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The Walkoff: a love story.
The broadcast doesn’t show when the planning started but it was brewing throughout the fourth quarter in the form of Bill Laimbeer, the baddest of the Bad Boys. He had been on the bench since about six minutes remaining in the third quarter, nothing to do but stew on 24 hours of disrespect. On five years of disrespect. On his chickens coming home to roost. On bodyslams delivered and punches absorbed. On Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson. On newspaper reporters and national commentators. On David Stern, the grand puppeteer.
It was all there for Laimbeer, as the fourth quarter wound down in Game 4 of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, the back-to-back defending champion Detroit Pistons watching their reign run out. Somewhere in that stasis, the idea took root. When you watch, you can see him pitching it to teammates, an acerbic curtain call befitting this most defiant of champions.
“Let’s give them the torch like they gave us the torch,” John Salley remembers Laimbeer telling him on the bench in the fourth. “Them” was the Chicago Bulls. “They” was the Boston Celtics. Salley knew what Laimbeer was suggesting. He approached head coach Chuck Daly.
“Let me get back in the game,” Salley told his coach.
“Come on Salley, you can’t get any more stats than you have.”
“No,” Salley pleaded, “there’s some shit going down I don’t want to be a part of.”
Chapter 1: The Supervillains
I don’t cultivate sports beefs like I once did. It’s impossible. You get older. Priorities change. Sports fandom’s raw intensity dissipates and you learn to see athletes as people first, rather than heightened characters in an ongoing battle of good and evil. Today, for example, I can hear Isiah Thomas on NBA Open Court express the frustration that he and his teammates felt about what they perceived as a double standard of treatment from the NBA and its adoring public. I can hear that and I can empathize.
“Everyone and every team could play and act like the Pistons and adopt our philosophy — except the Pistons,” he said in their defense.
And that’s true — to a point. Yes, the NBA of the 1980s was physical. The hard foul still existed. The “no layups” rule was real. But even with all that, this much is true: There was no team like the Pistons.
That’s because there was no player like Bill Laimbeer.
“I wore the black hat,” Laimbeer said upon his retirement in 1993. “Somebody has to play that role. I accepted it. Even in high school, the other teams disliked me.”
I will never like the Bad Boys, but I’ve come to appreciate and respect them. Yet even now, 30 years later, I detest Bill Laimbeer. It starts with his face. That pious glowering. His teeth when he smiled. The way his eyes would tighten when he said things like, “I don’t give an inch at all on the court. I don’t give anybody any respect.”
I bet that if I ever meet him and rap with him, I’ll find something I like on a personal level. He’s probably a good storyteller, and I bet people in his presence are inclined to become willingly complicit in support of his on-court batteries. But there is a part of me that even to this day squirms and braces and rages when I look at him. Perhaps it’s only childhood residuals, but talk about residuals!
In the Detroit Free Press’ 1988 NBA preview, writer Johnette Howard named Laimbeer one of three players on her All-Thug Team, and asked Laimbeer whether he would take a swing at himself if he were an opposing player.
To which he answered, “Yeah, I guess I would.”
“He was a dirty player,” Larry Bird said a few years ago. “Ricky Mahorn, he’d hit you … but he didn’t try to maim you. Bill tried to hurt you.”
“I am not a dirty player and have never tried to hurt anybody,” Laimbeer said during the ‘89 Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls, a series the Pistons would win en route to their first championship. “That image was started by the press in Boston and promoted by the league.”
During the ‘87 Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, the late Pistons GM Jack McCloskey defended Laimbeer’s rep too on the technicality that “He has never thrown a punch.”
“I’ve only thrown one punch, against Brad Daugherty,” Laimbeer said during the ‘89 Finals. “I’ll push somebody, but I won’t swing at anybody.”
He didn’t have to. McCloskey, Laimbeer and anyone else can say whatever they want, whether in 1987 or 2021. Laimbeer was different. He was just different, man. He relished the fight and instigated them, a reputation that has obscured the rest of his game. He was a deeply skilled player who made four All-Star teams. He won the rebounding title in 1986 and was one of the first big men to consistently shoot the three. He was an iron man, going 10 straight seasons of 81 or 82 regular season games, plus deep playoff runs for much of that time. He was a leader — the acknowledged co-ruler of a two-time champ alongside Isiah Thomas, the 1 to Laimbeer’s 1a.
