The two basketball teams I grew up idolizing as a kid are probably the two most hated teams in the history of the sport — the Bad Boys and the Fab Five.
In 2011, I watched and re-watched the ESPN special on the Fab Five— and on Thursday, after a late night at the office, I stayed up till 2 a.m., glued to my TV as I watched ESPN’s two-hour special on the Bad Boys.
It brought me back to those days as a 14-year-old kid, growing up in Grand Haven — a blossoming sports fan who was most interested in Matt Nokes, Kirk Gipson and the Tigers, but was beginning to pay attention to the Pistons as well.
I (thankfully) don’t remember that accursed loss in Boston back in 1987 (“Now there’s a steal by Bird, underneath to D.J., lays it in …”)
But I do remember the Pistons’ first foray into the NBA finals against Magic Johnson and the Lakers. I remember watching Isiah Thomas, playing on a bum ankle, dropping in basket after basket to keep the Pistons alive and swinging, only to see them lose on those two late free throws (foul, what foul?) by Kareem.
I remember the next year, 1988, watching the Pistons beat the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals before finally conquering the Lakers in the NBA Finals. I can still see them in my mind’s eye — Isiah Thomas, soaked in champagne, clutching the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy; Laimbeer and Mahorn chanting “Bad Boys, Bad Boys” while the bubbly rained down on them.
I remember the heartbreak of learning that one of my favorite Pistons — Rick Mahorn — was lost to the NBA expansion draft. Those were the days before ESPN.com and instant updates on your phone. I learned of Mahorn’s exit from the Pistons while perusing at a local baseball card shop, and my heart dropped into my socks. I couldn’t believe it. I waited until the next day’s Tribune was delivered, and I read about how the Pistons could only protect eight players. I spent hours agonizing over why Mahorn was left unprotected while others were retained.
I remember watching the Worm, Dennis Rodman, emerge as a superstar during the 1989-90 season — diving into the stands, flying down the court, dunking, rebounding, pumping his fist and pointing to the crowd in celebration.
My family went camping that Memorial Day weekend, and I remember insisting my dad pack our 13-inch TV with rabbit ears so I could plug it in and watch the Pistons take on the Bulls during the Eastern Conference finals. I remember hating Michael Jordan, even though I had his posters from the Wheaties cereal boxes tacked up in my bedroom.
I remember agonizing the fact that Joe Dumars’ father passed away during the finals, and later, watching Vinnie Johnson hit the game-winner to beat the brash young Portland Trailblazers.
Watching Thursday’s documentary, there was also plenty I didn’t remember. I don’t think we remember how dominating a player Isiah Thomas was. I didn’t realize just how smart a player Bill Laimbeer was, getting into his opponents’ heads and taking them out of their games.
As a young teenager, I wasn’t aware of all the behind-the-scenes moves Jack McCloskey made to turn a terrible team into champions.
I loved listening to the comments from Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and all the others about how much they hated the Pistons. When everyone else hates your favorite team, it makes it that much sweeter to watch them win.
Watching the Pistons flounder through this past season, it’s tough to remember just how exciting they were to watch back in the Bad Boys era, and again in 2004 (was it really 10 years ago already?), when Big Ben Wallace and Mr. Big Shot, Chauncey Billups, were leading the Pistons to the top of the heap in the NBA.
We’ll never see another team like the Bad Boys — the NBA wouldn’t allow it. I mean, can you imagine how good Laimbeer and Mahorn would have been if they were allowed six fouls per game instead of five?
But for a few hours Thursday night, I was a 14-year-old kid again, grinning from ear-to-ear as the Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” played behind a montage of Pistons’ highlights.
They were, and always will be, my favorite team.