Isiah Thomas wants Pistons' 'Bad Boys' recognized among NBA all-time great teams

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Isiah Thomas believes the Pistons' "Bad Boys" era, which included back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, is largely forgotten in pro basketball lore.

In the pantheon of NBA history, the Pistons often get lost in the shuffle. There are the championship years of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. Then there’s the rise of the Chicago Bulls in the early 1990s and beyond.

The names are familiar and iconic: Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan.

Shaquille O’Neal. Tim Duncan. All are pillars of the NBA’s growth and popularity during its golden age. 

The forgotten entity tends to be the “Bad Boys” era of the Pistons, with their back-to-back championships in 1989 and ’90, the teams that featured Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman. 

The Pistons will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the Bad Boys’ first championship with a special commemorative night on Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena. 

It’ll be an homage to the Bad Boys, who don’t always get their due when discussed with some of the best teams in NBA history. True to their moniker, that Pistons group is regarded more in a negative light because of their emphasis on defense and the way it slowed the pace of the game.

ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary on the Bad Boys shed a different light on the era and the Pistons team and reintroduced many younger fans who were not as versed on their place in the championship hierarchy. 

“It’s almost as if the Bad Boys became the people’s choice, not necessarily the institutional choice. We became the people’s champ,” Thomas told The Detroit News. “Still today, it goes Bird, Magic and then it goes to Jordan and it’s almost as if we didn’t exist. 

“Fortunately for us, the '30 for 30' video was the first time we all collectively got a voice and were able to speak and tell our story. Our story was told so accurately that because of that, history is being corrected. Had it not been for the '30 for 30,' we could have gotten lost in history.”

The Pistons' Isiah Thomas plays against the Lakers during the 1989-90 season.

The Pistons’ gritty style wasn’t popular in the league at the time — and while Jordan was ascending, there was some sentiment that the Bad Boys were giving the league a black eye by mucking up the game, a feeling that continued even after they were gone. 

“We got blamed for it, absolutely. That was the league edict. It was sent out to some media members also,” Thomas said. “The way the game was being physically played, the Pistons were getting blamed for the way (other teams) were playing in the ‘90s — and we weren’t even playing anymore. Teams would have fights and brawls and before you knew it (we were mentioned).”

Thomas went so far as to retire the Bad Boys nickname after Rick Mahorn was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the expansion draft. 

No gold grinds

Thomas, 57, currently is an analyst for NBA TV and TNT and his career accomplishments rank among the elite in basketball history: NCAA championship at Indiana, 12-time NBA All-Star, two-time NBA champion and 1990 Finals MVP, selection as one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players and having his No. 11 jersey retired by the Pistons. 

He’s regarded as one of the best players in franchise history, and among the greatest point guards in NBA history.

Even with those accolades, there’s a gaping hole in Thomas’ resume.  

“Not having an Olympic medal is personally one of the things I never accomplished. When I was on the 1980 Olympic team, (the United States) boycotted because Russia invaded Afghanistan,” Thomas said. 

The other opportunity is well documented, when Thomas wasn’t selected for the iconic 1992 “Dream Team” that handily won the gold medal and is heralded as the greatest basketball team ever assembled. As the story goes, Jordan orchestrated having Thomas ostracized and while the snub still stings, Thomas has tried to move forward and not dwell on the past. 

“With the Dream Team, I didn’t get a chance to participate on that,” Thomas said. “It’s like ‘Who shot JFK?’ — it’s a mystery. I can’t point any fingers at anybody or blame anybody. You just have to take it and move on.” 

All business

Aside from basketball, Thomas has expanded into several business ventures, spurred by his father, who extolled the importance of excelling also after his playing career. Most recently, that’s included a partnership with Cheurlin champagne and other forays into real etate. 

“When I got into the NBA, he encouraged me to go into real estate and start buying property in the neighborhood I grew up in,” Thomas said. “He was the inspiration for trying to get outside of entertainment and get into business. I am fortunate enough to have great mentors in Detroit who helped me along the way in business. 

“I have to give Bill Davidson credit because he was the first one to allow me to travel overseas with him and spend time with him. I got a chance to see another part of the world that I didn’t know existed — from a billionaire’s standpoint. They live a different kind of life and they are also able to do business in a different kind of way.”

With a legacy that stretches from basketball to business, Thomas has made his mark on Detroit — on and off the court. With the celebration of the Bad Boys on Saturday and the 15-year celebration of the “Goin’ to Work” team next week, the Pistons are doing their part to ensure that the impressions don’t fade. 

“As time has gone on and now that we can have these conversations more openly, the '30 for 30' video and the way we were able to express ourselves has given us a new narrative,” Thomas said. “People are starting to give us credit for the accomplishments that we made and had and the things we did not only on the floor but off the floor also.”

Pistons vs. Trail Blazers

Tipoff: 7 Saturday, Little Caesars Arena

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Outlook: The Pistons (38-37) are in the thick of the playoff race, with a slim lead over the Nets and Heat. The won the matchup last Saturday, 117-112, in Portland but have lost Jusuf Nurkic (broken leg) for the season.

Notable: The Pistons will honor the 30-year anniversary of the teams that won back-to-back championships in 1989-90. Several members of the teams will be in attendance, with a special halftime ceremony along with video tributes, special in-game interviews and highlights of the championship season.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard