How the Michael Jordan Bulls and Isiah Thomas Pistons became the ultimate rivalry
"It would evolve to one of the most intense, frustrating and eventually fruitful... rivalries the NBA ever has seen." -Sam Smith
Remind Me Later •
Sam Smith looks back at the history of the Bulls-Pistons rivalry and how those battles helped shape Michael Jordan into the player that dominated the 90s.
If the Last Dance documentary that continues Sunday night is the greatest basketball story ever told, then the greatest basketball rivalry ever to unfold were those Michael Jordan Bulls and Isiah Thomas's Detroit Pistons.
It figures to become a focus of the next series of episodes of the ESPN docudrama because the Michael Jordan story and the tale of the Bulls dynasty would not be what it was without the ultimate adversary. The elements of the great novel are theme, character, setting, point of view. Most of all the conflict and the anti-hero.
For week one, that was Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. But the most daunting antagonist and obstacle in this great pilgrimage for Jordan— as well as the Bulls' Mt. Kailash in their magical quest for success and redemption—was those Bad Boys.
There were more famous rivalries in sports, the Lakers and Celtics in basketball, the Yankees and Red Sox in baseball, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in soccer, Ohio State and Michigan in college football. There were more damaging rivalries, Ali and Frazier, the Hatfields and McCoys, the Capulets and the Montagues. Few combined them like the Bulls and Pistons in an incubator of righteous contempt that developed into a destructive force that played out on a remarkable sporting stage that was both lavish and malicious. You both couldn't look nor look away.
The denouement was a pair of NBA championships for the Pistons before the public renunciation and humiliation of the way they played and who they were with their invites declined for basketball's celebration at the 1992 Olympics. They also became the launching pad for the booster rocket that put the Bulls into the basketball heavens, the pad burning in the appropriate symbolism.
Fewer games were more ruthless or ruthlessly contested.
There was genuine dislike.
The Pistons had to earn their distinction by defeating the Boston Celtics with Bird, McHale and Parish. There was rivalry and respect. Detroit's view of Chicago was more intense considering a city rivalry in which the big guy didn't much take the little guy seriously. Chicagoans like to consider themselves blue collar, gritty. It's more image. It's realty in working class Detroit. Detroit made the cars; Chicagoans bought them.
And now as the Pistons basketball team finally ascended, here came the big city guys with the biggest star and that air of condescension. Play the right way!
The NBA still clung to the physical game that once had basketball players called "cagers' because the violence of the game was so intense wire caging surrounded the court to protect spectators. Like when Kevin McHale took down Kurt Rambis with an infamous clothesline tackle in the 1984 playoffs. The Pistons with mostly home style blue collar talent reveled in their fight, Bill Laimbeer the target and instigator with Larry Bird, Robert Parish and others.
So when the Pistons finally vanquished their East rivals and then the Lakers, the throne and presumably the accolades were finally to be theirs. And then along came this sanctified upstart, America's favorite wearing the figurative white hat. Maybe Michael's tongue was sticking out in the direction of the Pistons.
Their Hunger Games officially began with the 1988 playoffs that inaugurated three post season years of despair for the Bulls before the 1991 reckoning that elevated Jordan and the Bulls to their Olympian destiny. There were preliminaries, like Rick Mahorn and Charles Oakley in 1988, coach Doug Collins flying over the scorers' table, assistant Johnny Bach with a broken hand in the melee, the irrepressible Collins going back at Mahorn. There'd be the laconic Bill Cartwright in a frenzy chasing Isiah Thomas and eventually in the frustration of defeat in 1991, Dennis Rodman tackling Scottie Pippen into the stands not long before the Pistons final funeral procession to ignominy as the Bulls' run began.
But perhaps the rivalry really began the day Michael Jordan became a Chicago Bull in the 1984 draft, his electric personality and eclectic basketball repertoire quickly eclipsing the bright light that was the local favorite, little Isiah Thomas from St. Joseph High School, NCAA champion Indiana U., and especially Gladys Park in Garfield Park. It's where the diminutive and daring hoopster became the darling of the city. Until the air went out of his balloon.
Isiah would return to his park for pickup games and he heard: "You ain't nothin. Jordan's the man. Jordan's better than you."
"I didn't understand being booed in Chicago Stadium and I took it personally," Thomas once told me. "It was very conflicting. I'm giving my family tickets to the game and they're rooting for the Bulls. I used to tell Michael, ‘You might wear Chicago on your chest, but I'll show you what Chicago guys play like.'"
It was on, and it wasn't G rated.
