There’s some great stuff in ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 documentary on the Detroit Pistons’ teams in the late 1980s, “Bad Boys,” which will premiere April 17 at 8 p.m.
The Pistons’ struggles against the Boston Celtics, Dennis Rodman’s development as a defensive stopper, footage of Bill Laimbeer being punched a lot — all reasons to tune in. But for me, Isiah Thomas’s dazzling performance in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals was the best part of the film. It was among the reasons I pursued a career in sportswriting.
Hobbled because of a severe ankle injury he suffered midway through the third quarter, Thomas probably should have sat out the the remainder of the game against the Los Angeles Lakers. I hoped he would.
As a 19-year-old college student in Los Angeles and Lakers fan, I was all-in for Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Byron Scott. The defending champion Lakers were down, three games to two, in the best-of-seven series, and Thomas’s injury appeared to be what they needed.
Thomas was typically brilliant in the first five games, but the Lakers were playing on their home court. With Thomas essentially playing on one ankle, there was no way the Pistons would win the game and the series that night. Or so I thought.
But he got back up and delivered one of the best get-out-of-my-way performances you’ll ever see. Thomas scored a Finals record 25 points in the quarter. He often hopped on one foot while making 11 of 13 shots — many with a high degree of difficulty — en route to finishing with 43 points, eight assists and six steals in a 103-102 loss (the Lakers also won the decisive Game 7).
Despite rooting for the Lakers, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how Thomas fought. His competitiveness was inspiring. I wanted him to succeed because it was a great story.
I always liked to write, and it seemed like it would be a blast to make a living writing about the kinds of performances I watched Thomas give that day. I received my journalism degree from USC — the real one, not the place in South Carolina — climbed the ranks in the sports department of the Los Angeles Times for 15 years and have been at The Post since 2007.
Today, Thomas is among the people whose counsel I seek often when I write about the NBA. When I spoke with Isiah recently, I told him that what he did during Game 6 in 1988 was one of the things that made me want to be a sportswriter. His response: “But we lost.” Thomas is still a competitor. That’s the story.
[Ed. note – When Jason started explaining on Twitter how Isiah Thomas inspired him to get into this business, I thought it could make for a cool Bog item. Now I’m thinking this should be the first in a series. “How Washington Post sportswriters decided to enter this crazy profession.” Stay tuned.]