The Bad Boys of Detroit, the most hated team in the NBA that knew how to bring Michael Jordan to his knees

Isiah Thomas, Historic Leader of Detroit
Isiah Thomas, Historic Leader of Detroit

Travel Detroit in that June of 2005 it appeared as a dangerous desire. But there we were, the Argentine journalists, hours away from continuing to live the finals NBA of that year between the Spurs of Ginobili and the hard Pistons. With the history of the city on its back, with the fantasies it could generate, no one wanted to miss the excursion to know the automotive cradle, of industrialization and, of course, of the bad boys. Somehow to see if that mythical team really had to do with the context from which it had emerged. "But look, today is not exactly what it was, eh", was the way to warn us that nothing would be cute or special as we expected. "It doesn't matter, we want to see," was the reply. And the experience was shocking, though perhaps not shocking in the best of ways.

Closer to those movies that reflect when the protagonist enters a ghost town. At the entrance we walked through almost deserted streets, we noticed a predominant gray color, almost no vegetation, we saw abandoned or dilapidated buildings, dirt, disorder … Shocking for being the United States and for having been a thriving city. Undoubtedly the worst aesthetic scene that many of us remember when entering such a famous city. Few blocks lasted the walk. “This is horrible. And a danger. Shall we go back? ”Said one of the colleagues. Seconds later, the frightened majority of the passengers in the van voted to return to the official hotel, located – by decision of the NBA – far from that depressive and insecure center.

That day we were able to personally feel the twilight of Detroit, the capital of Wayne County and the main city of the state of Michigan. A city shattered by deindustrialization. That at the beginning of the 20th century it had grown due to the African-American wave and that, with the founding of the mythical General Motors in 1908, it had become famous in the world as the Motor City (Motown), headquarters of Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler, among other. A factory of the motor business. But also home to a cultural factory with the creation of Motown Records, a record company founded in 1959 that built an empire in the following decades, reaching 45 labels and releasing dozens of famous artists, from Stevie Wonde to the Jackson 5.

The mythical Motown sound flooded many homes in Latin America and the so-called Tamla-Motown became one of the most influential brands in musical history. So it was that, around those two monsters, Detroit had 2 million inhabitants and a thriving present. But the economic reconversion generated a huge crisis in the automotive sector and that wave ended up taking everything, even MRC, which moved to Los Angeles. In the 1980s, the decline accelerated to the point that the city underwent an exodus until it was left with half its population and, little by little, to become what it is today, an unhealthy metropolis to live in, with high degrees of crime and unemployment. That is why in the middle of that decade, at a time of popular depression, a team emerged capable of competing with the best and did so with the Motown spirit, with their weapons and without fear, it was a ray of illusion that illuminated the city and brought her, at least momentarily, out of that suffering. It made it possible to believe that Detroit could one day be like the Pistons.

It's no coincidence that the Bad Boys came from there. They were hardly going to be born in Los Angeles. Or Miami. Nor in Minnesota. They had to emerge from a factory town, hard-working, hard-working, and African-Americanto. That is why today the Bad Boys are still his pride. The triumph of the proletariat. Because they won with that profile, that of the city that suffered and wanted to be again. A group that was defenestrated – as Detroit has been – and that those members used as motivation. Being told dirty, malicious, violent, cynical, not recognizing their defense and offensive game, seemed to feed them, make them stronger.

Thus they built an empire that first he took the crown from Larry Bird's purists Celtics, then he dismantled Showtime from Magic Johnson's Lakers and for three years he slowed the advance to glory of Michael Jordan's mythical Bulls. The three great icons of the NBA explosion (and their teams) were handcuffed until they were fed up, until they generated their hatred and rejection, with palpable consequences, as in the case of Isiah thomas, the star who was banned from Dream Team 92.

Detroit vs Michael Jordan

Those two consecutive Pistons titles (89 and 90)In the midst of those reigns, they seemed little but they meant a lot. A rebellion. A way of taking power by force that unleashed a fierce debate about whether everything was worth to win, about whether crossing certain limits without being punished was a way that could be accepted … But, in the end, it was a revolution in the game that marked basketball forever, which made clear more than ever the importance of defense, collective power, gregarious sacrifice, physical and mental toughness … A style that spread and popularized in the following decades until you can hardly think of a champion without these virtues. This is the captivating story of Motown's famous Bad Boys.