And he elbowed and tripped and clubbed opponents until they snapped and threw punches at him.
He enjoyed the Bad Boys moniker, bragged after retirement about his team’s influence on the roughness of the game and starred in the only Super Nintendo game that, to this day, I refuse to play: “Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball,” set in a futuristic 2031 in which Bill Laimbeer is commissioner of the NBA and allows not just on-court fighting but explosive devices.
“Laimbeer is very dirty in terms of — you’ve seen Laimbeer: He doesn’t jump well. He can’t block a shot. This is true, it’s not to knock him,” Jordan told Arsenio Hall in 1990. “So to see him coming at me full steam ahead, it’s only to knock me over or knock me off balance.”
McCloskey chalked up much of Laimbeer’s physicality to his being “clumsy.” He was certainly awkward. But when I think “clumsy,” I think Bill Cartwright, whose violent elbows caused the league’s chief disciplinarian Rod Thorn to ask Cartwright if he would wear elbow pads during games.
Yet that was the extent of Cartwright’s physicality. Laimbeer had an arsenal. Opponents hated Cartwright’s elbows. No one reduced Laimbeer to a body part. They hated him.
“A physical game by Piston standards is when everybody is bleeding from the mouth,” Rick Mahorn said as the ‘88 Finals got rough. Just think: Mahorn, one half of Washington’s “McFilthy and McNasty” — well, Mahorn was Detroit’s other rough player. And Dennis Rodman was third. Third! Laimbeer-Mahorn-Rodman was the Bird-McHale-Parish or Magic-Kareem-Worthy of bullyball. McHale could have been a #1 option in this league. Worthy too. Put those guys next to Bird, or Magic and Kareem? Watch out.
“We’ve got the reputation of being Bad Boys — throwing elbows, throwing people down,” Rodman said during the ‘89 Eastern Conference Finals. “You’ve got to live with it. But we shouldn’t change the way we play.”
They didn’t. And only Jordan scored on them with regularity. Over Detroit’s three-year Finals run, MJ scored 20 or more points against the Pistons in the playoffs 17 times. Second best were McHale and Worthy, each with 6.
“Chuck Daly said, ‘These are the Jordan Rules: Every time he goes to the fucking basket, put him on the ground,’” Rodman said in The Last Dance. “We tried to physically hurt Michael.”
So when we finally flipped the script in 1991, when Scottie and Horace came of age, when everyone knew why Bill Cartwright mattered to this team, when Pax was locked in as the other guard, when the bench got tough and organized, when our coaching staff knew every angle, it made sense to us that the Pistons would walk off the court. A punk move for a punk team, we all thought. The Pistons fled the scene. Showed their bellies. Revealed themselves the snakes we knew they were. The walkoff fit the story. Our story. We needed that ending.
In fact, I’ll be real: We liked that ending. The win was so much more satisfying with the walkoff. For Bulls fans, it was vindication. Validation. Confirmation that we were on the side of good and had vanquished a pox upon sport. Beating the Pistons would have been sweet in seven games. It would have been sweet even if they’d offered up postgame handshakes.
But nothing was as sweet as seeing the Bad Boys slink off the floor with the clock running down. It was, as I said, petty and perfect. So long fellas. Don’t let the door hit ya.
To this day, a part of me can’t help but smile.
As Salley finishes the game, his star teammates are on the bench talking. Reflecting. Feeling it out. Laimbeer’s pitch. You can see it during the close-ups, the cuts from the action. Isiah and Laimbeer next to each other, talking, laughing. Aguirre between them, listening. Isiah then gets up and walks to Dumars, telling him something. Later, he is talking to Rodman, again in conspiratorial fun. He and Laimbeer are gleeful. The Pistons fans are cheering. They know this team is not going to three-peat. They love this team.
They also hate the Bulls. The Pistons know it. The Bulls know it. Everyone knows it, in fact, because the home fans begin chanting, “Go L.A.! Go L.A.!” cheering the assumed eventual Western Conference champion Lakers, the team their beloved Pistons battled in consecutive Finals just two years prior.
