The 1980s is widely regarded as being the era when the NBA firmly established itself as one of the world’s major sporting organisations. It was during the latter stage of this period that a certain Isiah Thomas made a lasting mark on the game.
The introduction of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird into the league, with the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics respectively, marked a change in fortune for the NBA, and a renewed enthusiasm in its fans, who had been steadily losing interest in the late 70s. The NBA’s history can quite easily be divided into a series of eras, ranging from the Bill Russell and the Celtic’s dominance of the 50s and 60s to the Shaq and Kobe led Lakers dominance of the early 00s.
Two of the most exciting eras in NBA history came in the 80s and 90s where first, Bird and Magic’s rivalry captivated audiences all around the country, and then Michael Jordan and the Bulls took over the mantle as the league’s most dominant force. Wedged in between these two eras however, is the often overlooked story of the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons and their leader Isiah Thomas, who beat Bird, Magic and Jordan on their way to back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990.
In a fantastic and enthralling documentary, recently released as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, the story of the Detroit Pistons rise to the top of basketball’s proverbial ladder is told through the eyes of the team’s star players, in truly warts and all fashion.
The team became known as the ‘Bad Boys’ of the NBA with players such as Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, taking a win at all costs approach. However, the jewel in the Pistons’ crown was their point guard Isiah Thomas who, while not being overly physical himself, seemed to be the heart of the team, with the bigger and badder members of the roster acting as his henchman.
Early Years and Steady Progress
When Thomas was drafted by the Pistons in 1981, many thought that his slight frame and size (he was just 6ft 1in tall) would inhibit him from dominating larger opponents. Thomas quickly proved this would not be the case and he combined sublime skill and expert game control with a fierce toughness that he hid behind his ever present smile.
The Chicago native had worked hard to get where he was, coming from an impoverished inner city area, and this tenacious spirit and will to survive was obvious in his basketball performances. Thomas quickly took over as the Pistons primary offensive threat and the team slowly began to rise from the doldrums of the NBA.
When Chuck Daly took over as head coach in 1983, the Pistons made their first playoff appearance in 8 seasons, but successive failures to reach the conference finals in ’84, ’85 and ’86 led to a change in mentality with Thomas and his teammates realising that they would need to get tougher in order to succeed.
However the team’s toughest, yet most important, loss would come in the Conference Finals the following season when they faced up against the Celtics.
The Celtics at that time were renowned for their resilience and mental strength, especially their star player Larry Bird. The ‘Bad Boys’ threw everything they had at the Celtics during the series but the experienced Boston heads prevailed – just about.
If it had not been for a now iconic Bird steal in the dying seconds of Game 6 the Pistons would have advanced. Alas, it was not to be for Thomas and company but they had learned a valuable lesson that night.
They were tougher, stronger and more physical, but something was still lacking. That something was inner belief, a characteristic Bird, Magic and Jordan had in droves.
The One-Legged Game
The Pistons defeated Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and also avenged their previous defeats against the Celtics en route to their first NBA Finals appearance in 33 years. Magic Johnson and the reigning champion LA Lakers stood in their way.
Both teams traded games early on and leading into Game 6 the Pistons held a one game advantage. What followed in that Game 6 was one of the most inspirational performances in NBA playoff history.
Thomas was already in the process of having an extraordinary scoring night, having scored 14 points while taking over proceedings in the third quarter, when he went over awkwardly on his ankle. The Pistons’ talisman was clearly in distress and it seemed his night was done. However, in a feat of strength and determination only matched by Michael Jordan’s “flu game”, Thomas somehow summoned the strength to continue.
The sight of Thomas’ slight frame hobbling up and down the court, still scoring at will, is now an iconic image. Thomas finished the quarter with 25 points, a Finals record for a single quarter, and finished the game with 43.
Magic said of Thomas’ performance,
“I think he was just unconscious…He was in his rhythm.”
However, the Pistons were denied victory by what many now refer to as the “phantom foul”.
They lost the game and with the damage Thomas had done to his ankle with his heroic efforts they lost the series in 7. They were within touching distance of that elusive title but again came up short.
The hoodoo was finally lifted the following year. After coming so close on previous occasions, and knowing that had it not been for Thomas’ injury they may well have won the previous season, the 1988-89 Pistons were a juggernaut that could not be stopped.
The regular season saw them win 63 games and in the process smash their previous best record. When the playoffs commenced, the Pistons showed no mercy, dismantling the Celtics and Bucks in 3-0 and 4-0 sweeps respectively before their progress was momentarily halted by Jordan who led the Bulls to a Game One victory in Detroit.
At this stage the Pistons ‘Bad Boy’ persona was well and truly established and Thomas and coach Chuck Daly devised a plan to stop Jordan by any means necessary. Rodman, Laimbeer and Mahorn made it their mission to stop Jordan defensively, while Thomas took control offensively.
The Pistons eventually prevailed 4-2 in a series Jordan would later say was crucial in his own physical development. The Lakers this time were no match for Detroit and the Pistons swept their counterparts to seal a monumental victory.
The years of hard work that Thomas, Daly and the rest of the team had put in had finally come to fruition.
A second championship would follow for them the following season, with Thomas this time being awarded the Finals MVP. The Pistons, led by Thomas had reached the pinnacle of NBA and would now go down in history as back to back champions.
Isiah Thomas is widely regarded as one of the greatest point guards to play the game. He was no saint of course, and had many controversial moments during his career, notably the infamous walk off after losing to the Bulls in the ’91 Eastern Conference Finals, as well as agreeing with a quite controversial comment that Larry Bird would be considered just another good player if he were black.
Despite these controversies, Thomas showed through his skill and tenacity on the court that despite being relatively small, if you’re good enough and if you want it enough you can succeed.
Years of pushing his body to extreme physical limits eventually took their toll on Thomas and a torn Achilles tendon meant he retired in 1994, aged 34. However, his legacy was well cemented at this stage and he and his ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons will go down as one of the toughest and most determined teams in NBA history.
Brian Bowler, Pundit Arena.
Isaiah Thomas Career Statistics:
PPG – 19.2
APG – 9.3
RPG – 3.6
SPG – 1.9
NBA Champion x2, NBA Finals MVP x1, NBA All-Star x12, NBA All-Star Game MVP x2, Member of NBA Hall of Fame.