The Pistons were the laughingstock of the NBA in the early 1980s. Between '78 and '81 they had won 67 games and lost a whopping 179. The horrible 80/81 campaign (second worst: 21-61) allowed them pick second in the draft and they did well. They stayed with who would be their star and game ideologist, Isiah Thomas, a small point guard (1m85) but who, with his mentality, character and talent, would become the heart of the Pistons that would shake the foundations of the NBA, becoming the greatest enemy of the superstars of the time. The Baby-Faced Assassin they called him. Yes, I was a baby-faced killer. A boy with a tough childhood in Chicago who would do anything to succeed …

The next year they added Bill laimbeer, from Cleveland, and Vinnie johnson, arriving from Seattle. The second was called Microwave, because it warmed (his hand) fast … And the first was a "hit man", a very rough pivot that would be the soul of the guerrilla war that they would devise between Thomas and Chuck Daly, the coach who would arrive in 1983 to finish building, by hand, a champion with a countercultural strategy.

Owner of an extreme pragmatism -which he shared with Isiah-, Daly assembled a group of "villains" that would be the foothills of Thomas, first, and then also of Joe dumars, the talented gentleman who would join in 1985 via draft. Rick mahorn, the other evil, almost bloodthirsty pivot, who arrived to join Chuck's army. The word seems exaggerated but it is not, because the defense that the DT would devise would be of military discipline, clearly collective and with physical toughness as a standard.

For that, he recruited eminently collective players, physically rough and mentally tough, who wanted glory no matter what they say … In 1986, via draft, two more pieces of that defensive line arrived that would make rivals have nightmares: John salley, with pick 11, and Dennis Rodman, with # 27. In free agency they added another "guerrilla" who did not know what mercy was, capable of scaring only with his evil face that he enhanced with those mustache mustaches (James edwards). In addition, as to not only think about defense, they signed a devastating scorer, Adrian dantley, who had averaged 29.5 in the previous seven seasons in Utah and could make a luxurious offensive trident alongside a creative Thomas and a fine stylist like Dumars. The army for the revolution was ready …

Daly, trained under the success of worthy colleges such as Duke, Boston College and Pennsylvania, had been an assistant to Billy Cunningham while the 76ers rubbed shoulders with the best between 1978 and 1981. Then he had failed in his first experience as a head coach, in Cleveland, when the second chance came, at age 53. Little by little, knowing what he had, a team was forming to carry out a “coup”. A set that would display another way of playing. He was not going to give them what the Lakers or Celtics wanted, the spaces, the open court, the freedoms for their talent to flow, but they would try a “trench warfare”, as Daly himself anticipated what had to be done in a famous comment of TV in 1983.

Quick success helped him build. In 1985, the Pistons reached the East semi-finals and tested what Red Auerbach's Boston was, despite falling 4-2. In fact, after a series that had low scores, physical toughness, many fouls and some fights, it was the Celtics and the entire NBA who began to see what the Pistons were capable of. “By 1986, the Celtics had the best team ever and they had to beat those guys. We were getting ready, ”Isiah admitted.

In 1987, when the press began to call Bad Boys to that band of irreverent that threatened the reign of the mythical Celts, the duel was repeated in the definition of conference. The tie was even more fierce and even. Boston went 2-0 at home, but Detroit returned courtesies from home. The 5th was key. Detroit was leading by one when Rodman blocked Bird and the ball went out. Possession was left for the visit with five seconds when Thomas rushed to replace and Bird intercepted the pass and gave it to Dennis Johnson, who ended up winning the game with a layup, in a play that is still repeated today on social networks. A rookie error was the difference in a series that was defined, again, at the Boston Garden (117-114 in Game 7), where Detroit accumulated, by then, a fateful losing streak of 18 falls in a row. “It was a matter of time. We could lose the games, but the fight was not over yet, ”Salley recalls.

A year later, the great moment for which they had waited so long would arrive: a new rematch. Again in the Eastern Final, which started with Detroit winning Boston for the first time in six years. The Pistons repeated the feat in the 5th, after the Celtics tied in Michigan, and ended up closing in 6th with an excellent work by the substitutes (46 points), confirming that the Pistons were a granite group, especially for their intangibles, he was destined for glory.

“Everything we know we learned from the Celtics. We imitate a lot of his style. They taught us well "Thomas would admit and, more than ever, the controversial comparison of James Worthy, a Lakers figure who had said that the Celtics had been "the Bad Boys of the early decade," would become relevant. The Angelenos were waiting for them in the final, with one of the latest versions of Showtime. A final presented as the Bad Boys against the Good Boys, the thugs against the talented, the poor against the rich … Differences that were not seen on the court. There were seven epic, glorious battles that are part of one of the best definitions in history. Detroit, with humility but without prejudice and with its well-known asperity, pushed the champions to the limit, with heroic performances. Like the one in Game 6. The night Isiah accomplished one of the greatest feats in history, playing limping due to a sprained ankle and still scoring 25 points in the third quarter (still a final record) for put the team within the shot of the title. It seemed like the night Motown had waited for decades until a refereeing error ended up giving the Lakers much of the victory.

There were 15 seconds left and Detroit was leading by one, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar executed his famous Sky Hook against Laimbeer and the judges called a foul that no one saw. The pivot hit both free and Dumars missed the final shot that would have meant the ring. Detroit, true to character, fought until the end in the 7th on the road, but fell short against the two-time champion, despite scoring more points in the series than its rival. The defeat was a harsh reality, but also a new warning, the same one that the Celtics had received … The Pistons went for everything.

The Bad Boys gulped and came back stronger (and rougher) for 88/89, making up probably one of the top 10 teams ever.. They won 69 of 82 games in the regular season and 15 of 17 in the playoffs. The rematch against the Lakers couldn't have been sweeter, with a lapidary 4-0 taking advantage of the fact that Magic arrived touched to the definition. Detroit showed no mercy. At last, he was at the top. The bewildered Motown was happy because of its beloved sons, the Pistons. Suddenly, the working class came to power. Much thanks to Daly, who in this campaign had finished polishing a team in which its members had to totally renounce their personal interests.

For example, Dantley had never been comfortable with his role, always lower (in shots, minutes and points) than he had in Utah. He had even faced Thomas. Until the coach (and the team) said enough, even though Adrian was a solution to the team's offensive potholes. It was clear that the Pistons needed to maintain their gregarious spirit and Dantley, a surly, bad-mannered, big-ego guy, was eroding it. So it was that after a match that refused to leave the game they decided to exchange it. It seemed impossible to win out of such a change, but they succeeded, getting a great piece in return. Mark Aguirre He was another great scorer, with star numbers, but also wanting to fit in, to roll up his sleeves. He had a different attitude (he even asked the coach to start Rodman) and a friendship with Thomas. All round to start with the "destruction mission." There was even no question when Portland won Game 2 of the final at The Palace. The Bad Boys fed off the Blazers' festivities and prevailed in all three games at Oregon for the final 4-1.

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Before dazzling in the Chicago Bulls, Dennis Rodman was an important piece of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys
Before dazzling in the Chicago Bulls, Dennis Rodman was an important piece of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys

That Detroit was a grinding machine, capable of overwhelming any rival. In the physical, in the mental and then, therefore, in the basketball. His defense was so granite and, at the same time, so physical that it made rivals think twice. To that had to be added the silent psychological warfare they wielded … The Bad Boys were tightening the rope. Until the end. Knowing that they could push the regulatory limits and thus psychically cower. This is what they did with the Bulls and, occasionally, with Jordan, who they led to frustration and forced physical, tactical and attitude changes in order to reach glory. That strategy against MJ was the best example of what these Pistons could (and were capable of) doing. In 1988 it was 4-1 in the Eastern semi-finals, the following year they repeated 4-2 already in the definition of the conference and in 1990 it was the toughest series, a 4-3 in the same instance to stop the promotion to the league again. glory of the mythical 23. In the last two way to his own glory …

According to Rod Thorn, general manager of Chicago, the Pistons was the epitome of street basketball, hard and physical that, at that time, was tolerated in an NBA whose acronym was renamed No Babies Allowed, precisely because of how permissive the judges were with contact and even the hardest blows. In a video of the time it is seen how Pippen is beaten and judge Joe Crawford, in addition to not whistling anything, drags him off the court so as not to have to stop the game…. This generally opened the door to violence.