They’re down to 1:45 remaining on their season, and at this point, your attention switches from Laimbeer to Isiah. The camera catches him standing near Chuck Daly, the two men talking, Zeke still smiling, Daly flustered. The coach turns his back on his superstar and folds his arms. Cut to the court, and then back to the sideline, the two men still talking. Stoppage of play with 35.2 seconds remaining, and now Daly walks away from Isiah and shakes his hand in a negative fashion, as if to say, “Don’t do it.” He looks perturbed. You can’t say for sure, but watching it, Daly seems to make a “No, stay there” wrist move.
Isiah is listening, still standing, swinging his hands. Accomplice energy. The Pistons score — 24.8 remaining. Isiah leans down to tell Laimbeer and Aguirre something as Daly walks away. The camera pans left with the Bulls bringing the ball up, 22.9 and ticking. Our last view of the Pistons bench shows it bubbling. Percolating. And there is Isiah, swinging his arms...
Chapter 2: Revenge of the chosen heel
What stands out to me today are those fans. Those screaming, cheering, adoring Pistons fans. More than anyone else, they seemed to understand immediately what their Pistons were doing. It took me a few seconds to process what I was seeing, and not just because I was nine years old. You can hear it in Marv Albert’s voice as he calls the action. There’s a moment where reality kicks in for Marv, an NBA lifer.
“The Pistons just LEFT,” he declares, dumbfounded. But Pistons fans — they got it. They knew where their guys were coming from, why they would do this.
“It was intentional on my part,” Laimbeer said a year later.
“No, why would I regret it now, today?” Laimbeer said 28 years after that.
Okay okay, fine, he’s low-hanging fruit. Of course Bill Laimbeer was an unapologetic Bad Boy. But try this one on for size:
“I don’t know if it’s been good for the league, but it was damn sure good for me. I’ve gotten two rings. I don’t give a damn if it’s good for basketball.”
That was Joe Dumars, “The good Bad Boy,” Memorial Day 1991, reflecting on the team’s “Bad Boys” image. To understand the walkoff from their perspective, you have to go back to the start of that famed moniker itself. January 1988. The brainchild of former sociology minor and NBA superstar Isiah Thomas.
“I learned in my sociology classes about the labeling theory. When you apply labels to individuals, they tend to stick, and people begin to form opinions about these individuals based on those labels,” Thomas writes in his 1989 book “Bad Boys!” which he co-authored with his dear friend Matt Dobek, the Pistons longtime spokesperson. “Soon, these opinions become closer to fact than mere opinion.”
Thomas was reacting at the time to Michael Jordan’s comments about the Pistons after the famous Mahorn-vs.-Everyone fight, which started when Mahorn fouled Jordan particularly hard on a drive.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Mahorn and (Adrian) Dantley were attempting to injure me, not just prevent me from scoring, and that’s what infuriated me,” Jordan said after the game.
Thomas read Jordan’s comments and decided to lean into that reputation. By fostering the “Bad Boys” image, the Pistons could give themselves the type of mystique that the Lakers had through Showtime, that the Celtics had through their leprechauns and clovers, and that both teams had through their banners.
Thomas knew that reporters would inadvertently get players off their game by asking them about the leprechauns instead of about Bird and McHale. Now, reporters would get Pistons opponents off their games by asking them if they were ready to fight the Bad Boys.
But Thomas heeded for himself a warning: “We better let this work for us, because if we don’t it’s going to work against us.”
That’s exactly what happened. Dennis Rodman lamented during the ‘88 Finals that their reputation was hurting them with the refs. Isiah, Laimbeer and Mahorn talked about how much more the Pistons were fined compared to other teams, even for the same actions; during the ‘89 Finals, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pistons had been fined more than $29,000 that season, more than triple the amount of the next most heavily fined team, the Trail Blazers.
Even when the Pistons said that they were retiring the name after the club let Mahorn leave in the ‘89 expansion draft, they continued hyping it amongst themselves until ‘91, and into the present day. In 2014, the entire team participated in ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary about them, titled “Bad Boys.”
Yet what I think really bothered the Pistons then and now — and what was a major contributor to the walkoff — was their realization that David Stern and the NBA were benefiting financially from the Bad Boys image, even as they were publicly condemning it.
