Bad Boys Unite

A Bad Boys Salute

The Bad Boys hoisted the first two NBA championship banners to The Palace rafters and they'll be honored at their 25th anniversary reunion Friday at The Palace. Pistons.com reminisces with a look at some of the good men that became the Bad Boys.

Isiah Thomas

As in no other team sport, winning a title confers greatness on basketball players. The flip side is every bit as irrefutably true. Retiring without an NBA title affixes a symbolic asterisk on even the most dazzling careers to a degree not present in other sports.

Isiah Thomas came to the Pistons with a competitive streak a mile wide. It was the force that carried him away from the gang violence that suffocated the lives of so many around him on the hardscrabble streets of west Chicago. It should surprise no one if Isiah set even that up as some sort of a competition – rising above the odds to beat the gangs and the poverty and the drugs and everything else that conspire to beat down the underclass.

I’ve long believed that his hunger for an NBA title shifted into a higher gear, though, as he saw the adulation accorded to the contemporaries he believed his only true peers: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They were two other products of the Midwest who preceded him by two years to the NBA and racked up eight combined league championships by the start of the 1988-89 season – Isiah’s eighth since leaving Indiana upon carrying the Hoosiers to the 1981 NCAA title as a sophomore, matching Magic’s achievement of two years earlier at Michigan State.

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Isiah Thomas.jpg

The Mount Rushmore of Detroit sports would stand with that of just about any city’s. Just narrowing the field to a final four is no small challenge. The slam dunk has to be Gordie Howe, still universally acknowledged as one of the three greatest hockey players ever. Joe Louis probably goes next, for his cultural significance as much as his boxing prowess.

After that, you can flip a coin on a number of worthy candidates, including Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Barry Sanders and Steve Yzerman. The Pistons surely would have their own short list of contenders, including Dave Bing, Bob Lanier and Joe Dumars. But Isiah Thomas has to be first on that list, for his pure basketball ability but also for what he represented to a franchise adrift when he arrived in 1981, a mere 20-year-old, part cherub, part assassin.

Surely, I’ve never encountered a more complex character in 25 years of observing and connecting with Detroit’s prominent sports figures.

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Dumars/Thomas

There are firsts and then there are absolute firsts. Most historians would cite Nov. 5, 1988 as the first game at The Palace, when the Pistons opened what would become their first championship season – an absolute first of the highest order – with a 94-85 win over the expansion Charlotte Hornets.

But while that was the first Pistons game, that wasn’t the first basketball game at The Palace.

(And, no, it’s not a trick question. The answer isn’t the first home preseason game, either. The Pistons wanted their regular-season opener to be their first game at The Palace with all of the attendant fanfare. So they played all of their preseason games on the road that year, even the ones designated as “home” games.)

The first basketball game came more than two months earlier, shortly after the August 13 public unveiling of the building with a Police concert. It was August 21, 1988 when the U.S. Olympic basketball team, about to head to South Korea for the Summer Games, played the fifth of an eight-game tour against rosters of NBA players across the country. And when all was said and done, what happened that day might have been the beginning of the end for the idea that collegiate amateurs could represent the United States in future Olympic games.

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Rick Mahorn

Beyond spectacular depth, terrific coaching and a future Hall of Fame backcourt, the Bad Boys claimed one other ingredient essential to their two NBA championships: They had a chip on their shoulder the size of a basketball. The Pistons felt the NBA resented their crashing of a party co-hosted by the Celtics and Lakers, whose lease on the penthouse was conveniently timed to expire just as Michael Jordan prepared to move in.

The Pistons, in their minds, messed all of that up. And that’s no exaggeration. From the phantom foul called on Bill Laimbeer in Game 6 that cost them the 1988 NBA title – with the champagne on ice and Bill Davidson summoned to the locker room to accept the Larry O’Brien Trophy from David Stern – to Red Auerbach’s endless harangue about the roughhouse style of Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn to the unmistakable clamor for Jordan to dominate the national stage, the Pistons saw the evidence stacked against them pretty clearly.

So when they finally won in 1989, they were ready to celebrate long and loud and deep into the summer. Two days later – as they were toasting the title with the parade up Woodward and finishing with a Palace rally – the air was sucked from the room on them yet again.

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Daly, Dumars, Thomas

Even the most casual basketball fan wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars are central to some of the greatest moments in Pistons history. The record book underscores just how big a part of franchise lore they remain even 17 years after Isiah last suited up and 12 years since Joe D retired.

