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'Last Dance' shows old wounds haven't healed in Pistons vs. Bulls rivalry

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” a 10-part docuseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 season, has brought the sports world together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Jordan

Last week, the first two episodes introduced the series and focused on Scottie Pippen. This week, the emphasis was on Dennis Rodman in Episode 3 and the Bulls’ progression toward overcoming the “Bad Boys” Pistons teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After losing to the Pistons in three straight playoff seasons, the Bulls finally won, in a four-game sweep in 1991, on their way to Chicago’s first championship.

It was a bitter transition from the Bad Boys’ back-to-back titles to the Bulls’ era, which culminated in a pair of three-peats during the 1990s.

With Sunday’s two episodes having the most focus on the Pistons’ place as champions between the eras of Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers, Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and Jordan’s Bulls, here are some takeaways from “The Last Dance” Episodes 3 and 4:

►Old wounds haven’t healed: One of the most intense moments of the docuseries so far came when the producers tried to show Jordan video of Isiah Thomas’ explanation for walking off the court without shaking hands at the end of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1991.

“I know it’s all bulls---," Jordan said. "Whatever (Thomas) says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it, or the reaction of the public kind of changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want — there’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a--hole.”

There was emotion and vitriol in Jordan’s voice when he said it — and he said it with conviction. There’s still some bad blood there over the way it was handled and 30 years later, it’s still brimming to the surface, even at the first mention to any of the enemies.

“Their time had arrived and ours was over,” Thomas said. “As we’re coming out of the game, (Bill) Laimbeer said, ‘We’re not shaking their hands; this is how we’re leaving.’”

The Pistons had dispatched the Bulls in the playoffs the previous three years and in 1991, everything came to a head. Just as the Celtics walked off the court in 1988 when the Pistons finally prevailed, the Pistons repeated history at The Palace, leaving in the final seconds of the game.

“We just kicked your a--," Bulls forward Horace Grant said. "Go ahead and go.”

Jordan provided a more fiery explanation, noting that the Bulls had taken their medicine in losing to the Pistons, but the Bad Boys didn’t return the favor with a simple handshake.

“Two years in a row, we shook their hands when they beat us," Jordan said. "There’s a certain respect to the game that we paid to them. That’s sportsmanship: no matter how much it hurts — and believe me, it hurt — but they didn’t have to shake our hands. We knew we whipped their a-- already and we had gotten past them. To me, that was better in some ways than winning the championship.”

►The rivalry wasn’t just about the players: Thirty years later, we still can’t talk about the Pistons-Bulls rivalry objectively. Bulls fans — and NBA fans in general — will cast the Bad Boys as villainous gangsters who used Jordan as a punching bag. Pistons fans will run through a wall defending their team, citing the rules of that era, which allowed for much more contact. The Bad Boys embodied the blue-collar spirit of Detroit at that time as few teams in sports had before or have since.

ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, a Chicago native, recounted how he didn’t talk to his Detroit relatives during the run of the Pistons-Bulls playoff series.

It was real.

►Dennis Rodman was … an interesting cat: One of the more bizarre storylines from Episode 3 was that Dennis Rodman was so engrossed in the 1997 season that he needed a vacation — in January. Bulls coach Phil Jackson, along with Jordan, relented and allowed Rodman a 48-hour getaway to Las Vegas. Needless to say, Rodman didn’t return in 48 hours and Jordan had to go and get Rodman.

In the episode, the editing made it seem as if Jordan went to Las Vegas, when it was in fact in Chicago, across the street from the United Center.

The footage from Las Vegas and Chicago with Carmen Electra would have been television gold. That video needs to be released at some point as well.

►The Bulls needed the Pistons: As much as the animosity between the Bulls and Pistons has been built up over the years, most people would agree that the Pistons were a necessary part of Jordan achieving his greatness. He started a strenuous weightlifting regimen to prepare himself for the physicality the Pistons provided. Scottie Pippen, who was limited because of migraine headaches the previous season, got tougher and didn’t respond after Rodman shoved him into the crowd in 1991. Grant and the other Bulls had to learn to control their emotions.

The Pistons learned from the Celtics and the Bulls learned from the Pistons. That’ was the order of things.

►Handshakes weren’t really a thing: Much was made about the Pistons not shaking the Bulls’ hands and showing sportsmanship. Most teams didn’t. There was a focus on getting opposing players off the court before the final seconds ticked off the clock — for safety, because fans and media were ready to rush the court.

It also happened in the 1986 Finals between the Celtics and Rockets, when Hakeem Olajuwon and other walked off the floor of the Boston Garden with time still remaining on the clock.

The Pistons’ early departure also was fueled by Jordan’s comments before Game 4 in 1991.

“After Game 3, Jordan said the Pistons were bad for basketball, we were bad people and we didn’t earn our championships,” Thomas said Monday on ESPN’s "First Take" show: “That didn’t sit right with us as the Detroit Pistons basketball team, nor did it sit right with Detroit. At that time and still today, Detroit is looked at as a city that is always looked over, second class and not good enough.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard