Born to Be Bad

You could say that the Detroit Pistons 1989 NBA Championship run began on Tuesday, June 9, 1981. It was on that day that “Trader” Jack McCloskey made Isiah Thomas, fresh off an NCAA Championship with Indiana, the second pick in the NBA Draft. Later that season, the Pistons would add Vinnie Johnson and Bill Laimbeer and over the next several years, the club would add Head Coach Chuck Daly, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards, Rick Mahorn, and John Salley. This combination of guys would become one of the most feared basketball teams in NBA history. Unlike any teams before, it wasn’t the offensive punch that rattled most teams, but the actual physical punch that opponents feared. These men rode their defensive intensity and physicality all the way to the 1989 Larry O’Brien Trophy. They would forever be known as…the Bad Boys.

Entering the 1988-89 season, the Pistons were battle tested and hungry. They had spent the last few years battling the Bulls and Celtics, and were coming off a 4-3 loss to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. As the Pistons were set to resume the season after the All-Star break, Jack McCloskey pulled the trigger on a surprise trade, sending fan favorite Adrian Dantley to Dallas for Mark Aguirre, coincidently the number one pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. The Pistons finished the season with a team-record 63 wins, including an astounding record of 30-4 after the Aguirre-for-Dantley trade.

The Pistons faced the Boston Celtics in the first round. This would be the fourth time in five seasons that the two teams met in the post-season. Not only was there a hatred amongst the teams on the court, but the venom spread to the pages of newspapers and magazines. Both Celtics play-by-play man Johnny Most and team President Red Auerbach said that the Pistons were “classless bullies.” Their words, however, did not stop the Pistons, who swept the Celtics in three games. Next up: the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Pistons dismantled the Bucks in four games, including overcoming a 21-point deficit in Game Four. Next on the agenda was Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Jordan predicted that the Bulls would win the series if they could win Game One at The Palace. Behind Jordan’s 32 points, the Bulls won the game 94-88. The Pistons would win Games Two, Four and Five, and needed only Game Six in Chicago to advance. Just over a minute into the game, an inadvertent elbow to Scottie Pippen’s head ended his night. Without Pippen, the Bulls were no match for the Pistons. With a 103-94 victory, the Pistons earned the right to face the Los Angeles Lakers and avenge the previous year’s Finals loss.

The Lakers had everything going for them. They were undefeated in the playoffs, having swept the Blazers, Sonics, and Suns. They had won back-to-back titles. They were coached by the man with the highest winning percentage of any coach in league history for both the regular and post seasons. They had Magic, Kareem, and James Worthy. Who they didn’t have was point guard Byron Scott who tore his hamstring in practice and was lost for the entire series. The Pistons took advantage and won Game One 109-97. With the Lakers in control of Game Two, the reigning champs suddenly lost their magic…literally. Late in the third quarter while trailing a Pistons’ fast break, Lakers guard Magic Johnson pulled up lame with a hamstring injury. On the shoulders of Joe Dumars’ 33-point outburst, the Pistons came back and won Game Two 108-105. Dumars again came up big in Game Three in LA. A blocked shot and an out-of-bounds save, combined with 17 consecutive third quarter points helped the Pistons to a 114-110 victory, and put them on the verge of their first NBA Championship. The Lakers fought valiantly in Game Four, but were no match for the deeper Pistons. The Pistons clinched the championship with a 105-97 win. Joe Dumars, who averaged 27.3 points per game in the Finals, was named a unanimous MVP Award. The Pistons held the Lakers to 92.9 points per game, the lowest Finals scoring average in the shot-clock era.

The Pistons had claimed their first Larry O’Brien Trophy just as they had played all season. They won on the strength of their defense and toughness. This, however, was not to be the conclusion of this story.