The Spider. The Worm. The Microwave. Zeke. Buddha. Lambs. Daddy Rich. Bad Boys. These are the names that stick with us in Detroit. The Bad Boys-era Pistons changed the way the game was played. Outside of Detroit, they were hated, but here, they were adored. But it was a long road from the beginning, when Jack McCloskey drafted a reluctant Isiah Thomas in 1981 NBA draft, to the building of the Palace of Auburn Hills prior to the 1988-89 season, to the pinnacle 25 years ago this June, the defeat of the legendary Lakers in the NBA Finals. That dominating victory cemented the Bad Boys as one of the greatest teams to ever take the court in the history of the NBA. Over the next two weeks, Swami looks back at the rise, dominance, and fall of the Bad Boys, the team you either loved or hated.
In The Beginning, the Bad Boys Almost Never Existed
Isiah Thomas made it no secret that he did not want to follow his lifelong friend Mark Aguirre as the Number Two pick in the 1981 NBA draft. He did not want to go to Detroit. “I was trying to drop in the draft,” Thomas says, “I remember I was sitting with Jack McCloskey and every question he asked me I intentionally answered wrong.” Isiah wanted to play for his hometown team, the Chicago Bulls. Fortunately, McCloskey told Isiah “I don’t care what you do in this interview. If you’re there at number two, I’m drafting you.” Had McCloskey given up, had Isiah dropped to Chicago, the Bulls would have been a factor much sooner than 1990-91.
In his first two games as a 19 year old rookie, Isiah scored 59 points, but the Pistons could not get going. Back then, the Pistons were bad, but not in a good way. Finally, Isiah had had enough. He walked into the locker room and laid into every teammate…as a ROOKIE. He made it clear; he was here to WIN.
Trader Jack Starts Making His Moves
Jack McCloskey was in the spotlight as the new GM of the Pistons when he drafted Isiah. He had never been upper management when Bill Davidson hired him. When he first arrived, he offered every player for Magic Johnson. Right from the start, he wanted to make the deals to bring the best to Detroit, the place that no one wanted to be. Late in 1981, he traded Greg Kelser to the Seattle Supersonics for Vinnie Johnson, who would become known as “The Microwave”.
In 1982, in Cleveland, he saw something in a tall center, whose Cavaliers were down by 20, yet played like it was a one-point game. Trader Jack, as McCloskey became to be known, went to work and traded for Bill Laimbeer, who became the intimidating force behind the team that was to be known as the Bad Boys. The two players, complete opposites in both their background and their size, shared one common key component – the desire to win. Laimbeer says “I drive off of fear of failure, he does too.” Both wanted to be the best, and expected the best from their teammates. If someone didn’t perform, they wanted them gone, and Trader Jack listened.
The next big change was the naming of Chuck Daly as the head coach. Many scoffed, because in his prior half-season of NBA head coaching experience, his Cavaliers had won just 9 games. McCloskey knew better, “The fact that he lost in Cleveland wasn’t because of him. They didn’t have any players,” McCloskey says today. Daly put the Pistons into the playoffs in 1984, where they fell to the Knicks in the first round, though the deciding game saw Isiah show that he, and this team, was for real, scoring 16 points in the final 94 seconds of regulation. In 1985, the Pistons won their first round matchup, only to fall to Larry Bird and the Celtics in the conference semifinals. That summer, the Pistons added another piece to the puzzle by selecting Joe Dumars in the draft, but the day prior, Trader Jack made a huge move, trading for a defensive force named Rick Mahorn. Mahorn lived for rough play, liking to “love tap” guys hard enough from a blind side pick to take them out of the game. He also did not want to come to Detroit; he hated Isiah and Laimbeer, and showed up overweight and out of shape. When he showed up to training camp, Laimbeer laid down the law. Mahorn backed down and got with the program, and the Pistons returned to the playoffs, but fell in the first round to the Hawks.
The Final Pieces Start to Come Into Play
After the loss to the Hawks, Trader Jack knew more defense and scoring down low was needed, so he went after Adrian Dantley, and acquired him from the Jazz. He also picked up Brooklyn native John Salley in the first round of the 1986 draft, and Dennis Rodman in the second round. In 1987, they blew through the first two rounds to once again face the Celtics, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. After dropping the first two at the historic Boston Garden, the Pistons got physical with Bird, McHale, and Parrish, and their 145 points scored in Game 4 to even the series was the most ever scored against the Celtics in the playoffs, a record that still stands. In Game 5, the Pistons had a one point lead with an inbound pass with 5 seconds left, but Isiah panicked and passed the ball back towards the defensive end. Bird stole the ball, the Celtics scored with one second left, and took away Detroit’s best chance at beating the Celtics.
The Pistons returned with a determination to win in 1987-88. In the playoffs, they easily took down the Bulls and Celtics on their way to face the defending champion Lakers in the Finals. The Bad Boys took a 3-2 lead back to the Forum for Game 6. The drive and determination was there, and it showed when Isiah suffered a severe sprain, but continued to play on essentially one leg, scoring 25 points in the 3rd quarter, still an NBA Finals record. The Pistons had a one point lead with 14 seconds left, only to see it all slip away on a phantom foul call against Bill Laimbeer. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sank both free throws, and the Bad Boys fell in Game 7, with Isiah physically unable to continue. But the Bad Boys were born, and their dedication and determination would pay off soon.