'We did what we had to do': Pistons make no apologies for 'Last Dance' portrayal
While the past few months have been a sports desert in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the past few weeks have provided some relief, with the release of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” docuseries, which has highlighted Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls team.
The Pistons have figured prominently in several episodes, as the Bulls’ foil in their ascent to their first championship in 1991.
Rick Mahorn, one of the key members of those Pistons “Bad Boys” teams, co-hosted a roundtable of former teammates, with Isiah Thomas, John Salley and James Edwards. The show, on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio, touched on a number of topics, including the documentary, the Bad Boys’ perception and their legacy.
Most of the country has been enthralled by the 10-part series — but not everybody.
“I haven’t wasted my time. I have 10 hours of my life where I could watch something else,” Mahorn said. “As far as watching that 'Last Dance,' we did what we had to do. We won a championship and we won it the way you’re supposed to — not crying.”
The 1991 title was the first of the Bulls’ three straight championships, ending the Pistons’ back-to-back run in 1989-90. The Bad Boys Pistons were an unheralded transition from the 1980s, dominated by the Celtics and Lakers to Jordan’s Bulls, who won six championships in the 90s. Jordan retired and the Houston Rockets won two titles in 1994 and ’95.
“Everybody goes from Boston to L.A. to Chicago — no Detroit and no Houston,” Mahorn said. “These two teams won back-to-back and when you’re beating a team like the Celtics, who are the fan favorites, the NBA’s favorites and then the other team that’s the NBA favorite, it’s still not going to get any recognition.”
Thomas, who was featured prominently in the docuseries in the discussion of the Bulls-Pistons rivalry, put the Bad Boys legacy in perspective in the way they’re received around the league and in Detroit
“We weren’t the chosen team, but we were the chosen team for Michigan and Detroit. I felt like we were the people’s team during that time,” Thomas said. “We had a great run in the '80s. From ’86 to ’90, we were one of the top three teams playing. That Boston team that everyone speaks about — some have said it’s the greatest team ever assembled.
“In ’86-’87 (in the Eastern Conference Finals), we had that team if I don’t throw the ball away.”
Thomas suffered a major wrist injury in 1991 and missed half the season. He returned but wasn’t close to his normal production.
After two championships, there were higher expectations, but the Bulls finally prevailed on their way to six titles.
“In ‘91, I felt like I let all of you down because I broke my wrist and early on, I was trying to play with it,” Thomas said. “After the Houston game (in the regular season), we went to see the doctor and the doctor said, ‘You’re never going to play basketball again with this wrist.
“I had surgery and left the team for a couple months. When I came back, just being around, my head was all messed up because I didn’t know if I was every going to play again...
“When we played in the playoffs, I just wasn’t good enough and wasn’t myself as a basketball player. I felt that I really let you all down and I’m sorry about that.”
For all the vitriol that the Bad Boys get from fans of other teams, Salley, who won four championships — including with the Bulls in 1996 and with the Lakers in 2000 — made his choice clear.
“Everybody asks me what my favorite championship is, and it would be my first championship with these cats,” Salley said. “It was nothing like it in my entire life … there’s been no experience like that.”
Among the most disliked players on that Bad Boys team was Bill Laimbeer, who often is portrayed as a villain, but his skill as a perimeter-shooting center way before it became en vogue, often is overlooked.
“People don’t like the way he approached the game. I hated Laimbeer when I got to Detroit and I hated him when I was in Detroit until I learned where he was from and how he got where he was as a basketball player,” Mahorn said. “I didn’t like his bluntness and truthfulness where I wanted to punch him in the face — every other day.
“These are hard-working people and Laimbeer represents someone who has something who can go play a game of basketball and play it in a rough-and-tumble way. They liked the way he shot, and he didn’t have to jump.
“I have mad love and respect for Laimbeer.”
Mahorn had a similar sentiment when he played for the Washington Bullets and faced Thomas. That changed when they became teammates, where Mahorn gained a greater respect for Thomas.
“I didn’t like the smile on his face. I’m with the Washington Bullets. This is how good he is and was: I hit him with an elbow and knocked his teeth out,” Mahorn said. “He got back in the game and went to the basket, slapped me with his left hand and made a left-handed lay-up and the referee called foul.
“Pound for pound, you were one of the baddest (expletives) I ever played against, and the baddest (expletives) I played with.”