Original Old School: Foul Ball
SLAM 39: Remember when the Pistons were feared?
That never-give-an-inch defensive presence became Coach Chuck Daly’s trademark. “I found that our club was only good when we were making contact with people,” Daly recalled recently. “We were not a very good defensive team when we weren’t right up on people, 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, 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. “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 Johnson.”
“They had great talent to go with their physical presence,” Mullin recalls. “Don’t forget how good Isiah and Joe were—and they had Vinnie coming off the bench. And they were all interchangeable; they could shoot or handle, play the point or the off-guard. That idea of interchangeable guards was an aspect of their game copied at least as much as their physicality.”
Nonetheless, the Pistons’ legacy remains physical, defense-dominated play. “It was all finesse and scoring before those guys started winning,” says Charlotte’s Anthony Mason, spitting out “finesse” as if it were excrement. “They just put their bodies on people and showed you could have success that way.”
“Look at basketball today—low scoring, lots of physical defense. That was all the Pistons’ doing,” Laimbeer said a few years ago. “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 making the Bad Boys name dead 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 no. The NBA’s marketing geniuses realized they had a horse to flog and produced a video, cleverly titled Bad Boys. And even without Mahorn—whom they had left exposed in the expansion draft; the Timberwolves snagged him and traded to the Sixers—the Pistons displayed plenty of swagger and bad attitude.
One of Laimbeer’s finest and baddest moments came in Game 3 of the ’90 Finals. Tied at one-one and heading to Portland, where they had lost 20 straight games, the Pistons were in trouble. Rodman was injured, and Johnson was mired in a slump. But Laimbeer set the tone for a fired-up team when he ran over a photographer who had stepped in front of him in the tunnel before the game, then quickly demoralized 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 proceeded 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 still were a very good team but 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 their conquerors’ hands. 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 ends 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.”