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The Detroit Pistons’ infamous walk-off against the Chicago Bulls came into focus on Sunday’s episodes of “The Last Dance”, the result of a rivalry that was an old-fashioned coming-of-age tale.
Michael Jordan’s battles with the Pistons were legendary, and the way the story goes, Jordan’s conquering of the Pistons in 1991 was met with disrespect from the Pistons in the waning moments of the Eastern Conference finals.
Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer led the Pistons in walking right past the Bulls without shaking their hands, an apparent high crime in those days. It appeared like bad form and bad sportsmanship from a team that tortured the Bulls in the 1988, ’89 and ’90 playoffs.
Jordan and the Bulls appear like the more mature bunch in the way it was framed, but the Jordan-sanctioned documentary misses a very important point that led to the walk-off.
“The Pistons are undeserving champions,” Jordan said on the day between Games 3 and 4 in Detroit in 1991. “The Bad Boys are bad for basketball.”
In that moment, Jordan reduced the Pistons to thugs, not as champions who had to plow their way through the toughest road in a golden era. Sure, Jordan shook the Pistons’ hands in the years before, but his words invalidated those actions.
The Pistons were tough, of course, but featured the greatest backcourt trio of all time in Thomas, Joe Dumars and reserve Vinnie Johnson. Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman added defense, and it led to this uniquely built team storming through and winning two straight titles in 1989 and ’90.
Jordan had problems guarding Thomas, Dumars and Johnson, who were tough but also potent offensive players that could get hot at any time.
Age, injury and years of battling the league’s best caught up with the Pistons in 1991, especially Thomas, who had wrist surgery that was supposed to end his season and a sprained foot from the semifinals against the Celtics.
It was the Bulls’ time and Jordan added more to it.
Jordan’s words stung the Pistons leading into the Game 4 finale, thus precipitating the walk-off. The Pistons were no angels, but they had never discussed the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics in that way publicly.
The Pistons played them tough and physically, but there was a code of respect for the champions. Thomas won’t say it now, but Jordan’s comments played as big of a factor in the Pistons leaving the floor with 7.9 seconds left in Game 4 as much as their public stance today, that they only did to the Bulls what had been done to them in 1988 when they finally defeated the Boston Celtics to get to the Finals.
Accompanied by footage, Thomas brings up the Celtics walking off the floor at the Pontiac Silverdome in the final moments of Game 6 in 1988, with Kevin McHale on his way to the locker room while Adrian Dantley was at the free-throw line.
Larry Bird, the leader of the Celtics, high-tailed it out of there without a word said to the Pistons, and the Pistons weren’t complaining. It was the rivalry — physical and heated — and the Pistons were more concerned with getting to the Finals and dealing with the dynastic Lakers.
Jordan, true to form, was shown Thomas’ comments in the doc and calls bull on him. Thomas said the regrets came from the aftermath, when the Pistons were skewered in the media.
John Salley and Joe Dumars shook hands with the Bulls on the way out, like McHale in 1988, but it doesn’t hold weight in the eyes of the public.
When the Bulls conquered the Pistons to take the mantle, it was met with rejoicing all around.
Jordan finally getting to the Finals after enduring so many years of defeats and questions, and getting rid of the anti-hero Bad Boys.
Led by Jordan’s words, the narrative was set.
The Pistons weren’t respected as the proud, skillful champions they were, but only an obstacle during Jordan’s rise to greatness. It’s only been recently that the Pistons have gotten more credit, but at the time they didn’t fit into the league’s marketing.
It was Magic, Bird and then Jordan.
Jordan has proven himself to be worth every bit of the hype he’s received, stamping himself as the game’s greatest player.
Beating Jordan and being the team he lost to the most should enhance the Pistons’ legacy — and Thomas’ — but winning has cost them, unfortunately.
The NBA didn’t like the Pistons’ style of play, even though the Celtics were just as tough and dirty, and as demonstrated in 1988, petty. The Celtics are woven in the fabric of the league, with three titles in the 1980s but never going back-to-back like the Pistons did.
The Pistons are discussed like the ’90s Knicks — a team that only beat you physically and couldn’t win any other way.
But while the Pistons played with more grace than those who came after them, they weren’t as glamorous as the Showtime Lakers or Celtics, who found a style that worked for them and proved to be entertaining as well.
Before Jordan’s Bulls produced the highest-rated game of all time, Game 6 of the 1998 Finals against Utah, the Pistons and Lakers owned the record from their Game 7 tilt in the 1988 Finals.
The league marketed the Pistons because they produced a reaction and were great foils, but didn’t go as far as crowning them great champions.
Jordan is lauded for finally getting past the Pistons, but the Pistons are merely relegated to second-class status when they should be celebrated the same way.
A rivalry that produced great moments should have its story told in full, as opposed to the singular perspective we’ve been fed for 30 years.
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