“The ‘Bad Boys’ came from the league, actually,” Laimbeer said years later. In February of 1988, during halftime of its nationally televised Sunday afternoon Celtics-Lakers game, CBS aired a feature on the Pistons called “The Bad Boys of Basketball.” The clip referred to the Pistons as “The Raiders of the NBA.” Watching the game, Raiders owner Al Davis was inspired to send the team a care package of Raiders gear — the start of the Pistons’ black-backed skull-and-crossbone branding.
A few months later after the season ended, the Pistons reached the Finals, losing a famed seven-game dogfight with the Lakers. When the league released the Pistons’ team video after the 1988 season, the title was no surprise.
“It was titled ‘Bad Boys,’” Laimbeer said. “David Stern always says that he regrets the day that he approved that title — I disagree. I think he knows what a great moniker it was. It will live forever and will always be associated with our ball club.”
What Laimbeer saw – or, perhaps, what he saw through — was that the NBA seemed fine promoting the Bad Boys image so long as the team was coming up short each season. But champions are the face of the league. If the Pistons never won, I think the league would have been more comfortable with the Bad Boys image. Instead, they won not one but two championships, and the league was stuck with a champ it did not want to promote.
So it didn’t.
In 1989, 1990 and 1991, the league seemed to treat the Pistons just a bit differently than it did other great champions. The first NBA-licensed video game was released in 1989, after the first Pistons championship and second Finals. The video game was called “Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs.”
As an introduction to this cutting-edge video game series, I guess it made sense to wrap up the 1980s celebrating the two teams that combined for eight championships, five runners-up, and six league MVPs. But in 1990, after the Pistons won again, the game was not released. The next version in the series came out after the Bulls won in ‘91, with a game called “Bulls versus Lakers and the NBA Playoffs.”
The national television schedules didn’t favor the Pistons either. Not in 1989 (coming off their NBA Finals performance), 1990 (as defending champs) nor 1991 (as two-time champions) were the Pistons the top team on national TV. The best you could say is that in ‘91, they led all teams with eight appearances on NBC, but when adding the cable games on TNT, they dropped to fourth overall behind the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls — against whom the Pistons swept in the playoffs across 1989 and 1990 in four total series.
League award voters weren’t any more generous. Rodman and Dumars were honored defensively, but voters ignored the Pistons within MVP and All-NBA. In both ‘89 and ‘90, Isiah and Dumars tied in the MVP voting with one vote apiece, coming in last both years (13th and 17th, respectively) among those receiving votes. And All-NBA? In 1989, the year the league expanded All-NBA to three teams, the Pistons became the first 60-win team in NBA or ABA history to get shut out of all-league honors.
To this day, 70 teams have won 60+ games, the NBA championship or both. The ‘89 Pistons are the only one of those 70 with zero All-NBA players. They finally got another in 1990, when Dumars was named third team.
The NBA’s ambivalent promotion of the Pistons as champion was transparent compared to how it celebrated the Lakers, Celtics and — much to the Pistons’ consternation — a pre-champion Michael Jordan.
“All I can say is, he hasn’t been in the league for one month yet, and the refs are treating him like a god,” said Kings fifth-year guard Larry Drew in October of 1984, MJ’s first NBA preseason.
That treatment only grew. In 2017, John Paxson recalled head NBA official Darrell Garretson laying the league’s chips out on the table, as it were.
“He told us, ‘Look, we all know the fans are here to see the great players like Michael Jordan, so if there’s a play where Jordan and Paxson are together and there’s a foul and Jordan smacked the guy on the arm, I’m giving the foul to Paxson because the fans don’t want to see Jordan foul out of the game.’”
For Isiah Thomas, a man whose lone significant deficiency compared to Jordan, Magic and Bird was his height, and for the Pistons, a team that was scratching and clawing for leaguewide respect and hardware, there was natural frustration over the league showing promotional favoritism to every team except for theirs, especially the Bulls, a club they were defeating annually in the playoffs.
And then finally, in September of 1990, David Stern and the owners of the other 26 NBA teams settled into the business of making life a little bit harder for the two-time defending champs. At the annual league meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, several major rule changes under consideration for the 1990-91 season would have an adverse effect on the Pistons, none bigger than one the league adopted for the next season, 1990-91: the addition of the “flagrant-2.”
