Still the Bad Boys

Their spirit never broken, the ’89 Pistons remain a team of indomitable wills

Bad Boys Unite
Twenty-five years after they won a championship that still resonates with the city they so ideally represented, the Bad Boys got back together and not much has changed.
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)

DETROIT – Twenty-five years before Detroit started grabbing national attention for a comeback before the ink on its bankruptcy filing had dried, a cast of characters that would have done an Elmore Leonard novel proud foreshadowed its city’s fighting spirit.

The Bad Boys got back together Thursday night to raise money for charity and, for those who remember their heyday, you’ll be pleased to know that not much has changed. Isiah Thomas’ smile is still blinding. John Salley remains as big a cutup as ever. And time hasn’t done a thing to smooth Bill Laimbeer’s blunt edge.

Ask Laimbeer about the essence of the Bad Boys and he cuts straight to the chase, not sparing the feelings of one of the teams his Pistons had to step over – or on, grinding their heels in the victims on the way – in the process.

“Determination,” he began, expounding on the legacy of the Bad Boys. “We were so determined to do something and have something accomplished. The mental toughness was another one. So many brutal losses over time, trying to get to where we wanted to be. Many teams quit. Many teams give up. Individuals give up. Portland is an example. They got there a couple of times and they never made it and they gave up. I think those are two great traits of individuals and teams.”

People think of the Bad Boys and the image that probably comes to mind is the iconic poster of the two baddest, Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, Laimbeer mashing a basketball between his fists, Mahorn’s teeth gnashing a net.

And, to be sure, physical toughness deserves a prominent chapter in their story. But if you’re looking to capture an accurate picture of the Bad Boys, physical toughness is only the chalk outline. To fill the picture with the vibrant colors of a most colorful team, you’ll need a full palette.

Their physical toughness was, after all, nothing more than the manifestation of their mental toughness. They didn’t mind if their bruising reputation psychologically cowed teams – they’d use anything to their advantage – but it was always the 6 inches between their ears, their smarts and their toughness upstairs, that allowed the Bad Boys to endure.

Laimbeer was dead-on. Lesser teams would have been crushed. It was the greatest era the NBA has ever known. They had to beat the two most storied franchises in league history at their peaks, the Celtics of Bird and the Lakers of Magic, all while racing to stay a step ahead of Jordan’s Bulls.

Isiah admitted Thursday that there was a moment he feared the Pistons might have had their collective spirit broken: the crushing Game 5 loss to Boston in the 1987 conference finals, when the game was won but for the pass he threw to Laimbeer, intercepted by Bird and converted by Dennis Johnson into a game-winning layup.

“That was a very critical moment in terms of belief and trust in me as a leader and also our commitment as a team,” he said. “It’s definitely something that could have broken our spirit, but collectively we all got up and rallied around each other and we continued to march forward. I would say that was probably the most hurtful and painful moment for all of us, but it was probably the moment that we grew the most out of.”

And yet there were two equally searing moments to come before they would douse each other with champagne.

The first came later that same week, back at Boston Garden for a Game 7. Again, the Pistons had Boston on the ropes, but this time Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley knocked each other silly when their heads collided while diving for a loose ball. They were so consumed by the title quest, the next morning, their season over, they reported to the Silverdome as if there was another series to play, many having dreamt they overslept.

“The next day, everybody was up and at practice,” Salley recalled. “We didn’t realize the season was over. I went in and (teammates) were like, ‘What are you doing here, Sal?’ ‘Uhhh, I just came to clean my locker out.’ Because it never stopped for us and I think that was a good thing. I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I was ready to play another game.”

The next came in the 1988 NBA Finals when Hugh Evans called a phantom foul on Bill Laimbeer late in Game 6 with CBS ready to interview Bill Davidson in the winning locker room. A year later, they got to celebrate in that same locker room.

They won two titles in the most competitive decade in NBA history and they’re still mad it’s not three or four.

“Jack McCloskey and I were talking about that this morning,” Isiah said. “He said we were a heartbeat away from four championships and I had to remind him we were two heartbeats away because of my mistake in Boston. We still talk about that. We all remember the foul that was called on Laimbeer that sent Kareem to the line to make two free throws.”

They kept getting off the deck, though. Trader Jack kept tweaking the roster. Chuck Daly kept pulling the strings, prodding and cajoling and managing egos as masterfully as it’s ever been done. They were the most single-minded, purpose-driven collection of professional athletes Detroit had ever beheld, a working-class team that perfectly represented their working-class city. They did 25 years ago. Still do today.