There was the famous freeze out at the 1985 All-Star game in Indianapolis that supposedly was orchestrated by Isiah, Magic Johnson and George Gervin to ostensibly embarrass the cocky rookie. Jordan was anything but that for the weekend, actually more of a shy kid trying to fit in with the game's stars. ''I was very quiet when I went down there,'' Jordan said afterward. ''I didn't want to go there like, ‘I'm a big shot rookie and you must respect me.'"
But his marketing machine transcended his individuality with an outfit of Nike gear that some players misinterpreted as his conceit about having major endorsements even the veterans didn't. There was a famous elevator ride that weekend with Thomas and Johnson in which there were jokes about a rookie's role. Jordan shrugged it off, and that should have ended it. After all, if it was a conspiracy how could it have been carried out with two thirds of the plotters on the other team? But a representative of Thomas's and Johnson's, still apparently getting heat from his clients about their lack of Madison Avenue attention, blabbed to a reporter at the airport after the game about how they'd shown up Jordan, who shot just two of nine. Which was hardly unusual for a rookie in an All-Star game. Bird had seven points as did Jordan in his first All-Star game.
But it was enough for Jordan, the competitor. Like Phil Jackson once said when he was asked to compare Jordan with his thematic predecessor, Julius Erving: "Michael wants to beat you for your last cent. Dr. J wants to, also. But he won't send you home naked and without your car like Michael."
The Bulls first game after the 1985 All-Star break—it's kismet that these things happen—was in the Chicago Stadium against, that's right, Isiah and the Pistons. The national media picked up the report from one Detroit columnist of the conversation in the airport. Jordan was furious, which was perfect. Sidney Green recalls Jordan taking it out on everyone in practice and predicting revenge. It was Jordan's leit motif, anyway, the real or imagined slight or challenge or taunt that fueled his passion. It carried to his famous Hall of Fame acceptance speech when he recited a litany of perceived and imagined slights over the years from the high school varsity rejection to the impudence of Jeff Van Gundy.
The Bulls won in overtime as Jordan had 49 points and 15 rebounds, seven offensive, with five assists and four steals. And now the Bulls were back to .500 at 25-25. They were years away from contending with any of the powers in the Eastern Conference, of which the Pistons weren't yet with a starting lineup that included John Long, Kent Benson and Terry Tyler. The Pistons weren't the Bad Boys yet.
So as Jordan understood his Bulls couldn't compete with the league's elite, he had found his bete noire, Isiah and the Pistons. If they were bad boys, he eventually was going to deliver the punishment.
It would evolve to one of the most intense, frustrating and eventually fruitful, at least for Jordan and the Bulls, rivalries the NBA ever has seen.
Conference teams played six games against one another back then, so the games took on more significance than they do today. There were no days off, either. The Pistons won four of six against the Bulls the next season when Jordan was injured and never did play the Pistons in his minutes restricted return. Though the game before Jordan's injury in Oakland, Laimbeer body slammed Jordan on a drive that drew Pistons coach Chuck Daly and Bulls coach Stan Albeck into a fist fight. Jordan returned minutes limited and the Bulls went on to absorb the playoff sweep against Boston as Jordan began to be taken seriously with that 63-point game in the Boston Garden.
The teams split the six games the next season as the Bulls began to make some progress with the fierce Doug Collins now coach. Some of the Celtics players from that 63-point game complained Jordan was playing with fresh legs after missing 64 games compared to their season long slog in the grueling Eastern Conference. So Jordan showed those beautiful legs for an entire season, averaging 37.1 points, still the closest to Wilt Chamberlain's one season records. Certainly not by coincidence, Jordan averaged more than 40 points in the games against Detroit with one of my favorite Jordan games ever.
On a frigid late winter evening in March that 1986-87 Season in the cavernous Silver Dome where the Pistons then played, Jordan and Thomas went at it for 53 minutes, Jordan scoring seemingly every time down the stretch and into overtime while Thomas set up teammates with a magician's touch. The Bad Boys were coming into focus with John Salley and Dennis Rodman off the bench, though Rodman wasn't a rotation player yet and had just six minutes in that game. Jordan scored a Bulls franchise record 61 points with seven rebounds, three steals and three blocks. Thomas had 31 points and another 18 assists with cunning and artistry that belied his stature. They didn't hug or shake hands afterward.
The Bulls were swept by Boston again in the playoffs, Jordan now 1-9 in his three pro playoff appearances and starting to bristle about the lack of talent around him. Though he didn't realize it then, the future began after that series with the 1987 draft of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant.
Neither were starters that 1987-88 season with Grant behind Jordan's bouncer, Oakley, and Pippen behind Jordan irritant Brad Sellers. Pippen would get his first start in Game 5 of the first round playoff series against Cleveland, leading to the Bulls first playoff series win since 1981. But the Bulls kids were no match for the 52-win Pistons in the conference semifinals, the Pistons grinding down and grinding up the Bulls in five ugly, foreboding games, the last three decided by an average winning Pistons margin of 16 points.