"We liked to hit," admits Rodman. A way of playing that was pushed to the limit when he met that unleashed physical and technical animal that was Jordan in his first 6/7 years in the NBA. You just have to think that, in 1988, MJ was the scorer with 38.3 points but, at the same time, chosen the Best Defender. Just one year later, in the 1989 East final, the Pistons devised a strategy that would include a block defense and all kinds of tricks. It was after Game 3 that Jordan finished threatening Detroit's big goal. Mike had 46 points, 62% from the field, seven rebounds, five assists and five steals. And, as if that were not enough, he defined the game with a goal over Rodman, the best defender, for the victory in Chicago and the 2-1 in the series.

It is said that Isiah Thomas was devastated. For two reasons. Born and raised in Chicago, he felt that MJ already surpassed him as an idol in his city and it was eating away at him inside. Even more so when one summer he returned to his mother's house and found one of his nephews with the 23 shirt … And secondly, he felt that if the Bulls eliminated them and MJ gained confidence, it would be the end of his dream. And, of course, that night the base believed it very possible if they did not change something … That is why, after the game, they say that he stayed up well into the morning, devising a defensive plan, as a team, to limit his enemy . They say it was 4 when he called Detroit's defensive assistant and told him the incident. An idea that the world would know as The Jordan Rules. A plan that had a spirit to unhinge the best player in history but that, first, responded to a defensive strategy with the following principles:

1) On the sides, it is pushed towards the middle, closing the final line.

2) When he attacks in the middle, he is guided to the left and double-scores.

3) When he hits the low post, he catches it.

4) If it goes through the finish line, it is knocked down.

5) If it goes in the air, it knocks it down. To the ground.

The idea was to get him spaces to limit his physical capacity and offensive resources, that he did not dominate or feel comfortable, that he had to do a lot to score, that he got tired … The objective was to frustrate him and get him out of the box. For that, whenever they could, they touched it, grabbed it, pushed it, hit it and even threw it to the ground. They wanted him to feel that if he attacked the hoop, he would receive punishment. Even making him think he could end up injured … After that third game of 89, the rules were applied and the success was absolute. Jordan scored only 23 points with 33% from the field in Game 4, the next 18 with just eight shots and in the last 32 with eight losses. Three defeats in a row for Chicago, which was eliminated after the great illusion awakened after 2-1.

That is how the Pistons dominated. Jordan was pushed to the limit, they tested him. Until the best in history understood what he had to do: improve his physique to absorb the punishment (he included a physical plan called Jump Attack that allowed him to pass from 90 to 98 kilos, with more muscle) and develop a more team game and aggressive. Until then, the Pistons focused on him. “We weren't going to let him beat us. We weren't interested in the others, not even (Scottie) Pippen. To us, they were Jordan and the Jordanaires"Laimbeer summed up with that last sentence that would go down in history because of the way he describes the team.

Sure, when Pippen took a quality leap and the team, learning from the losses, hardened their game and mentality, the story turned around. When they met again, in the 1991 East final, everything was very different. The Bulls swept 4-0 and got rid of their karma, en route to their first ring. "We would not have been able to win six titles if we had not faced the Pistons earlier," Jordan would admit as the years went by., giving him a little respect after so much hatred between both teams.

It was precisely in the last seconds of that fourth game that the rivalry between the two teams had its last great chapter. With the Bulls' consummate victory in Detroit, the Pistons players chose not to salute their victors, as is customary after the end of a playoff series. That episode became famous and was one of the controversial issues that touched The last dance, the documentary series that a few months ago premiered ESPN and Netflix telling life and work of MJ and the Bulls. He did not salute.

