for us, or against us. I always liked the Oakland Raiders, and I wanted our image to be just like that.”
So the Pistons turned the complaints into a badge of honor and soon the whole world knew what had long been obvious to hoops freaks. From 1985, when Mahorn arrived in Detroit, until ’93, when Bill Laimbeer retired, the Pistons were fined more than $220,000, plus about $85,000 in salaries lost to suspension. The burly, 6-10 Mahorn had long been known for his bruising play and dirty tactics; early in his career with the Washington Bullets, he had teamed with Jeff Ruland to form an infamously brutal duo known as McFilthy and McNasty.
“I had great partnerships with Jeff, Bill and then Charles Barkley with the Sixers,” Mahorn says. “The truth is, they were all more talented players than me, but had a similar style, and they all thrived knowing that I was out there to watch their back.”
The 6-11, 260-pound Laimbeer was a slow-moving center and a great defensive rebounder viewed around the league as a cheapshot artist and consummate crybaby. Among those he had memorable confrontations with were Jordan, Parish, Barkley and Dominique Wilkins.
“I hated him before he was my teammate,” says Mahorn. “In fact, I hated him for most of the first year he was my teammate. I thought he was an asshole and a cheap shot artist, but then I realized that he was a straightforward dude, and he played by the rules. We all did. We didn’t go beyond the rule, but we took them to the limit and they had to change the rules because our limit was just a little bit different than most people’s. For instance, we would always give someone an extra shot after the whistle. Like Jordan or Dominique might be fouled up top on a drive, then we’d smack them on the continuation. Well, they outlawed that because of us.”
While Mahorn was more likely to get into an actual physical confrontation with someone, Laimbeer more often tormented them into blowing their top and taking a swing at him, or losing their focus.
“Laimbeer rarely hit anyone; he just drove them nuts,” says longtime Pistons announcer George Blaha. “He delighted in getting under your skin. He constantly was trying to gain not the only physical edge, but also the mental edge. If he could make you lose your concentration, then he’d won, because he never seemed to lose his cool. There would be an incident, then he could go right to the free throw line and nail them, while the other guy would often have trouble playing the rest of the game with his head on straight.”
“It was all about throwing people off their games,” says Mahorn. “I think Michael developed that baseline jumper because of us. He didn’t want any part of coming into the paint after a while. There were some teams, and some people who just couldn’t deal with us. They’d be preoccupied thinking about us instead of their game. And it could throw everyone off. Like Charles Oakley was one of the few guys who wasn’t intimidated by us at all, but he would get frustrated because of his teammates. But nothing we did was dirty; we wouldn’t try to hurt anybody; just hit them. And nobody could scare us, because we were used to it. Our best fights were with each other at practice, where we could actually land some punches.”
But while Laimbeer and Mahorn were clearly the chief instigators, they were not the lone Bad Boys. A skinny, hyperactive ferocious-rebounding forward by the name of Dennis Rodman learned well from his mentors. Easy going center James Edwards, veteran guard John Long, scoring machine Adrian Dantley and his replacement Mark Aguirre all garnered fines with the Pistons. Even consummate nice guy Joe Dumars lost his cool a few times; in 1990 he was fined $1,000 three weeks apart for fighting brothers Harvey (Washington) and Horace Grant (Chicago).
And then there was Isiah, the Pistons’ captain and little general. He may have flashed the nicest smile in NBA history and weighed in at 185 pounds soaking wet, but he was in the middle of many of the Bad Boys’ baddest moments. Says Mahorn, “Isiah was a little man who wanted to be a big man and played as if playing hard enough would make him a foot taller.”
In April ’89, Thomas showed his fighting spirit and lack of both fear and common sense when he busted his hand clocking 7-foot Bulls center Bill Cartwright in the head. Proving that this was no fluke, he slapped Lakers center Mychal Thompson the following January, drawing a $2,500 fine. Then, in April ’90, he gave new Sixers center Rick Mahorn a taste of his own medicine when he audaciously punched him, despite being outweighed by nearly 100 pounds.
“I didn’t back down to anyone,” Thomas says today with a slight laugh. “Looking back now, I’m lucky I didn’t get hurt –those guys are a lot bigger than me. I don’t think I played cheap, but I definitely played hard. I’d most like to be remembered as a guy who just did whatever it took to win –whether that meant scoring 40 and looking pretty or digging in my heels and playing ugly. You can say a lot of things about me, but you can’t say I’m not a winner. And that goes for the whole team; we thought we should have won the title in ’88 and by the next season, we were prepared to do whatever it took. I think our toughness was mental as well as physical.”
Thomas is undoubtedly right, but mental toughness doesn’t leave black and blue marks, so it doesn’t tend to be quite as noticed.
“You felt it when you played them, because the whole team was incredibly physical,” recalls Chris Mullin. “It’s not that they were all dirty, but they gave you nothing. They all put their bodies on you and made you work for every little thing.”