This new foul category would give a team two free throws and possession of the ball. The problem with the flagrant foul rule in its previous incarnation, Rod Thorn explained then, is that it came with an ejection for the player. And in a star-driven league, refs didn’t want to eject players, so they were disinclined to call flagrants.
“Hard fouls in the half court have gotten ridiculous,” Thorn said at the time. “You can’t go for a guy’s head when he’s up in the air, or when he’s not involved in the play at all.”
While Thorn specifically cited a 1990 foul by Charles Barkley, it was clear that the flagrant foul rule would heavily impact the Pistons as a whole. In the Eastern Conference Finals, officials called three flagrants on the Pistons in Game 2, causing an eight-point swing for the Bulls in what ended up an eight-point win. There were also the usual spate of technical fouls as well as just standard personal fouls. In the first two games of that series, at home in Chicago, the Bulls enjoyed a 79-40 free throw advantage.
Which is not to say that the Bulls won because of the refs. Far from it. By 1991, we were flat out better. We were better than Boston, better than Cleveland, and yes, better than Detroit, with a major boost from Pippen compared to the prior three years.
But from the Pistons’ perspective, the officiating was just the latest example of the league chipping away at their power. And then, with the Bulls up three games to none, Jordan took the mic.
“The people I know are going to be happy that they’re not the reigning champs anymore,” Jordan said before Game 4. “When Boston was the champion, they played true basketball. Detroit won. You can’t take that away from them. But it wasn’t clean basketball. It wasn’t the kind of basketball you want to endorse.”
Of course, MJ was right. Not only that, but to me, that’s an example of what Salley — who shook hands with the Bulls on the court while his teammates walked off — calls “(killing) you from start to the double-zero” before “going back to become human.” Jordan speaking candidly and saying what everyone was thinking constituted killing the Pistons from start to the double-zero.
“I don’t feel we’re overconfident,” Jordan said, “but we want to kill this team.”
Everybody did. Everybody, that is, except Pistons fans. The Pistons did everything on their own terms, so why not this too? Looking back on it now, 30 years later, I think the walkoff was an opportunity to stick it to David Stern, to stick it to Rod Thorn, to stick it to the Bulls, to stick it to MJ, to stick it to everybody except their fans, to whom they gave this gift of defiance. Again, listen to their fans as they depart. Just listen to them. Those cheers are pure love. If the Pistons could get it nowhere else, they could get it there.
The Pistons score with 24.8 seconds remaining, and the last thing you can see of the Pistons bench is Isiah leaning down to tell Laimbeer and Aguirre something as Daly walks away. The camera pans left with the Bulls bringing the ball up, 22.9 and ticking, Isiah still swinging his hands, but there’s movement now, and Pistons fans are applauding as the Bulls dribble out the clock, the camera moving left and leaving the Bad Boys behind.
Except then you realize this is not a standard ovation. The Pistons fans are reacting to something. The cheering increases as the Pistons players are walking down the sideline. Aguirre is in front, followed by Laimbeer and Isiah. It’s hard to tell at first their purpose. Your mind calculates. Are they on their way to greet the Bulls? That can’t be right. But the alternative is that they’re leaving the floor while the game is ongoing. That can’t be right either. NBC cuts to a wide shot with 9.2 seconds remaining, the clock running, and they’re really doing it, they’re walking off.
The scene is bizarre. Logic retreats. “I think the crowd is cheering here for the Bulls right now, and the Pistons as they leave the court,” says color man Cotton Fitzsimmons. NBC cuts back tight to a profile view of Isiah, walking right to left on screen, trailing Aguirre and Laimbeer, and the clock stops at 7.9 seconds. Whistles blow. Neither team has called time. There is no injury. There was not a basket. The clock has stopped because one team is leaving.
“I don’t think they’re cheering for the Bulls,” Marv Albert responds, flatly astounded, still processing. NBC cuts to a close-up of Jordan and Scott Williams. They are stunned and serene. The feed cuts back to the profile shot of Isiah, as Marv corrects Fitzsimmons. “I think the greeting is for the Pistons, as they are headed off as time runs down.” And just as he’s saying this, Isiah ducks his head down as he begins to pass the Bulls bench.
