The trailer's tagline says it all: "What if I told you that sometimes you gotta be bad...to be good?"
That's the story of the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons in a nutshell. They were brash. They were mean. They were bold. They would never in a million years make it through a week in today's NBA without someone drawing a fine or suspension from the league office.
They were the team that punched Larry Bird's Boston Celtics in the mouth—quite literally—to knock them off their Eastern Conference throne in 1988. They were the team that held that throne for three seasons, holding off Michael Jordan's impending domination of the following decade by two of those years.
Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson and coach Chuck Daly embodied the spirit of arguably America's most blue-collar city and came out of it with one of the more memorable cores in NBA history. Along the way, numerous big names stopped in for a spell. Dennis Rodman. Adrian Dantley. Mark Aguirre. For a team that was defined by its a so-called starless core, Pistons history is rife with Hall of Fame talents and incomparable personalities.
And that era will finally be encapsulated in a finite two-hour package Thursday night, as ESPN's 30 for 30 series airs Bad Boys at 8 p.m. ET. The film is directed by Zak Levitt and produced by NBA Entertainment. Aimed as an appreciation of perhaps the greatest era of Detroit basketball and a deeper dive into the mechanisms behind the roster construction, Bad Boys is aimed to be one of the most expansive 30 for 30 projects yet.
|"Bad Boys" 30 for 30 TV Schedule|
|"Bad Boys" Documentary||8 p.m. - 10 p.m.||ESPN|
|"Bad Boys Remix" Retrospective||10 p.m. - 11 p.m.||ESPN|
ESPN will run an after-show following the documentary called Bad Boys Remix, featuring a panel discussion on the film and in-house personalities discussing the Pistons' legacy.
"The Pistons on their own have always fascinated me and I think fascinated basketball fans," ESPN's Connor Schell told Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated. "Just the name Bad Boys elicits a reaction that you either loved or hated. They are also a little forgotten or overshadowed by the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls. They seemed a team rife to explore."
To explain why the "Bad Boys" left such an indelible mark on the city, you must first understand from where it came. Prior to Daly's arrival in 1983-84, the Pistons were an arrested development somewhere between mediocrity and putridity.
As the Detroit Pistons—they were previously the Fort Wayne Pistons in the precursor years to a formal NBA—the once proud team had floundered. Detroit won three playoff series in its first quarter-century after the move. It had never made an NBA Finals.
Thomas, Laimbeer and Johnson were in place, but the Pistons were six years removed from a playoff berth. They needed guidance. They needed toughness. They needed a competent NBA coach.
Daly gave that to them and then some.
The late coach, who died of pancreatic cancer in May 2009, personified the workmanlike spirit and toughness that would define these Pistons. Gritting his teeth through nearly a decade-long career at low-level high school basketball, Daly worked his way up from collegiate low-paid assistant to Boston College head coach to Pennsylvania head coach before landing an assistant NBA job with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Daly's first full-time head coaching gig was with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1981-82. It lasted half a season. If there were any coach who could have brought out what Daly did in this roster, I'm uncertain who that would be.
"You will hear how the players talk about Chuck and what a father figure he was for these guys and the way he handled himself," NBA Entertainment's Dion Cocoros, an executive producer on the film, told Deitsch. "He's not around to talk about the team, but you don't miss him at all in the film. He comes across as truly the guy who tied it all together."
Daly's run in Detroit would include three straight NBA Finals appearances from 1988 to 1990 (two titles), playoff appearances in all nine seasons and five consecutive 50-win seasons at the Pistons' peak. Of course, those successes aren't always as memorable as the punches thrown, the trash talked and unrelenting anger these teams played with.
Detroit's rivalries—most notably against Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago—were wars. Battles of attrition in which the Pistons used every possible angle—from over-physicality to trash talking to even race-baiting in the case of Thomas and Rodman's famous comments about Larry Bird—to gain an advantage.
For years, the plan fell just short. The Celtics eliminated Detroit in hotly-contested series in 1985 and 1987, the latter featuring quite possibly the lowest point of the era. With five seconds remaining and the Pistons preparing to go up 3-2 in the conference finals headed home for Game 6, Thomas allowed Bird to steal his inbounds pass and dish it off to Dennis Johnson, who laid the ball in to give Boston a one-point win. The play is largely remembered as one of the best of Bird's career.
But, as per usual, the Pistons would be undaunted. They overcame an aging Boston core a year later before being hit by a Lakers buzzsaw—before getting over their L.A. hurdle the next season in the NBA Finals. Their 1989 title was the first of a back-to-back, both of which included knocking the Bulls and an ascendant Jordan—by using the so-called "Jordan Rules"—out each time.
Chicago would sweep Detroit in 1991 to all but end the Bad Boy era of contention. Jordan and the Bulls would follow with six NBA championships in the '90s, their reign only being interrupted by M.J.'s baseball dalliance.
In the annals of NBA history, too often the Bad Boys are viewed as a transitional blip between the Lakers-Celtics heyday and Jordan's rise to becoming the greatest player this sport has ever seen. That they were a necessary evil—emphasis on the latter—that ended one great era so that another could begin.
Thursday night, you'll see the Pistons' run deserves to stand on its own.
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