Original Old School: Foul Ball

Since the Pistons appear to be in total disarray, now’s a good time to reminisce about when things were better in the Motor City. As chronicled in this old feature from SLAM 39, The Bad Boy Pistons literally pushed their way through the gauntlet of top-notch NBA opponents in late ’80s and early ’90s. And who could forget the franchise’s 21st century reemergence that included the 2004 NBA title, and six straight conference finals appearances from 2003-2008? But as for now, this post-2010 Pistons squad seems destined to toil in the cellar for a while.–Ed.

by Alan Paul

“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. The cherub-faced former point guard is simply answering a question about 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. Ten years later, it’s easy to forget that the ’89 champs went 63-19 during the regular season and romped through the playoffs with a 15-2 record. The last great team before Jordan’s royal reign, they were recently hailed by the NBA as one of the 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 of ’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 that 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. 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. From ’85, when Mahorn arrived in Detroit, until ’93, when Bill Laimbeer retired, the Pistons were fined more than $220,000 and lost about $85,000 due to suspensions. The burly, 6-10 Mahorn had long been known for his dirty tactics; on 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, a slow-moving center and great defensive rebounder, was viewed as a cheapshot artist and consummate crybaby.

“I hated him before he was my teammate,” says Mahorn. “I hated him for most of the first year he was my teammate. I thought he was an asshole and a cheapshot artist, but then I realized that he was a straightforward dude and he played by the rules. We didn’t go beyond the rules, but we took them to the limit, and the rules had to be changed 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, Laimbeer was the one who tormented opposing players into losing their focus, or blowing their top and taking a swing at him.

“Laimbeer rarely hit anyone; he just drove them nuts,” says longtime Pistons’ announcer George Blaha. “He delighted in getting under your skin. He was constantly 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.”

“It was all about throwing people off their games,” says Mahorn. “I think Michael developed that baseline jumper because of us. 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. Like Charles Oakley was one of the few guys who wasn’t intimidated by us at all, but he would get frustrated because his teammates [were]. But we wouldn’t try to hurt anybody, just hit them. And nobody could scare us. 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, ferocious-rebounding forward by the name of Dennis Rodman learned well from his mentors. Easygoing 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 ’90 the 6-3 Dumars was fined $2,000 for fighting 6-10 twins Harvey (Washington) and Horace (Chicago) Grant three weeks apart.

And then there was Isiah, the Pistons’ captain and little general. He may have weighed in at 185 pounds soaking wet, but 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 lack of both fear and common sense when he busted his hand clocking 7-foot Bulls center Bill Cartwright in the head. He slapped Lakers center Mychal Thompson the following January, drawing a $2,500 fine. In April ’90, he punched Mahorn (then with Philadelphia), despite being outweighed by nearly 100 pounds.

“I didn’t back down to anyone,” Thomas says today with a slight laugh. “I’m lucky I didn’t get hurt. 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. 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 undoubtedly is right, but mental toughness doesn’t leave black-and-blue marks, so it doesn’t tend to be as noticed. “You felt it when you played them, because the whole team was incredibly physical,” recalls Pacer vet Chris Mullin. “It’s not that they were all dirty, but they gave you nothing.”