Isiah Thomas drives against Celtics Danny Ainge and Larry Bird during the 1988 Eastern Conference finals. (Detroit News photo)
When you cover a beat, you never really get to experience the sorrow and joy of a team’s season. You’re too busy writing stories, gathering quotes, hopping on airplanes and going through the daily grind of making deadline.
Thursday, I finally felt the emotions of the Bad Boys Pistons years, watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary.
For two hours, ESPN broke down one of the greatest runs in Detroit sports history.
But the run to the NBA title — it included the dismissal of Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Larry Bird and the Celtics, and Magic Johnson and the Lakers — took a physical toll on the players.
Even today, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn have that look — “Did we really do this?”
They did. And finally, their story is told.
The difference with this documentary and other Bad Boys stories is the point of view.
“We finally got to control the narrative,” Thomas said.
The team was built on intimidation and determination, and opponents felt their devastation. The thing that gets ignored is that the Pistons used mental toughness — and some physical — to break down opponents.
And when it was over, the pain was felt.
“I had zero left to give, mind, body, spirit, soul,” Thomas said during the film, directed by Zak Levitt. “I felt like I had given everything I had to give. And I didn’t have anything left.”
The film developed the characters that made this the team. Thomas was the poor kid from the west side of Chicago. Bill Laimbeer was the rich kid from the West Coast. Dennis Rodman was the outcast from Dallas.
And Chuck Daly fashioned himself on being a fashionable guy.
The story also delves into the games.
There was new insight on the day Bird stole Thomas’ inbounds pass that gave the Celtics a Game 5 victory of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals.
“Everybody was looking around, ‘What do we do,’ ” Thomas said. “I saw the official holding the basketball and I panicked and Bird comes out of nowhere. It is like a streak of lightning.”
There were regrets about walking out on the Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. (Laimbeer admits he was the one behind the move.)
And there was Laimbeer’s foul on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that gave the Lakers Game 6 — and eventually the title — in 1988. (“We got hosed,” Laimbeer said.)
But this film isn’t only about the Bad Boys.
It’s about Detroit. It shows the grime and decline of Detroit.
Still, the Bad Boys are the central figures.
“It is their story,” Levitt said. “It is in their words. You kind of want to stand out of the way and allow them to tell their story.”
And that story ends with dismissing the uncertainty they could ever overcome the Celtics or Lakers, and win the ultimate prize.
“Somebody said along the way there was no team with a greater learning curve,” Levitt said. “You had to go through the Celtics and Lakers, and you could feel that. The players still carry that.
“They are proud of their two championships, but they are still going through a sense of what could have been as well.”