Points scored? Isiah is still comfortably at No. 1 with 18,822 and Joe D is right behind him at No. 2 with 16,401. They’re also 1-2 in games played (Joe D 1,018, Isiah 979), minutes (Isiah 35,516, Joe D 35,139), assists (Isiah 9,061, Joe D 4,612) and steals (Isiah 1,861, Joe D 902).

In field goals (Isiah 7,194, Joe D 5,994), field-goal attempts (Isiah 15,904, Joe D 13,026), free throws (Isiah 4,036, Joe D 3,423) and free-throw attempts (Isiah 5,316, Joe D 4,059), Isiah ranks No. 1 and Joe D No. 3.

The Bad Boys needed all of the amazing depth Jack McCloskey stockpiled, they needed the hard edge that players like Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn provided, they needed the defensive infusion provided by Dennis Rodman and John Salley and they needed the coaching panache Chuck Daly brought to the equation.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Aguirre/Dantley In Jack McCloskey's mind, the trade of Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre had to be made – no ifs, ands or buts about it. But it didn't take him long to understand just how far out on a limb he'd gone with Pistons fans in trading Dantley with the team seemingly on the precipice of winning the first NBA title in franchise history.

"I can remember my wife and I driving up the street," McCloskey said. "We stop at a red light and there were two guys in the other car. They both looked and saw me, then they pointed their finger toward me with their thumb up – like they were going to shoot me for making the trade. I told Leslie, ‘You made that trade, I didn't.' "

Not that McCloskey, a tough old Navy vet who’d fought in the Pacific during World War II as a teen, scared easily. Turns out he had nothing to worry about, either. After trading Dantley – in the season following the Pistons’ first NBA Finals appearance, when they took the Lakers to seven games and might have won in six if not for a phantom foul called on Bill Laimbeer – the Pistons closed the regular season with a 30-4 rush, then went 15-2 in the playoffs, sweeping the Lakers in a Finals rematch. With Aguirre in the starting lineup, the Pistons went 44-6 that season.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

James Edwards.jpg The wise man takes advantage of every opportunity to nourish his curiosity, filing away seemingly random bits of information for the day they need to be accessed and applied. So it was in the fall of 1977 that an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers couldn't help but think that the third-round rookie center out of Washington was doing a pretty fair impersonation of the NBA's most dominant center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, while the superstar missed the first several weeks of the season due to injury.

More than a decade later, that assistant coach was well down the road toward building an NBA championship contender when that kid center, now 32, became available in trade after the Phoenix Suns, struggling through a 28-54 season, opted for a rebuild.

And that’s how Jack McCloskey made the most overlooked move in the construction of the Bad Boys, who over the next three postseasons would win two NBA titles and come within a horrendous foul call on Bill Laimbeer and a cruelly timed injury to Isiah Thomas of winning all three championships in that span.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Dennis Rodman There is no such thing as a sleeper in today's NBA, where even players with roots in Africa and obscure professional leagues in Asia and the Middle East are known commodities by the time June's draft rolls around.

But a generation ago – before the explosion of sports on cable TV and the advent of the Internet and the information gusher it spawned – it was still possible to uncover hidden basketball gems, even those who spent four years at American universities.

Such was the case with Dennis Rodman, who played at a tiny NAIA school in the rural plains, Southeastern Oklahoma State. The Pistons' scouting staff caught wind of him during the season, then was wowed by him at the Portsmouth Invitational in April 1986, where Rodman was the best player.

He wasn’t quite the same player, though, at the next two major scouting opportunities. In that day, about 50 college prospects were split into four teams to compete over a weekend in Hawaii, then came the Chicago predraft camp. Portsmouth wasn’t as loaded with first-round prospects as the other two, so conventional wisdom held that when the talent level went up, Rodman was no longer capable of dominating.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois


Kelly Tripuka For practically every championship celebration, there is a near-miss story of a player who did much of the heavy lifting but wasn't around to feel the sweet sting of champagne in the eye.

Kelly Tripucka was twice removed from Detroit by the time the Pistons he helped make respectable through the mid-'80s had been dubbed Bad Boys and won their two NBA titles in 1989 and '90. It was almost cruel that Tripucka, the 12th pick in the same 1981 draft that saw Jack McCloskey pluck Isiah Thomas with the No. 2 pick, spent those two Detroit championship seasons toiling for the expansion Charlotte Hornets, winning a total of 39 games.

