Those titles came at the end of the most remarkable decade the NBA, and perhaps any other domestic professional sports league, has ever known.
Let’s try to put it into perspective: When the decade opened, the deciding game of the NBA Finals was shown at 11:30 at night by CBS – on tape delay! It wasn’t for lack of technology that CBS decided the nation didn’t really want to know the results of the title-clinching game in real time, but for what it perceived as lack of interest. The NBA wasn’t worthy of a prime-time slot on a Friday night in mid-May in 1980.
It was a Finals pitting two of the league’s flagship franchises, the Lakers and 76ers, featuring some of the most decorated names to ever play the game – Dr. J, Kareem and some rookie named Earvin Johnson.
By the time the ’80s were rolled up, the seeds for everything that’s followed – waves of expansion, the possibility of the Dream Team, NBA offices around the world, and now a regular-season game between the Pistons and Knicks in London – had been planted.
The decade started with Magic and Bird and everything they meant, the rural white kid and the urban black kid capturing the nation’s imagination on college basketball’s biggest stage – the 1979 NCAA title game, still considered that sport’s seminal event – and then were serendipitously dropped into the NBA’s two most storied franchises, the Lakers and Celtics.
It continued with the choice of David Stern as commissioner in 1984 – an ascendancy, by the way, that wouldn’t have happened without the strong backing of former Pistons owner Bill Davidson, one of the few who had the vision to see where the lawyerly Stern could take a league until then content to live on the fringes of American sporting consciousness.
It gained further momentum with the arrival of the breathtakingly talented Michael Jordan, the marketing force Stern needed to speed the game’s global expansion – once it became big enough to have its championship aired live domestically.
But let’s not diminish the Pistons’ role in the NBA’s defining decade.
It was the Pistons, after all, who took down first Larry’s Celtics and then Magic’s Lakers. It was the Pistons who held off the dynasty bubbling up in the heartland, Chicago. They were the storybook villain – personified by the glint in Isiah Thomas’ eye, the sneer on Rick Mahorn’s lips and the perfect coiffure of Chuck Daly’s hair – the NBA desperately needed to market as the foil to the larger-than-life stars.
The Pistons weren’t an inherently villainous bunch, of course. They won their titles honestly. The NBA perhaps has seen rare groups with as much collective mental toughness as those teams, but never any with more. They were deep and talented and fearless and they had to be – the NBA had deep and vested interests in the success of Magic’s Lakers, Larry’s Celtics and Michael’s Bulls. They didn’t ask to be portrayed as kindred spirits to the NFL’s Raiders, they just willingly went along with it – until the pious accused them of somehow mangling basketball’s spirit.
That was all part of the game, too. Never underestimate how much the Pistons had to do with making Jordan exponentially larger than life. Three straight years, it was the Pistons who drove a stake through Jordan’s heart, eliminating the Bulls in 1988, ’89 and ’90 when a growing portion of America pined to His Airness’ coronation and the rest – those with a soul, some might say – rooted for the Pistons, ideally cast as marauding pirates.
The anguish Jordan endured at the hands (elbows?) of the Pistons was a necessary ingredient in mythologizing him.
The Pistons became known in the world’s remotest corners as the Bad Boys – Isiah and Joe D, Laimbeer and Mahorn, the Spider and the Worm and Mr. 007, orchestrated masterfully by Daddy Rich, Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly.
So it’s fitting the Pistons are off to London. Because when you tick off the reasons why the NBA came to be so big it could stage a regular-season game halfway around the world, the Pistons belong on that list.