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In Jordan’s view, Detroit guard Isiah Thomas was a lying “a--hole” spewing “bulls---.” Losing to the “Bad Boys” Pistons “f---ing hurt,” Jordan continued, because they “made it personal” and “physically beat the s--- out of us.” In response, Jordan encouraged his teammates not to “f---ing whine” to the officials but to “be strong” and “beat these bullies.” Bulls forward Horace Grant got in on the action, calling the Pistons “straight up b----es” for refusing to shake hands after Chicago won the 1991 Eastern Conference finals.
“I hated them,” Jordan concluded. “That hate carries even to this day.”
But just as the Bulls outgrew the rivalry during the 1990s, Thomas and the Pistons enjoyed many memorable chapters before Jordan finally toppled them. The “Bad Boys” were about far more than dirty play and an early exit.
Of course, the alliterative nickname was catchy and accurate. Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer all ranked among the NBA’s most physical and most hated players. Collectively, the Pistons relished being heels and spoilers. Their slow and punishing style produced the NBA’s second-ranked defense in 1989 and its stingiest unit in 1990 en route to the first two titles in franchise history.
Thomas led top-10 offenses throughout his prime, though, and he was a Hall of Fame playmaker who was regarded, even by Jordan, as one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. Standing just 6-foot-1, he made the all-star team in his first 12 seasons in the league, averaged more than 20 points five times and outdueled Magic Johnson for the assist crown in 1985.
His personality chafed Jordan and other superstars, but Thomas scored 25 points in one quarter in the 1988 Finals while hobbling on a bad ankle, scored 33 points in Game 7 to close out the Bulls in 1989 and averaged 27.6 points in the 1990 Finals, among other heroics. He was everything coaches then and now look for in floor generals: dynamic, intelligent, unselfish and committed to two-way play, with an excellent feel for the game.
Next to Thomas was Joe Dumars, a no-nonsense shooting guard whose defense also earned Jordan’s respect. Like Thomas, there was a potency to his offensive game. Dumars averaged better than 20 points three times and earned six all-star nods. After the “Bad Boys” era, he claimed the NBA’s inaugural Sportsmanship Award in 1996 and transitioned to the front office, where he built the 2004 Pistons’ title-winning team. Dumars, long regarded as one of the NBA’s great gentlemen, earned executive of the year honors in 2003, and he joined Thomas in the Hall of Fame in 2006.
There were other memorable characters on those teams, and their fearsome frontcourt standouts were far more than enforcers. Vinnie “the Microwave” Johnson was an elite sixth man whose fantastic nickname referred to how quickly he could heat up when he came off the bench.
Rodman, meanwhile, copped to trying to “physically hurt” Jordan in “The Last Dance.” At his core, though, he was a basketball genius, not a mere brute. The Hall of Fame forward studied rebounding angles, handled a wide variety of defensive assignments and set the tone with his energy, earning multiple all-star nods and all-defensive-team selections during his seven years in Detroit.
Even Laimbeer, who antagonized fans and opponents with hard fouls, flopping, whining, trash talk and other antics, had game. He averaged a double-double for seven straight seasons, earned four all-star selections and, at 6-11, was one of the first big men to consistently take and make three-pointers.
The group was guided by Coach Chuck Daly, who was so well-regarded that he was tapped to lead USA Basketball’s “Dream Team” at the 1992 Olympics, even though no Pistons made the cut. Under Daly, the Pistons formulated the “Jordan Rules,” the famous defensive scheme that sought to punish its namesake, negate his advantages and exploit his few weaknesses. It worked better than anything Jordan saw before or after.
Together, the Pistons advanced to the Eastern Conference finals five straight years from 1987 to 1991. They reached three straight Finals, missing out on a three-peat by just one win. In addition to eliminating Jordan’s Bulls in 1988, 1989 and 1990, they conquered Larry Bird’s Celtics in 1988, Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in 1989 and Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers in 1990.
“We tried to win,” Thomas recently told the Detroit Free Press. “Really, that was it. It was no hidden agendas or anything like that. It was my team against your team, and let’s see who wins.”
The Pistons claimed more than their fair share of victories, and they beat everybody. No wonder they get under Jordan’s skin to this day.
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