Thomas and Jordan, a duel that transcended the limits of the stadiums
Thomas and Jordan, a duel that transcended the limits of the stadiums

Thomas said it was Laimbeer's order, but many, including Jordan, suspect the point guard, who on camera is seen leaving the court with his head down, out of shame or directly to go unnoticed … It is true that Michael had warmed up the previous , saying that the Pistons were "poor champions who did not deserve credit", but as much as Michael had greeted them after each elimination, despite the tension between the teams and the emotional devastation that each defeat generated. That sparked a visceral hatred from the Bulls towards the Bad Boys and from Jordan, specifically, towards Thomas. To the point of surprising in the documentary with its revelation. "I hated them and I still hate them," he said. And he didn't stay there, deepening his differences with Isiah. "Nothing you see today will convince me that you are not an idiot," he said.. So far it went. MJ did not accept having retaliated, specifically having been responsible for the ban so that Thomas was not part of the Dream Team in the Olympic Games 92. Of course, there were so many stars of that dream team that they did not want Thomas (Bird, Magic, Karl Malone and Pippen, among others) that many advocate the theory that it was a joint boycott and not an individual one, as was believed for so many years. Even David Robinson admitted it after The Last Dance happened …

The hatred came from the fact that the Pistons often behaved like gang members on the streets of Detroit. All, to a greater or lesser extent, except Dumars, the only gentleman. In 1988, for example, Thomas would even break his hand when he hit Bulls pivot Bill Cartwright in the face. That same year, Mahorn's blow to Jordan sparked a fight between both teams, including Bulls manager Doug Collins. It was when MJ started harassing them in the media, calling them dirty, and when the Pistons definitely adopted the nickname, using it to their advantage. Thomas even confessed that they were looking for fear from rivals and even from their fans. Thus they became the most hated team. Not just from the time, quite possibly from the history of world basketball. But of course, that caused some qualities of the Pistons to be underestimated, a team with an excellent defense that, being based on some debatable principles, did not have the deserved evaluation. In addition, during many moments, on 88/89, the team achieved excellence in the game and that is why it dominated as it did. Because, in addition to defending, he could also score. And enough: 108 average in both finals won, to take a reference.

They demanded another respect that they did not always have. "Those who say we are thugs or villains can kiss my ass," Salley launched. And Thomas expanded the concept. "They called us dirty or violent because of the impotence of seeing us win," he added, continuing to clarify that, in reality, the Pistons could still be bigger if it had not been for the referees who whistled that non-existent lack of Laimbeer to Abdul-Jabbar. "We should have another title and the decade could have turned out like this: Lakers 4, Boston 3 and Detroit 3," he said, speculating on the rings and matching the history of that golden age of the NBA. But, beyond the achievements, the Pistons they remained in the collective memory as a threat to the powerful, to the NBA establishment And, most importantly, they had a huge influence on what came years later, precisely in the game and what it takes to win …

If you want to draw a comparison, those Pistons established a system similar to the catenaccio that the Argentine Helenio Herrera deepened at Inter Milan, starting in the 60s, and that allowed him to compete and beat the best in Italy. Following the comparisons, Juventus and AC Milan could be to Inter what the Lakers and Celtics were to the Pistons. A style of play with similarities that allows us to talk about concepts and not know which team is the reference. An ultra-defensive scheme that countered the greater offensive resources of the rivals, driving them to frustration and making the most of their opportunities. The triumph of defense, of the collective, of the proletariat, of effort, of strategy and even, we can say, of some "tactics" far from the best manners and the so-called fair play. A way that, after winning three Scudetto and two Champions League, empowered other teams and teams in the history of football and that, in the case of the Pistons and the NBA, also had its disciples. Like Pat Riley's Knicks, a few years later, a team that put the Bulls on the ropes and even reached a final in 1994. Also the Heat, with that same coach who professed to "win or misery." The Pistons changed the way they understood basketball and from their success the phrase "defense wins championships" became irrefutable. Many teams adopted a similar style, seeing that they lacked the high-octane offenses of other rivals, aiming more by destroying than creating. That is why it was no coincidence that, for two decades, especially in the 90s, it was normal to see low scores and a rough, physical game that sparked several fights, such as the one in 2004 between the Pistons and the Pacers that included local fans. at The Palace. It was no accident. It happened in Motown and in the same stadium where the Bad Boys had left their mark forever …


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