Conversations about basketball’s “golden era” often revolve around Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson who all starred on the Dream Team, and combined to win 14 NBA championships between 1980 and 1998. Their respective teams – Bulls, Celtics, and Lakers – are held in equally high regard. Direly overlooked however, are Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons –the “Bad Boys” – who won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, enduring numerous battles with the Bulls, Celtics and Lakers along the way.
A blue-collar team fully embodying their hometown, the Pistons’ legacy has largely been relegated to being a hard-nosed team of bullies, led by Thomas, who walked off the court without shaking hands after being defeated by Jordan’s Bulls in the 1991 playoffs. They were the team everyone loved to hate but they embraced it. ESPN Films and NBA Entertainment, guided by director Zak Levitt and executive producer Dion Cocoros, tell the Pistons’ side of the story in Bad Boys, the latest in ESPN’s award-winning 30 For 30 series. Life+Times spoke with Levitt and Cocoros about “Bad Boys” and the Pistons’ legacy.
Life+Times: As you all mention, for some people the Bad Boys were heroes, and for others, they were villains. What side of the fence do you guys fall on?
Dion Cocoros: The answer is down the middle. We just knew this was a team that was full of a lot of stories and that a lot of people had very genuine thoughts – good and bad – about over the years. As filmmakers, we just like to bring these stories to life for the fans. We knew it was a very emotional subject for some people and we just wanted to lay it out there. Because of our deep library and our history in telling these stories, we felt it was going to be a great chance for fans to get the Pistons side of the story in how things went down. It was very enlightening to hear these guys look back at those years and talk so passionately about how they think they should be represented in NBA history.
Zak Levitt: I agree. I wouldn’t have too much to add to that except for the fact that this was one of the most polarizing teams in sports history, I think it’s safe to say that. The more you speak to them and hear their story, we felt like it was our duty to get as much information out there about their story and their trials to let the people decide which side they’re on. We probably gave more ammunition to both sides, but hopefully there’s more mutual understanding.
L+T: You all were able to interview most of the Pistons players that were part of those teams and many of them spoke about the “us against the world,” brotherhood mentality. Describe the emotions they had when talking about their team and each other.
ZL: The energy was palpable. For many of these guys, they hadn’t had a chance to tell their story in 25 years. From their perspective, they felt that their era and their reign had been been brushed over. It went right from Larry and the Celtics, and Magic and the Lakers, to Michael and the Bulls. For them, this was an opportunity to not only have their voices heard, but to relive the memories. A lot of the guys had some visceral responses to some of the questions, particularly the tough times they had to go through, the bumps in the road to becoming champions and the learning curve that they had to go through. And they still carry that. They won two championships, but they all, to a man, feel like they could have won more if not for some unfortunate missteps. You could see the emotion on their faces, you could feel it, and that was definitely something that we tried to tap into during the interviews because that was something we feel everyone can relate to.
DC: There’s definitely something to be said for a team that loses and works, and loses again and fights to get over that hump. That was what was so amazing to me, that 25 years later, that brotherhood is so strong. A lot of times, we’ll interview guys and get different kinds of feedback and responses, but to a man, these guys still carry that bond.
L+T: In the film, Joe Dumars says, “every great team needs an identity,” and the Pistons certainly embraced the Bad Boys identity. As they talked about their style of play, it was more about mental toughness than physical toughness.
ZL: From Bill Laimbeer’s mouth, he said he wasn’t gonna compete with Robert Parish athletically. Clearly, he wasn’t the most athletic center, but he had this capacity for mental toughness that he felt some of the other guys he was playing against didn’t have. He felt that was an advantage. Isiah felt the same way. That doesn’t come without experience and making mistakes in crucial moments, that’s the best teacher. Ultimately, that’s what made these guys so mentally tough. They didn’t win these games just by being more physical, they also happened to play some incredible basketball and were one of the deepest teams at that time. They went 10-deep and they played to their strengths. Everybody checked their egos at the door and they bonded that way with their depth, their ability to play these roles, and let’s face it, getting in the other guys’ heads.
L+T: Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” is featured prominently throughout the film, especially Chuck D’s “1989” lyric. The song seems to embody what the film and the Bad Boys were about, why did you pick it?
DC: When Zak started formulating this plan, that was one of his first requests and goals, to use “Fight The Power.” That we were able to clear it and use it for this program is fantastic and helped tie that whole era together.
ZL: You hit the nail on the head, the opening lyric, “1989,” it embodied the time so much. We were lucky enough to have Chuck D narrate our last film, “The Doctor,” and when I went to have him narrate the film, he talked about what a tremendous Pistons fans he was and it all kind of clicked. The Pistons embodied that time as Public Enemy embodied that time of hip-hop. In 1989, hip-hop was just really becoming mainstream and that song kind of blew some doors open, and I think that’s what the Pistons did to a lot of sports fans. They made people notice them: they were brash, tough and people had to stand up and take notice, they couldn’t ignore them. They weren’t the little brothers of the Celtics, they were on the verge of winning a championship.
L+T: One of the key turning points was the 1987 series against the Celtics. What role did that play in setting the stage for what was to come?