That aggressive, never-give-an-inch defensive presence became Coach Chuck Daly’s trademark. But it wasn’t always so. In his early years, the Pistons were a high octane, running team built around Thomas and small forward Kelly Tripucka. This version of Daly’s team reached its peak early in his first season, when his Pistons defeated the Nuggets 186-184 in three overtimes in the highest scoring game in NBA history. His philosophy changed as he worked to make the best use of his players’ talents.
“I found that our club was only good when we were making contact with people,” Daly recently recalled. “We were not a very good defensive team when we weren’t right up on people. We could only be the kind of team we wanted to be when we got right up, because we weren’t quick enough to chase people around. We couldn’t let the Kevin McHales or Patrick Ewings get position before they received the ball or they would destroy us. We became a better defensive team when we created an atmosphere for our players to understand that, and they started to really believe that was how we could win.”
Mahorn seconds Daly’s assessment. “We knew how to play basketball and it was obvious that the physical style was what we needed to do to win,” he says. “I mean, we weren’t athletic. Well, the backcourt was, but up front you had these big old lugs that basically were old school. That’s all we were really doing is bringing old-fashioned style ball into the modern NBA. It was nothing new.”
“The toughness defined the team, but we should have won three titles and could have won four,” says Blaha. “And the reason is talent. We had a Hall of Fame coach; two Hall of Fame guards in Isiah and Joe; two guys who should be in the Hall but may never go because of their personalities in Laimbeer and Rodman; a great-scoring small forward whether it was Dantley or Aguirre; one of the toughest guys ever to play in Rick; and one of the most explosive bench players of all time in Vinnie.”
“They had great talent to go with their physical presence,” Mullin recalls. “Don’t forget how good Isiah and Joe were – and then they had Vinnie coming off the bench. That was deep. And they were all interchangeable; they could shoot or handle, play the point or the off-guard. That was actually an aspect of their game copied at least as much as their physicality.”
Nonetheless, the Pistons’ enduring legacy remains physical, defense-dominated play. “It was all finesse and scoring before those guys started winning,’ says Anthony Mason, spitting out the word “finesse” as if it tastes like excrement. “They just put their bodies on people, and showed you could have success that way, too.”
“Look at basketball today—low scoring, lots of physical defense. That was all the Pistons’ doing,” Laimbeer said a few years ago. (He’s apparently too busy folding cardboard boxes at his Piston Packaging company to return our calls these days.) “When we were winning, people moaned how we were ruining basketball. Actually, we sort of defined its future.”
Thomas wanted to alter his own place in history, as well as that of the team, by putting the Bad Boys name to bed after the first title. He proclaimed it dead on their White House visit and again in his book Bad Boys!, which he apparently thought would be the last time anyone cashed in on the name. But it wasn’t to be. The NBA’s marketing geniuses realized they had a horse to flog, so a video was forthcoming, cleverly titled Bad Boys. And even without Mahorn, whom they had left exposed in the expansion draft, where the Timberwolves snagged him and traded him to the Sixers, the Pistons displayed plenty of swagger and bad attitude.
One of Laimbeer’s finest –and baddest – moments came in Game Three of the 90 finals. Tied at one-one and heading to Portland, where they had lost 20 straight games, the Pistons were in trouble, with Rodman injured and Johnson in a terrible slump. But Laimbeer set the tone for a fired-up team when he ran over a photographer, who stepped in front of him in the tunnel before the game, then ran over the Blazers. He drew five quick charges and the Portland players became so preoccupied crying to the refs about Laimbeer’s flopping that they lost their minds and collapsed, 121-106. Laimbeer fouled out with 12 points and 11 rebounds, but he had turned the tide in a series the Pistons would proceed to win with two more straight road victories. “Only Bill can be like that,” Daly said after the game. “He was unbelievable.”
The following season, the Pistons were still a very good team, but were no longer dominant. They went 50-32, finishing 11 games behind the Bulls, whom they met in the Eastern Finals. With his Bulls up 2-0, Jordan declared that the reigning two-time champs were “thugs” and “bad for the NBA.” He complained about their physical style and the league’s refusal to do anything about it. The Bulls went on to sweep the Pistons and after Game 4, played at the Palace, Thomas, Laimbeer and the rest of the Bad Boys walked off the court without shaking hands with their conquerors. The Bulls had gone to the foul line three times to every one visit for Detroit, leading the Pistons to believe Jordan’s “whining” had denied them a shot at their third consecutive title. The team would never again return to the conference finals, making their refusal to shake hands with Jordan and company their final, lingering image on the national stage.
“Bad sportsmanship is bad sportsmanship, so I can’t defend what we did, but that’s how it was done then,” Thomas says. “All the rivalries were too heated, so none of us shook at the end of series. The Celtics didn’t shake our hands when we finally beat them in ’88, except for Kevin McHale, whom I had known since high school. The thing is, we got caught, because we were transitional; that’s when basketball went from being watched by just serious fans of the game to everyone. It became popular entertainment, so the rules changed.
“I’m not proud of what we did, but I’m not really ashamed of it either. I just hope that people remember that we weren’t just bad; we were also pretty damned good.”