There were a handful of reasons the Pistons went from a 46-win team in 1985-86 and an easy first-round knockout for Atlanta in the playoffs to a 52-win team a season later that would push Boston to the final seconds of an excruciating seven-game series in the conference finals.

Among them were the maturation of Joe Dumars, the continuing evolution of Isiah Thomas, the emergence of Rick Mahorn as the answer at power forward and the contributions of athletic rookies Dennis Rodman and John Salley. But nothing got more attention at the time, at least, than the high-profile swap of small forwards McCloskey executed in August 1986, less than two weeks before the opening of training camp, when the Pistons shipped Tripucka and Kent Benson to Utah for Adrian Dantley.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Joe Dumars It was one of those file-it-away moments. Jack McCloskey was scouting the UNLV Holiday Classic in December 1984 where the two headliner teams were the host Runnin' Rebels and San Diego State, being coached by Smokey Gaines – the guy who took over at the University of Detroit for Dick Vitale when Vitale left for the Pistons.

McCloskey might have been there expecting to scout the talent on those two NCAA tournament-bound teams – as fate would have it, they would be first-round opponents three months later, UNLV winning 85-80 to improve to 28-3, ending the Aztecs' season at 23-8 – but it was a guard at McNeese State that wound up catching Trader Jack's eye.

The kid's name? Joe Dumars.

"I remember seeing him play in Nevada and in the first two minutes, he made a great move," McCloskey told me last month. "I said, 'Hell, this kid can play.' "

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Rick Mahorn When Jack McCloskey came to Detroit in December 1979, free agency was the least likely implement in a general manager’s toolbox to spur a turnaround. So unless the draft coughed up a lineup solution, trades were the avenue to pursue to plug holes.

The Pistons had many holes when McCloskey took over for Dick Vitale. But in his first few years on the job, McCloskey performed yeoman’s work in plugging a few big ones. He drafted Isiah Thomas with the No. 2 pick in 1981 to play point guard and Kelly Tripucka at No. 12 as his small forward, swung a trade for sixth man extraordinaire Vinnie Johnson a few months later and went to the wire at the February 1982 trade deadline to snare Bill Laimbeer to play center.

But power forward? That position haunted the Pistons as they tried to inch closer to the top in the East. McCloskey inherited Bob McAdoo, whose disinterest in playing for the Pistons was so apparent that the media and fans quickly dubbed him “McAdon’t.”

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Chuck Daly First things first. Jack McCloskey did not fire Scotty Robertson because of anything Isiah Thomas said or didn’t say to him. And he didn’t hire Chuck Daly because he thought his personality would mesh better with Isiah than Robertson’s did.

“It wasn’t that (Daly) had to get along with Isiah,” McCloskey scoffed. “Isiah had to get along with him.”

The NBA of that era was turning more and more into a player’s league. It was widely speculated that Magic Johnson was behind the firing of Paul Westhead early in the 1981-82 season, though it was later divulged that Jerry Buss pushed for the firing days before it happened and that the anti-Westhead sentiment was universal in the locker room.

But perception, once it cements, is difficult to alter. To this day, Johnson is cited for causing Westhead’s ouster. In Detroit, it was widely believed that Isiah’s dissatisfaction with Robertson’s style forced McCloskey’s hand when he jettisoned Robertson three years after hiring him and two years after drafting Thomas with the No. 2 pick.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Bill Laimbeer Long before “Moneyball” and its basketball equivalent flooded the sport with statistical analysis, Jack McCloskey devised his own numbers-based system for player evaluation. He rated them on a 10-point basis across 10 different categories. After a while, he discovered that players who merited a composite score of 80 or above, almost invariably, turned into good NBA players.

And his numbers told him that Bill Laimbeer was going to be a very good NBA player.

The rest of the world thought that Kenny Carr was the object of McCloskey’s desire when he engineered a multiplayer deal with Cleveland at the trade deadline in February 1982. Carr, 26 and in his prime, was averaging 15.2 points and 10.3 rebounds when McCloskey sent his first- and second-round picks that year, plus journeyman center Paul Mokeski and 1979 first-rounder Phil Hubbard to the Cavs for Carr and a throw-in, Bill Laimbeer.