DC: We’ve all been at the NBA awhile – the guys who worked on this film – and we all commented that we’ve always seen the ’87 series through the eyes of the Celtics, especially the Larry Bird steal. It’s always about the great Bird making the great steal at the right time and it lives on in NBA allure in a lot of the productions that have been made over the years. For me, it was chilling to hear Isiah go blow-by-blow through what he was thinking at that time. To hear a Hall of Famer, one of the best point guards of all time, use the word “panicked” as the ref handed him the ball put a whole new spin on it for me. That’s a series that a lot of people remember as “oh, the Celtics pulled out another miracle,” but to hear it from [the Pistons] point of view and have it be a building block for what they accomplished was very special. It was special to hear those guys, especially Isiah, relive the whole series, to come back and put themselves in a position to go up 3 games to 2, and then literally throw it all away.
ZL: I would just add that – even beyond that series – there were all these crucial moments in their rise to becoming champions that didn’t go their way. In every interview, it was really amazing that 25 years later, nobody ever blamed anybody for any of those mistakes. Nobody blamed Isiah for the steal, or Bill Lambeer for committing a foul on Kareem Abdul-Jabar in the 1988 Finals. None of them ever blamed each other. I thought that was very telling. Those kind of moments could have torn apart other teams and it just made them stronger.
L+T: You all interviewed Michael Jordan who had a long history with the Bad Boys. What were his thoughts and reactions thinking back on playing against the Pistons?
DC: I think as time passes people become more realistic with how it went down, but Michael has always – at least with us – recognized that he needed to get past the Pistons in order to become who he was. That story has been told in terms of how he had to get physically and mentally stronger, and really, the Bulls were to the Pistons what the Pistons were to the Celtics. I think Michael realizes looking back if it wasn’t for those moments his teams might not have accomplished what they did. You need those tough times and losses to make you better.
L+T: Ironically, when the Pistons finally beat the Celtics, the Celtics’ starting five walked off the floor; a few years later when the Bulls beat the Pistons, the Pistons infamously walked off. The circumstances were a bit different, but we don’t hear about what the Celtics did and in many ways it has come to define that Pistons era.
ZL: I think the differences in circumstances are obvious and the differences in the tones of those series. There was certainly a lot more bad blood in the Pistons-Bulls series than there was in the Pistons-Celtics series, but they were equally as competitive. Differences aside, we felt like it was an interesting piece of NBA history that has been looked over. I think it’s safe to say that nobody has seen some of the camera angles that we got, but more than that, could just give a little bit more perspective to the bigger story of the Pistons and people could take from it what they wanted. Whatever side you’re on, we felt like it provided some interesting new perspective on a story that’s been out there for a long time which is the Pistons walking off on the Bulls, but nobody really knows about the Celtics kind of doing something similar three years earlier.
L+T: One of the interviewees – journalist Bryan Burwell – talked about Isiah Thomas and how his place on the team, and ultimately the team’s legacy, have “cost” him. He was left off the Dream Team and the NBA in the ’80s and early ’90s is regarded as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s league. How has the Bad Boys legacy cost Isiah Thomas his place in history?
DC: I think Isiah just wanted the story of his team out there, and I think that’s been achieved. I think he’s comfortable with people thinking what they want about him and the team. What happened when he walked off and the baggage that came with that just added to a lot of stuff that this team has taken on. To our points before, it’s kind of who they are. I really believe they – and Isiah – just wanted people to know about his team, his “brothers” he calls them. He’s passionate about these guys. I think he looks at this as though people will still think what they want to think, but now they know a little bit more about the story, maybe they understand more about the men behind the actions. I don’t know how much that affected his legacy, I think there’s a lot of things that went into his makeup that made people think he wasn’t worthy of being in the group of all-time greats, but I think he’s comfortable with that and just wanted people to know about his team. The last chapter of this Bad Boys team was them walking off and there’s no doubt it left a certain taste in people’s mouths about him and the team, but we just wanted to bring the story to light and let people decide how they view him and the team. I feel Isiah is comfortable with that as long as the story of the Pistons is told, and I think we did that.
L+T: Who was one person interviewed, or what was one piece of information uncovered that was particularly intriguing?
ZL: It was something everyone knew visually, the difference between Dennis Rodman on the Pistons and Dennis Rodman on the Bulls, but it was amazing to hear the stories of Dennis at the time and picturing him as this wide-eyed rookie that came to the team. The style of play wasn’t any different but it was the off-the-court stories about Dennis really learning the ropes more with regard to life than basketball. For me, I wouldn’t say it was eye-opening, but it was really cool to see how far he’s come in his journey.
DC: : I’ll just give a quick shoutout to the two architects, [Pistons GM] Jack McCloskey and [Pistons head coach] Chuck Daly. We did the Dream Team film and thought that was a tribute to Chuck and his greatness, being able to tie these egos together and manage all these superstars, but diving into this film, his true genius was being able to take these characters and coach these guys to two championships. With the Dream Team it was a different paradigm, but this was a real labor of love for him and Jack to piece this team together and bring them to two titles. It’s fascinating watching McCloskey piece this team together draft by draft and pick by pick, then Daly take the whole group and coach them to back-to-back titles. I think those two guys deserve a ton of the credit and it was great to hear how passionately the players talk about those two guys and what they meant to them.
“Bad Boys” airs on ESPN