Release: Thursday, April 17, 2014
Love ’em, hate ’em, you don’t even know ’em. And for most people who grew up following pro basketball in the 1980s, you didn’t give a damn about ’em, or their back-to-back championship titles in 1989 and 1990.
The circle of those who actually did care barely encompassed the city of Detroit, Michigan. The rest of the league not only didn’t care about the talented Isiah Thomas and his merry band of basketball punks, but they couldn’t stand them. In fact the general opinion of this team was so bitterly divided ‘Bad Boys of Detroit‘ actually became a galvanizing chant that could be heard echoing off the glass and concrete of this city. Elsewhere, the name was something to be cursed.
This time, confidence wasn’t building only to be dropped like a brick the next moment. Starting with the draft of Isiah Thomas from the University of Indiana in 1981, the team began a multi-year reconstruction process that would throw the door wide open for future criticisms, controversies and career-defining moments. Their environment embraced the storm of critics as if welcoming home a friend or family member at the airport. The attitude was growing and the games played against the Pistons were becoming “dirtier.” Everyone knew this, and not everyone loved it.
Detroit did, though.
Specifically what they loved was their team’s physicality on the court, as it represented a new, stronger gusto for winning. ‘Game face’ was now more like ‘maul-his-face.’ The Pistons of the day were most known for two players that particularly drew ire from opponents and their crowds: the big, physically dominant Rick Mahorn and the equally (if not more) controversial and clunky Bill Laimbeer, a goon who loved to taunt and be a general nuisance on the hardwood. Between the two of them, more fights and more player ejections occurred than with any other Piston.
Then there were quieter contributors like Vinnie Johnson, also known as ‘The Microwave’ for slowly but surely heating up as the games went on, becoming an incredibly clutch performer down the stretches of many a playoff series. The 1989 squad would emerge as one of the most competitive units Detroit had put on the court in years, one that would be willing to do anything to win. Anything on the court, that is. Fortunately the team’s reputation didn’t also include a propensity for hard-partying. (Or they at least avoided making the news while doing so.)
By comparison, off-court antics (read: distractions) might have been preferable for anyone not a fan of the Bad Boys. Then-head coach Chuck Daly emphasized a physical presence that bordered on UFC brawling with the opponent, a teeny little characteristic that separated them fairly efficiently from the rest of the league’s style of play. But oh buddy was it effective; they won 63 (of 82 total) games in the 1989 season, shattering their old season-best 54-28. This was due to the addition of more players who were keen on implementing Daly’s street-ball mentality. That year, they had the opportunity to use them against a team they had lost to in the finals the year before. And that year, they not only prevailed over the Lakers, they won four consecutive in the final seven-game series, effectively sweeping one of the most elite teams in the nation at the time.
Not only was Detroit aggravating in the sense they were so effective in riling up opponents — frequently becoming the source of multiple player brawls and ejections in those years — their completely frowned-upon game plan actually led to success. This was clearly a reality the other teams couldn’t handle. They even managed to piss off MJ, albeit for starkly different reasons.
When their cage-match-style approach to the game led to a second consecutive title only then it was official: the Bad Boys of Detroit were the ones to beat. Some to this day adamantly deny that they contend for ‘legacy’ status, however. They never quite reached it in the same way that teams like the Boston Celtics (a team that to this day holds the longest consecutive championship winning streak of any American professional sports team, with eight amassed from 1959 to 1966) or the Los Angeles Lakers (who’re only one championship ring shy of the Celtics’ total) had; and the Detroit Pistons lacked any sort of player who was likable outside of the city, even despite many personnel changes over the years.
Somewhat ironically, being the thorn in everyone’s side had given the dent in basketball history that Detroit had been needing to make; not necessarily the controversies so much as the back-to-back championship titles, with the win over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989 arguably being the more rewarding of the two. This documentary gives fascinating insight into the culture that sparked inside the Pistons locker room, with the backdrop of a city clinging to any hope of making championship runs in the 1980s. It is packed with footage of games gone awry, with several interviews clearly marked with still latent heat over certain memories of games long ago.
The Bad Boys represent something of a bygone era in professional basketball. The game of today is far more regulated, with players being kept more at an arm’s length rather than being allowed to get right up in each other’s faces; the Bill Laimbeer’s of today are certainly less aggressive even if they still are thorny little pricks. Some say the game has lost intensity, lost its edge. It has certainly done a decent job expelling the fever-pitch animosity like the one directed toward the Detroit locker room of the 1980s.
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Recommendation: This most recent installment in the 30-for-30 film series is informative as it is revealing. It shows a different side of basketball, a more desperate and certainly more controversial side. For basketball fans, clearly, but specifically for those wanting to know more about this interesting period in Detroit Piston history. Why do I get the feeling that this is an extremely niched documentary, though. . .?
Running Time: 101 mins.
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