But 1:37 into Game 3 in Chicago, Laimbeer set an illegal screen that drew a personal foul and he then punched Jordan in the groin. Jordan fired back with a right cross. Both benches emptied. On the next play, Oakley and Rick Mahorn wrapped their hands around a rebound. Mahorn used an elbow to pry Oakley loose and drew a technical. Mahorn gestured to Oakley. Jordan in Game 5 delivered a head shot to Thomas, briefly knocking him unconscious. But Jordan never scored more than 25 points in each of the last three games.
"I used to compare Isiah to Bobby Clarke with the Broad Street Bullies," Phil Jackson once said. "He'd come in and provoke the fight and then all the bullies would be there to beat the crap out of everybody. Isiah was the feisty guy who started the conflict and then Mahorn and Laimbeer would get in there. They created challenging things for retaliation, and then you were unable to play with poise. Michael could deal with it. But it was something the Bulls had to work on emotionally."
At least the Bulls would enjoy some measure of voyeuristic pleasure watching Thomas' famous turnover against Boston in Game 5 of the conference finals and then in trying to protect the erratic Rodman Thomas saying he agreed with Rodman's racist claim that Bird was only winning MVP awards because he was white. It became such a huge issue the NBA made Thomas fly to the Finals to apologize in a press conference. Talk about Bad.
There were no Jordan Rules yet for the Pistons; just too much talent even as the Bulls reached 50 wins for the first time in 14 years. Pippen averaged 9.4 points starting all five games of the 1988 Pistons series with Sam Vincent the Bulls second leading scorer. Jordan was concerned, and even more so by the end of the next season when in Game 6 of the 1989 Eastern Conference finals with the Pistons leading 3-2, Laimbeer in the first minute of the game hammered Pippen in the head. With play continuing and the teams unaware, official Joey Crawford literally dragged Pippen's dazed and barely conscious body off the court so he wouldn't be stepped on. Pippen was taken to the hospital as the Bulls went on to lose the series.
The cheap shots were the story, though. Jordan got a shove from behind almost every time Laimbeer walked past him and was often taken out of the air on drives. Laimbeer, Mahorn and Rodman would frequently walk by Bulls players and throw the ball at them in dead ball situations. But the Pistons understood Jordan's greatness, which created the Jordan Rules.
They were the series of trapping defenses designed to thwart and frustrate Jordan, and it was that 1989 series when it truly was born.
That was the season of the famous winning shot in Cleveland that sent the Bulls to the upset victory in the opening round. Then the Bulls beat the also favored Knicks and shocked the Pistons with a Game 1 win in Detroit in the conference finals. Then the Bulls really worried a Pistons team with its eye on retaliation in Los Angeles. Because Jordan with 46 points made one of his greatest and overlooked game winners, a running bank shot over Dennis Rodman for a 2-1 series lead in the conference finals.
Thomas was distraught. Could this be the end? To Jordan, of all people, and in Chicago. Thomas walked the Lake Michigan shoreline until well past midnight and then returned to the team's hotel. He called assistant Brendan Suhr. Jordan was too good, Isiah admitted. They had to do something. They formulated the outlines of the surrounding defense, though Daly as a stalwart of man defense was uncertain. A few minutes into Game 4 with Jordan starting fast, Daly called a timeout and said, "We're doubling."
So the Pistons continued to rule, three straight wins and then another brutal season of shoves and stares until Game 7 in Auburn Hills June 3, 1990. Pippen's head was exploding. But no one had hit him this time. It was the infamous migraine headache, Pippen sitting on the Bulls bench with a towel draped over his head through pregame warmups, trying to stand up and often failing. Pippen would drag himself through 42 minutes, shooting one of 10 for two points. Trailing by 19 at halftime, the Bulls never had a chance as Pistons players shared pregame pictures of the distraught Pippen and mocked the Bulls.
Never again, Jordan declared afterward in the locker room. The Bulls would start preparing for the 1991 conference finals within a few days of the end of 1990 season. Just less than a year later, May 27, 1991, Pistons players were walking off the court in disgrace with 7.9 seconds left in the game with time called. The Bulls had inbounded the ball with 24.8 seconds left leading 115-94 with B.J. Armstrong dribbling out the clock. Pistons players started to walk toward the locker rooms, which required passing in front of the Bulls bench. There was timeout called with 7.9 seconds left and Pistons kept walking. Jordan with arms crossed quizzically watched as Pistons players left the court.
Rivals no more. Rivals ever more.