“I saw him play when we played Cleveland,” McCloskey recalls of his initial interest in Laimbeer. “We beat them pretty good that night, but I saw him compete until the last whistle goes. We didn’t have too many big guys then. I said, ‘I’ve got to try to get him. He doesn’t have fancy footwork or anything like that, but he wants to win.’ ”

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Vinnie Johnson Dick Vitale ran two drafts for the Pistons and, all things considered, his draft record was the highlight of Vitale’s 94-game tenure. His coaching record was 34-60 and his trade record is blotted by the botched acquisition of Bob McAdoo that crippled the Pistons while simultaneously restoring the luster to one of the NBA’s flagship franchises, Boston.

Vitale didn’t have a No. 1 pick in 1978, yet managed to pluck two players out of the second round who would go on to long and productive careers – both Vitale recruits from the University of Detroit, Terry Tyler and John Long.

One year later, armed with three of the top 15 picks … well, did we tell you how well Vitale did with his two second-rounders in 1978?

The Pistons had the fifth, 10th and 15th picks going into the 1979 draft. Vitale had a strong affinity for Michigan State’s Greg Kelser – he’d recruited him coming out of Detroit Henry Ford High – and wanted him badly enough that he paid the Milwaukee Bucks $50,000 of Bill Davidson’s money to take anybody else. The Bucks happily obliged; they had their heart set on Arkansas’ dynamic Sidney Moncrief, anyway.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Isiah Thomas The enduring legacy of the Bad Boys, the hard-edged bunch assembled by Jack McCloskey and coached by Chuck Daly to the first two NBA championships in Pistons history, will be their indomitable collective will, a bunch of hard hats swinging picks and wielding shovels to elbow their way past glamorous rivals in the NBA’s golden age.

But first among equals was Isiah Thomas, so good out of the gate that he was that rare NBA rookie who played in the All-Star game, the first of a remarkable 12 straight All-Star berths en route to a Hall of Fame career.

The No. 2 pick in the 1981 draft was McCloskey’s reward for enduring a 21-61 record in his first full season as general manager and not having his own No. 1 pick the previous season for his first draft. Dick Vitale had dealt it away to Boston in the infamous Bob McAdoo deal and, of course, it would have yielded the Pistons the No. 1 pick in 1980. Boston took that No. 1 pick (plus the 13th pick) and swapped it to Golden State for Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick, which the Celtics spent on Kevin McHale.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Isiah Thomas and Chuck Daly Perhaps there have been deeper NBA backcourts than the one the Pistons fielded in the 1985-86 season, but Jack McCloskey probably would feel comfortable submitting his four-man unit and taking his chances with the judges.

The incumbent starters to open the season were Isiah Thomas, who at 25 already had been a four-time All-Star and a two-time All-NBA first-team selection who was well on his way to the Hall of Fame status he would eventually claim; and John Long, who had averaged 16.7 points a game in the first six years of his NBA career and was one of the league’s top stand-still shooters.

Behind them was Vinnie Johnson, the face of sixth men for his generation and newly dubbed “The Microwave” for the 22-point fourth quarter he’d laid on the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics in a Pistons playoff win the previous spring that forced a Game 6 in Boston Garden.

And added to the mix was the draft choice McCloskey knew he’d stolen with the No. 18 pick, Joe Dumars, good enough as a rookie to force his way into the starting lineup before the season’s midway point and wind up averaging 9.4 points and 4.8 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent and exhibiting the type of defense that would eventually lead him to become Michael Jordan’s greatest nemesis just a few years down the road.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Chuck DalyWhen Scotty Robertson died in 2011, I wondered what might have been if Jack McCloskey had reversed the order of his first two coaching hires with the Pistons. What if he’d hired Chuck Daly first, as he attempted before hearing Daly’s contract requirements, and followed up in 1983 by hiring Robertson at a point when the Pistons were on the cusp of contention?

And it’s a fair question. The coaches’ graveyard is littered with the bodies of those whose one big shot came at the worst possible time.

But there should be no question about this: When the Pistons were ready to win – when they grew into Bad Boys – there was no coach on the planet better suited to lead them against the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls than Charles Jerome Daly.

I’ve had the fortune of firsthand perspective of some of sport’s coaching giants over the last 25 years: Chuck Daly, Bo Schembechler, Scotty Bowman, Larry Brown, Sparky Anderson and Tom Izzo, most prominently. I wish I could tell you that there was one magical trait they shared to explain their success. It would make identifying a good hire so much easier if that were the case.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Isiah Thomas There have been 56 NBA champions crowned since the league instituted the MVP award. In 45 of those seasons, the champions were led by a player who finished among the top-four in MVP balloting.

