The Bad Boys were crowned champions 25 years ago

The Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" celebrate their first NBA title in 1989 after sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Detroit Pistons “Bad Boys” celebrate their first NBA title in 1989 after sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers.

It is hard to believe that a quarter century has passed since the Detroit Pistons won the first of three NBA titles. From the time the franchise moved to Detroit from Fort Wayne in 1957 to nearly 30 years later when the Bad Boys came together, the Pistons were virtually perennial losers. But every palace has its crown, and when the Pistons opened the Palace of Auburn Hills for the 1988-1989 campaign, they were determined to get theirs, especially after coming so close the year before when they lost in Game 7 in the Finals against the Lakers. Following a controversial mid-February trade that sent Adrian Dantley to Dallas for Mark Aguirre, the Pistons were 31-6 and finished with a league best 63-19 record before sweeping Boston and Milwaukee in the playoffs and discarding Michael Jordan’s Bulls in six games. “No matter who we played that year, in our minds, every opponent was the Los Angeles Lakers,” Isiah Thomas told me in an interview for the Detroit Free Press. Once again, the Pistons had the opportunity to knock off the defending champion Lakers. Compared to the ’88 Finals, the ‘89 championship series would prove anti-climatic, largely due to injuries suffered by the Lakers great backcourt of Magic Johnson and Byron Scott. On the eve of Game 1, Scott was lost for the Finals when he tore a hamstring in practice. The Pistons then began a four-game sweep of the Lakers when they won 109-97 at the Palace. In Game 2, with the score tied 75 all in the third quarter, Magic Johnson pulled a hamstring that ended his series except for a cameo appearance in Game 3. Despite Johnson’s absence, the Pistons barely beat a last ditch Lakers’ effort in a 108-105 victory. Following the Piston’s Game 3 win at the Forum, (114 to 110) a cautious Isiah Thomas made a chess analogy to the 3-0 lead. “We have their bishops and their queen, but it still isn’t checkmate.” Finally, after decades of frustration, on June 13, 1989 the Pistons, led by Finals MVP Joe Dumars captured their first world championship when they beat the Lakers 105-97 in Los Angeles. As the clocked ticked away, the Pistons bench, with arms locked slowly rocked back and forth in a sing song yelling, “Bad Boys……….Bad Boys……..” “It was such a joyous moment for us as a team and as men,” said Thomas. “We weren’t supposed to be there and the rest of the world was against us. Our only solace was our fans. We couldn’t have competed like that without their support.” After a downtown Detroit parade before an estimated 125,000 fans, the joy turned to gloom following a raucous rally at the Palace when it was announced that despite last minute efforts to avoid it, Bad Boy favorite Rick Mahorn had been taken in the expansion draft. “Rick and I just were balling. It was a terrible time for everyone, but I felt really sorry for (GM) Jack McCloskey because I knew that day ripped his heart out,” Thomas said. Although the team went on to sweep Portland for another NBA title without Mahorn, the the Pistons’ “Bad Boys” image quickly faded. “They eventually changed the team’s colors and logo and got rid of what we stood for, but at the end of the day, what we stood for was the absolute right thing,” said Thomas. The Bad Boys proved one thing. Sometimes when you are really “Bad”, you can end up being really “Good.”

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.