Chapter 3: The Isiah Effect
The walkoff wasn’t anything new for Bill Laimbeer. He was born to play the villain. It wasn’t anything new for Mark Aguirre or Dennis Rodman. It didn’t matter to James Edwards or Vinnie Johnson. It didn’t change anything for John Salley or Dumars, who also shook hands with the Bulls after the game.
But it mattered to one man — the one man with more to lose than anyone else.
Isiah Lord Thomas III.
He’s the one guy in all this I really feel for.
“I’ve paid a heavy price for that decision,” Thomas said last year about the walkoff, during the airing of The Last Dance. “And in paying that price — I understand that this is the sports world … but at the same time, looking back over it in terms of how we felt at that particular time, our emotional state, and how we exited the floor, we actually gave the world the opportunity to look at us in a way that we never really tried to … project ourselves.”
Okay… there’s a lot there. On the one hand, Isiah is playing both sides of the truth. As he wrote in his book, and as was clearly the case with that team, they absolutely did project themselves as the Bad Boys.
“I know it’s all bullshit,” MJ said during the doc about Isiah’s walkoff remorse. “Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it. Or the reaction of the public has kind of changed his perspective. … There’s no way you’re going to convince me that he wasn’t the asshole.”
Jordan’s right. And one thing I would have loved in The Last Dance would have been the filmmakers using their iPad watch-and-react style to ask interviewees to react to their own words. Had they done that, they might have waited for Isiah to finish his, “That’s just what was done at the time” explanation, and then played him his own statement from November of 1991:
“At that time we were mad, we were upset. And for me to sit here now and say, ‘We didn’t really mean it,’ that would be a lie. Because at that time, we meant it. Was it unsportsmanlike? Yes. Was it the wrong thing to do? Yes. But at that time, was that the way we felt? Yeah, it was a very emotional response…”
On the other hand, what Isiah said last year is true in two key ways. First, he’s talking again about labels and myth-making, and the walkoff solidified in the public’s collective mind that the Bad Boys were everything they’d made themselves out to be — and not, additionally, or moreso, a team that embodied the best of basketball and team sport: the cohesion, teamwork, fighting spirit, discipline and pure, raw talent.
So that was the team fallout. The other point Isiah makes is a personal one. The price he paid. The price no other member of that team was in a position to pay: a historical downgrade that started with his snub from the Dream Team. The team had other pro snubs, with Dominique Wilkins at the top of the list. But the only man whose exclusion felt like a birthright betrayed was Isiah.
“You see him? You see Isiah?” I remember my father saying to me in the late 1980s as we watched yet another Pistons beatdown of the Bulls. “He’s from Chicago. Yet he plays for the Pistons. And B.J. Armstrong? He’s from Detroit yet he plays for the Bulls.”
That was the beginning of my Isiah respect. He was short, like me. He had a chip on his shoulder, like me. He played the way I liked to play, with equal parts intelligence and passion. Everything about Isiah resonated with me — expect, of course, his jersey.
Walking off the court was poor sportsmanship. I knew that then and I know that now. But even then, I didn’t think that warranted exclusion from the Dream Team. I don’t judge Scottie by his 1.8 seconds, I don’t judge Jay Cutler by the 2010 NFC championship game, I don’t judge Dennis by what he did to the Bulls in Detroit, and I don’t judge Isiah based on the walkoff.
And yes, it was the walkoff that kept him off the ‘92 Olympic team. Dream Team historian Jack McCallum thinks that Thomas’s disrespect of Bird from 1987 played a major role in his Dream Team snub, but by the time the players were selected, that was four years in the past. Magic wrote in his 2009 autobiography with Larry Bird that Thomas’s reaction to Magic revealing his HIV-positive test was to speculate on Magic’s sexuality, and that that was the reason Isiah was not selected — but Magic learned of that test in late October of 1991, and the first 10 members of the Dream Team were chosen the month before.
In fact, less than a week before the selection, Isiah was one of five groomsmen at Magic’s wedding. Mark Aguirre was another, while the other three were Magic’s three brothers.
Yes, Isiah’s reaction to Magic having HIV could have prevented him from being awarded the final spot for a pro — that went to Clyde Drexler in May of 1992. But by that point, the Dream Team opportunity was gone for Isiah. The camaraderie factor, along with the overall level of animosity, is I’m sure why Jordan told McCallum in 2011 for his Dream Team book: “I told Rod [Thorn] I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.”