Twenty of those NBA champions, in fact, featured the league MVP. (Twelve players have won MVP in the same season their team won the NBA title. Two players have done it four times each, two others have done it twice apiece. Pretty exclusive little club. Can you name them? Answer at the bottom.)

And in case you think that’s a case of the spoils going to the victors, MVP balloting is done before the playoffs begin. If anything, the correlation between MVP winners and NBA champions validates the credibility of awards voters.

Only eight times has an NBA champion not had someone from its team finish in the top six in MVP balloting. Those eight champions include the three Pistons teams that brought NBA titles back to Detroit. (And, really, even that doesn’t do justice to how rare those Pistons champions really are. Keep reading.)

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Dumars Bird In the haze that accumulates over 25 years of memories, the way it might seem is that the Pistons rose to NBA champions in three orderly steps: lose in 1987 conference finals, lose in ’88 NBA Finals, win in ’89 NBA Finals. The memory says it was the Pistons’ destiny. And maybe it was. But the Celtics had other ideas.

We look back now and understand that 1987-88 was the year the Pistons clearly passed the Celtics. Boston went 22 years between NBA titles. Only when 1986 cast member Danny Ainge added Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, combining them with holdover Paul Pierce, did the Celtics pull out of a two-decades funk administered by the Bad Boys.

There was a sense that the baton was being passed the night of June 3, 1988, when Kevin McHale stopped on his way to the Silverdome locker room to shake the hand of Isiah Thomas – they’d been Big Ten rivals at Minnesota and Indiana before landing in the NBA – and tell him to take the NBA title back to the Eastern Conference from the Lakers.

(History has glossed over the fact that Larry Bird and other Celtics had already departed for the locker room without any hint of a congratulations, though it’s the 1991 Pistons forever castigated for the premature departure of some – not all of them – rather than sticking around to shake hands with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.)

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Vinnie Johnson Chuck Daly was blessed in a way only Red Holtzman and Red Auerbach among NBA coaching greats ever really knew. That’s the list of NBA head coaches who had two Hall of Fame guards as long-term backcourt partners.

You could make a very strong case that Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were the best backcourt combination in NBA history. Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe were terrific for the Knicks a generation before Thomas and Dumars, and before that Bob Cousy and Sam Jones rode the coattails of Bill Russell as the Celtics’ dynasty was blossoming.

During the heyday of the Bad Boys, the other great backcourt combos were all ones the Pistons would have to beat to win their two titles: Magic Johnson and Byron Scott with the Lakers, Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter with the Trail Blazers, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge with the Celtics, Michael Jordan and the designated shooter du jour (John Paxson, Craig Hodges, Steve Kerr) with the Bulls.

But there were nights – even some of the biggest nights – when Joe D’s shot wasn’t dropping and Isiah’s daring resulted in turnovers instead of magic. The Pistons, for all of their depth and flexibility, really didn’t have a go-to scorer they could count on for four quarters up front, either.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Dantley and Aguirre The Pistons went 45-6 over the final 34 games of the regular season and the mere 17 they required to storm through the 1989 postseason on their way to the first NBA title in franchise history.

That’s the argument ender of all-time for whether Jack McCloskey – or Chuck Daly, or Isiah Thomas, or all of the above – was right to trade Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre on Feb. 15, 1989. It was a stunning trade to all but the handful of people at the eye of the storm who felt a championship team was at risk of falling short of its perceived destiny because of … well, what, exactly?

Dantley fit Pistons needs perfectly when McCloskey packaged Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson to Utah in August 1986, a few months after the Pistons were pretty convincingly drummed out of the playoffs by Atlanta in the first round.

They needed his low-post scoring and his ability to draw fouls. On another level, they needed his professionalism and devotion to detail.

What did they need 2½ seasons later? Not many thought anything more than a healthy roster and the avoidance of the crazy misfortune – Isiah’s sprained ankle, a phantom foul call on Bill Laimbeer, Bird's steal or Dantley and Vinnie butting heads – that had prevented them from winning the 1987 and ’88 titles.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Salley/Rodman The 1986 draft was transformational for the Pistons. In an off-season that began with a frustrated Isiah Thomas declaring that “something has to change next year,” something did. The headline-grabbing move was the trade of Kelly Tripucka that netted Adrian Dantley.

What turned out to be even more significant, though, was the ’86 draft, where Jack McCloskey nabbed John Salley with the 11th pick and Dennis Rodman with the 27th, which at the time was four picks deep into the second round of a 23-team NBA.

