I haven't seen all or even most of the entries in the ESPN documentary series 30 for 30, but I can say with absolute confidence that Bad Boys is among the best. This is an outstanding look at how the Detroit Pistons used an aggressive, physical style of defense to transform themselves from laughingstocks to NBA champions in the 1980s. Many of the Bad Boys themselves are interviewed here and provide a series of valuable insights. Whether you loved or hated the Bad Boys, this is a film every basketball fan should see. It manages to do justice to the remarkable team it centers on, no easy task.
They're known as the Detroit Pistons, but the team moved to Pontiac, Mich., in 1978. That city's Silverdome held 80,000 people, but few turned out to see a team that finished the 1979-80 season 16-66. Looking to turn things around, owner Bill Davidson hired Jack McCloskey as general manager. McCloskey had no prior management experience but would make his mark on the team.
The path to glory began when McCloskey selected Indiana University guard Isiah Thomas with the second overall pick in the 1981 draft. Thomas wanted to play for his hometown Chicago Bulls, and it's amusing to hear him admit to deliberately trying to sabotage his interview with McCloskey. While watching a game, McCloskey was impressed with the competitiveness of the Cleveland Cavaliers' Bill Laimbeer and traded for him in 1982. Although they came from vastly different backgrounds - Laimbeer claimed his father, the president of a large conglomerate, made more money than he did in his first NBA season, while Thomas grew up in poverty on Chicago's West Side - they shared an obsession with winning and became the team's leaders.
On paper, McCloskey's hiring of Chuck Daly as head coach for the 1983-84 season made little sense. Daly's NBA coaching experience consisted of a mere half season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, during which he won only nine games. But the Pistons made the playoffs for the first time in seven years in Daly's first season, and in Game Five of the opening round of the 1984 playoffs against the New York Knicks Thomas gave a legendary performance, scoring 16 points in the final 94 seconds. Nevertheless, the Pistons lost the game and the series, and it was clear Detroit needed more to compete with the NBA's dominant teams at the time, Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers.
McCloskey traded for the Washington Bullets' Rick Mahorn in 1985. Mahorn hated the Pistons and neglected to work out at all the summer before coming to Detroit (it's hilarious to hear his reaction to Laimbeer's telling him what his job on the team was going to be). The day after the Mahorn trade, McCloskey drafted quiet Joe Dumars from McNeese State University in Louisiana. In 1986, McCloskey traded for the Utah Jazz's high-scoring Adrian Dantley and chose John Salley and Dennis Rodman in that year's draft. Despite being drafted in the second round, Rodman would have a far bigger impact than first-rounder Salley, becoming the NBA's premier rebounder.
With seconds left in Game Five of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals at Boston Garden, the Pistons had a one-point lead over the Celtics and appeared on the verge of taking a 3-2 series lead. Those hopes were dashed when Bird stole Thomas' inbound pass and threw it to a teammate for the winning basket. The Celtics won the series in seven games, and afterwards Rodman complained that Bird was overrated because he was white. Thomas was asked about Rodman's assertion and said he agreed with it. He later insisted he was joking, but he found himself at the middle of a national controversy. Asked in the film if he regrets making the comment, Thomas correctly points out that he wasn't the one who made it. The controversy may have damaged Thomas' image, but it brought the team closer together.
Due to their rough play, the Pistons were accused of being thugs who were bad for basketball. The turning point came when they decided to embrace their image as villains. Plenty of former opponents turn up here to express their dislike of the Bad Boys, but all of them were eliminated by Detroit at one point or another. The Pistons finally defeated the Celtics in the 1988 conference finals and faced the Lakers for the title. Once again, however, misfortune struck. With 27 seconds left in Game Six of the Finals, the Pistons were up one and needed only to make a defensive stop to win the championship. Instead, Laimbeer was whistled for a controversial foul on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who made two free throws to give the Lakers the victory. The Lakers won the Finals in seven games.
One of the film's most interesting segments concerns the Pistons' 1988-89 season. Playing in a new arena, the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich., Detroit had been predicted to win the championship prior to the season but struggled early. A major shakeup occurred halfway through the season when the Pistons traded Dantley to the Dallas Mavericks for Thomas' childhood friend, Mark Aguirre. Dantley blamed Thomas, whom he disliked, for orchestrating the trade, but McCloskey denies this. On the evidence presented here, Dantley may have had no one to blame but himself. He was allegedly unhappy with Rodman taking some of his playing time, and during one game he refused to come off the court, leading to a heated argument between him and Daly on the flight back to Detroit.
Aguirre may have liked Thomas much more than Dantley did, but his reputation was hardly shining when he joined the Pistons. All that was soon forgotten, however, and along with being the NBA's most fined team (the $34,500 total was almost three times greater than that of the runner-up), the Pistons finished the season with the league's best record. Facing the Lakers once again in the 1989 Finals, the Pistons would experience no disappointments this time, sweeping Los Angeles to claim their first championship.
Fans may be skeptical when pro athletes claim to love one another. John Salley admits he was before joining the Pistons, but his time with them changed his mind. The movie does a terrific job of showing the familial atmosphere on the team. No doubt being hated by the rest of the league contributed somewhat to that. Other teams may have hated the Pistons, but they couldn't beat them. Detroit won a second straight title by defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in the 1990 Finals. Three of those Finals victories came in Portland, where the Pistons hadn't won in nearly two decades prior to the series.
But all good things inevitably end, and the Bad Boy era was no exception. After three consecutive years of being eliminated by the Pistons, the Chicago Bulls swept Detroit in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. Before the series had even finished, Chicago's Michael Jordan was telling the media the Pistons had dirtied the game and hurt the league. Thomas remarks he had never heard of a rising team being so disrespectful to a champion before. Like Thomas or not, he has a point. In response, several of the Pistons walked off the court with time still on the clock in Game Four and refused to shake hands with the Bulls. Thomas was widely blamed for leading the walkout, but Laimbeer proudly claims it was his idea.
"They don't make them like that anymore" is a cliche, but it's true in the case of the Bad Boys. League rules have cracked down on bruising play in the years since, and today players, particularly stars, seemingly go to the foul line after a lot less contact. But the rough-and-tumble style didn't completely disappear; as Pistons president, Dumars built a defensive-oriented team that shocked the Lakers to win the 2004 championship. Bad Boys is an invaluable record of a key period in NBA history, even if it's a period most of the league would rather you forget.