Still, while I agree with Jordan and others (Magic, Malone, Pippen…) that Isiah would not have fit in, his dye was cast when one cameraman at NBC showed to the world Isiah ducking his head as he passed the Bulls bench, and then walked directly behind him for that long run from the Bulls bench to the Pistons tunnel. That’s another major difference between the Pistons walkoff and the Celtics walkoff: perspective. The power of the picture. Everyone who cared about the NBA felt viscerally linked to that walkoff due to that broadcast. Headline writers had a field day:
“Bulls sweep vile Pistons from playoffs”
“In the end, Bad Boys nothing but crybabies”
“Pistons bow out in the lowest way possible”
“Bulls make NBA safe for ‘solid’ basketball”
“All over the world, when basketball fans think of the NBA, they think of six names: Dr. J., Kareem, Bird, Magic, Michael, Isiah,” Detroit Free Press columnist Michelle Kaufman wrote in early September 1991, before the selection. “Those six players are the pillars that bolstered the once-floundering league and raised it to heights other American sports leagues should envy. … (The U.S.) should send Michael, Magic, Bird and Thomas.”
They should have, but they didn’t. Despite his political deftness within league matters, Isiah did not realize (or did not believe) that his place on the Olympic team depended on him mending fences, with both Jordan and the league powers who made up the selection committee and were reportedly disgusted by the walkoff.
“The Olympic team was a political battle,” Laimbeer told McCallum, “and if there was one team and one player that wasn’t going to win a political battle, it was the Detroit Pistons and Isiah Thomas.”
That is my best guess as to why Isiah has gone round and round on the walkoff — why over the past 30 years he sometimes seems remorseful, other times vindictive, and still other times dismayed. He felt he should have been respected and promoted at the level of Jordan, Bird and Magic, and should never have needed to stoop to the walkoff in the first place. In a way, his original assessment might have been his truest one of all.
“It was a happy time,” he said after the game. “For the first time in five years, we can lean back and say, ‘Whew!’ It’s been a cruel kind of torture that we’ve had to endure physically and mentally. I don’t think anyone looking from the outside can understand that.”
If you can’t understand that, I don’t know what to tell you.
“Pistons wasting no time in getting out of here,” Marv says as Isiah passes MJ. The camera pivots to join a single-file line, behind Isiah, and now the whole of the basketball-loving world is looking at those bright blue names stitched into white fabric: LAIMBEER ahead on the left of the screen, and THOMAS, bold, clear, filling the frame. “Now a timeout was called.”
The crowd is roaring, and suddenly, Marv seems to understand what’s happening. The meaning of it all. He knows what he’s looking at. You can hear it in his voice. The clock on screen is frozen at 7.9 seconds remaining, and the instant legacy of the action clicks in for Marv.
“They LEFT the BENCH, although there are seven and nine-tenths seconds remaining,” he says. Laimbeer high-fives and then hugs Jack McCloskey just outside the Pistons tunnel. “The Pistons just LEFT...”
Chapter 4: The Bad Boys and The Dynasty
Every superhero needs an origin story. The Pistons were ours.
And that origin would not have been the same without the walkoff.
“Detroit’s been very successful with their style and other teams tried to copy it because they were successful,” a prescient Jordan said after Game 4. “And that’s not good for the game.”
Oh, and speaking of prescience...
“They still haven’t proved anything. They’ve got to win about five or six championships before they’re a great team.”
That was a frustrated Dennis Rodman after Game 4, one of several Pistons who dismissed our victory and dumped on us after a chippy, emotional game. The most famous play was probably Laimbeer and Rodman converging on Pippen on an open drive to the basket; Laimbeer wacked him across the body and face with his left arm, and when he landed, Rodman threw him past the basket into the front row of seats.
Incredibly, that was not one of the four technical fouls that the Pistons received, nor the one flagrant. Rodman did receive a tech for arguing with the refs, as did Daly and assistant Brandon Suhr.
Laimbeer earned a technical and a flagrant, separately, and spent his postgame interview coldly repeating, “They won.” On the Bulls side, Jordan kept both barrels blazing.
“You see two different styles of play with us and them — the dirty play and the flagrant fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct,” he said. “Hopefully, that will be eliminated from the game.”