Rodman would go on to be one of only two players from that draft who would become Hall of Famers, and the other – the great Russian center Arvydas Sabonis – was inducted more for what he did in international play.

But there should have been at least a few more Hall of Famers to come from that draft. One of them played for the Pistons. William Bedford was the No. 6 pick of Phoenix in ’86. At 7-foot-1, Bedford ran like a greyhound, possessed a great shooting stroke and had everything a big man needed to become a defensive force.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Rick Mahorn In making the case for an underrated player, the tendency is to overstate his importance. Rick Mahorn wasn’t the MVP of the Bad Boys. Isiah Thomas was, though not by a landslide, and on the days he wasn’t the star, Joe Dumars would be, or sometimes Bill Laimbeer, or Adrian Dantley.

Five Pistons from that era have their numbers hanging in The Palace rafters – Isiah, Joe D, Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and Dennis Rodman. By the time the Pistons got to their second consecutive NBA Finals in 1989, the contributions of all five were necessary for them to win the franchise’s first NBA title. Three of them are Hall of Famers and Laimbeer has a solid case to make it four.

The Pistons possibly would have won the 1989 title without Mahorn. They just never would have gotten that far without him. Maybe Mahorn didn’t put them over the top. Maybe that was the athleticism Salley and Rodman (mostly) provided. But Mahorn pushed them up the side of the mountain.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Bill Laimbeer Remember the classic Bill Laimbeer clip from the 1990 Finals in Portland? The one where he cups his ear as they boo him off the floor with six fouls, he bows and eggs them on to give him even more of their leather-lunged bleating before taking a seat?

That’s the image of Bill Laimbeer I’ll take to my grave. The list of NBA players who have waded into raucous enemy arenas and not been flustered isn’t an especially long one, but the names on it are ones you would certainly recognize. Most of them are probably lodged in basketball’s Hall of Fame.

But Laimbeer is the only player I’ve ever come across who not only wasn’t flustered by such vitriol, he honestly, genuinely seemed to enjoy it. I don’t know that it made him play any better, but on some level it gave him a sense of almost perverse fulfillment, knowing he’d angered an entire set of people to the point of apoplexy, their faces red, their eyes bulging.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Isiah Thomas Five years into his NBA career, frustration started to gnaw at Isiah Thomas. The individual accolades had come early and often. The Pistons were a mess when Isiah joined them, fresh off of leading Indiana to the NCAA title as a sophomore. They had won 16 and 21 games, digging out from the Dick Vitale era, in the two years before Jack McCloskey used the No. 2 pick in the 1981 draft to land him.

He immediately drove them to 39 wins in a rookie season so impressive he became the rare first-year player to be named to the All-Star team. He’d earned first team All-NBA honors in 1984, ’85 and ’86 (and never again, a testament to both the star quality of the NBA at that time, with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan putting the first-team backcourt spots in a vise grip, and to the depth and talent the Pistons would subsequently surround him with as his gaudy numbers dipped to accommodate those talented teammates). He was All-Star MVP in both 1984 and ’86.

Isiah loved the acclaim all of those individual achievements delivered for him. But he had come to know, if he hadn’t always known as much, that the only thing that confers greatness on star players is leading his team to an NBA championship. I’m not sure what drove him more: winning an NBA championship or achieving the exclusive status that automatically attaches itself to the leaders of NBA champions, but it hardly matters.

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by Keith Langlois, Pistons.com | @Keith_Langlois

Joe Dumars Six summers before Joe Dumars and Terry Porter would share the same court as key figures for their teams in the 1990 NBA Finals, the two small-college stars shared a van ride up State Road 37 from Bloomington, Ind., to Indianapolis.

There were four pretty other fair basketball players in the van Bobby Knight had graciously arranged for the last cuts from the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that would romp to the gold medal in Los Angeles, the field greatly weakened by the Soviet bloc boycott: Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and A.C. Green.

Twenty-two years later, Barkley and Dumars returned to Indianapolis, site of the 2006 Final Four, to be introduced as the stars of that year’s Hall of Fame class. I was there, covering that Final Four, when Dumars reminisced about that van ride.

In a hotel ballroom, Dumars – who by that point had won two NBA titles as a player and one as the architect of the 2004 Pistons – could afford to smile about missing out on his one and only shot at an Olympic medal. He remembers the emotion he and Stockton, seated side by side in that van, shared.

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