Jordan even stated something that Pistons players gripe about to this day: the notion that the Bulls complaining to the league caused an increase in disciplinary attention.
“We may have complained about it and told the teacher, or whatever, but we never tried to lower ourselves to that level,” he said.
So there they were: the proverbial two teams that just don’t like each other. The Pistons did what they had to do to win championships. Theirs was not the template of a standard NBA champion, starting at the top with Isiah, who had every bit of the greatness of Jordan, Magic and Bird, and was one of the most talented players to step into this league, but was only 6’1.
“If Isiah were five inches taller,” Chuck Daly said in the mid-1990s, “he’d be the best basketball player in NBA history.”
Detroit pushed the era’s standard physical play to its limit, and had the mental toughness to take what came of that. This was the mystique factor that Isiah talked about building, and it worked! They beat Jordan up because that was the only way to handle him.
“He by far is the best I’ve ever seen,” Isiah told Arsenio while the Pistons were champs. “And Earvin’s my boy, but, you know, Air…” Isiah said, fading out in awe.
As the decade wore on, the Bulls fended off bruising challengers in Riley’s Knicks, Riley’s Heat and Reggie’s Pacers (coached by Larry Bird). With each new team, I said to myself, “We handled the Pistons, we can handle anyone.”
In a bizarre twist, Dennis Rodman wound his way to the Bulls in 1995. James Edwards and John Salley did too. The 1996 Bulls are possibly the greatest team in NBA history, and 25% of them were displaced Bad Boys. We embraced those guys — I was the world’s biggest Rodman fan — but the one guy we would not have accepted was Laimbeer. He remains in the exact same headspace today about the rivalry as he was then, with no alternate perspectives or insights.
He and Jordan share that: If “...and I took that personally” applies to anyone other than Jordan, it’s Laimbeer.
As Jordan said in that 1990 Arsenio interview, ask all NBA players to identify the dirtiest player in the NBA, the answer would be easy.
“I say 95% would say Laimbeer, or Larry Bird,” Jordan answered. This caught Arsenio off guard, but Jordan went on to define Bird’s style of dirty play as “smart … not really cheap.”
That assessment defines the perception of the Pistons. They were like the Richard Nixon of basketball teams: “If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” and if the Pistons do it, that means it is. It’s a tricky balance, even with 30 years of hindsight. “Dirty” is a value judgement, so let’s stay away from labels and just describe what we all saw. They hit you. They tripped you. They tried to hurt you.
“As soon as he steps in the paint,” Salley said about Jordan during The Last Dance: “hit him.”
But so it goes. We won six and became the second greatest dynasty in league history after Russell’s Celtics. They won two and carved out a legacy unlike any other, giving something beautiful to their fans. That to me was their most damning sin. What made them intolerable to the NBA powers-that-be was not the physicality. It was their success. They won. And not just a few key games. Championships. They were the league’s ultimate villain. The Bad Boys. And world champs twice over.
“I can’t sit here and whine about the reaction to what’s happening right now,” Dumars said last year about The Last Dance on B.J. Armstrong’s podcast. “I played for the Bad Boy Pistons.” He paused, letting those words sink in. “And you know what you signed up for when you play for the Bad Boys Pistons. So you can’t sit here and be sensitive about criticism. It’s the walk we walked. We got rings. We got trophies. We got banners. Right? I’m not going to sit here and walk the walk with my teammates and then cry about the reaction.”
Amen, Joe. Thanks for the battles.
As the fans at the Palace cheer and wave, a tearful Jack McCloskey embraces Isiah. “That’s a three-pointer!” Marv exclaims, indicating that, yes, the game is continuing.
But no one is watching it or even thinking about it. The TV viewers aren’t. The fans at the Palace aren’t. The Pistons stars certainly aren’t. The camera is close behind Isiah with a shot straight at a crying McCloskey as they hug. We can hear the buzzer sound signifying the game’s end. The reign’s end. Isiah is smiling, cheering up McCloskey.
The fans are going bonkers as Isiah and McCloskey walk arm-in-arm to the locker room. McCloskey stops and turns back toward the court, but Isiah still has his right hand on Jack’s shoulder and he pulls him back. Speaks softly to him. Smiles with him. Isiah is in control, guiding his beloved general manager to the locker room.
And all is well in the Pistons world.