In the 1980’s, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics rules the NBA, combining for 13 Finals appearances during the decade. The 90’s belonged to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who racked up six titles across two three-peats. But between the fierce coastal rivalry and Air Jordan’s dominance (let’s just ignore those back-to-back Rockets titles for now, since Jordan was busy playing baseball), the Detroit Pistons had a slow rise to the championship peak that remains unique simply for how many people outside Michigan hated everything about the way they played.
Director Zak Levitt previously worked as one of the producers on Once Brothers, one of the most emotionally affecting films from 30 For 30’s original season. That film, about the friendship and rivalry of former Yugoslavia teammates Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović, performed a deep dive on a complicated relationship between players who identified with each other across a regional rift. But Bad Boys has more than a few strains of Ice Cube’s 30 For 30 entry on the Oakland Raiders, because these Detroit Pistons teams were viewed as cutthroat villains out not just to win, but to decimate any team in their path. Michael Jordan was infamously instrumental in leaving Isiah Thomas off the Dream Team roster for the 1992 Olympics, a testament to how badly the Pistons rubbed other stars the wrong way.
Bad Boys is summarily a standard-issue sequential history of how the Detroit Pisons rose from cellar dwellers to back-to-back NBA champions with Isiah Thomas as the dynamo at the center. It has all the key interviews from the team—Bill Laimbeer, John Salley, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars—and hints of others like Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen along the way. So Pistons fans, or fans of old school, physically vicious basketball before the flagrant foul rules, this is a perfectly adequate retrospective. But while it does hint and pick at larger, more intriguing question about the nature of reputation in professional sports, it’s too busy telling the familiar rise-and-fall story arc to engage those deeper questions in a way that would elevate the film above a highlight reel with a commentary track.
Levitt does a fine job of laying out the sequence of events that took the franchise from languishing at the bottom of the standing all the way to the top. Jack McCloskey became General Manager, hired his friend Chuck Daly as coach, and selected Isiah Thomas with the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. That’s the inciting incident for change in Detroit, where fans didn’t fill the Silverdome out in Pontiac. Slowly but surely the pieces fell into place, first with Bill Laimbeer and then Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, Adrian Dantley, John Salley, and Dennis Rodman. As with many other gradual success stories, the Pistons took progressively larger steps toward a title. They made the playoffs, then battled with an aging Larry Bird and the Celtics, then had to overcome Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the Finals. It’s all a standard arc that many other films on other franchises across different sports have demonstrated. Unless you’re a big-time Pistons fan, it’s merely entertaining to hear the various eloquent and witty talking heads offer brief commentary on significant events from those seasons.
But the small complexities of why these Pistons teams were treated so differently from other title contenders form the most interesting sequences of the film—and they have almost nothing to do with the actual events of the seasons leading up to the back-to-back titles. The first is Bill Laimbeer’s reputation as a hard-fouling defensive beast. Laimbeer is the first to admit that he didn’t get into fights growing up, came from a well-off background in the Chicagoland area—in contrast to Thomas’ upbringing—and merely recognized that he could break down players mentally in order to make up for having slightly less talent on the court. But everyone, from the print media at the time to the talking heads in Bad Boys, single out Laimbeer as a calculating, purposeful player who wasn’t actually the man he was on the court. He acted the part, committed hard fouls when he thought they were necessary, and baiting opposing players (like Larry Bird in one infamous incident) into fighting back and getting ejected. The goal was to win the mental battle, throwing teams and star players so far off their game that they couldn’t concentrate but for the anger they felt toward Laimbeer or any other Pistons defender.
At a time when a smart, calculating player in another sport has made a self-aware heel turn and backed it up with championship talent (ahem, Richard Sherman), the double-standard in the description of Laimbeer’s playing style seems particularly prescient. As recently as this year’s NFL playoffs, Sherman’s boisterous swagger saw him labeled a thug and inundated with slurs and threats on social media. Bad Boys makes special note to say that Dennis Rodman was somewhat cornered by the media and didn’t fully understand the implications of saying something about Larry Bird’s race in relation to his basketball talent—and neither did Isiah Thomas in backing him up. Idiotic claims of mythical “reverse racism” aside, race has been a significant factor in the way sportswriters and fans view players with similarly tough styles of play. Hockey enforcers are characterized as goons and thugs, sure, but they’re not stigmatized in the same way tough black basketball players are. There’s an opportunity for Bad Boys to dig deeper on that—especially when they get a guy like Patrick Ewing, known for some questionably legal defense of his own at Georgetown, calling the Pistons dirty. But the rise-and-fall narrative is too rigid too allow exploratory tangents.
The second issue is that of what constitutes a proper champion. En route to the Bulls’ first championship, as the torch passed from Detroit to Chicago, from Isiah to Michael, Jordan was quoted as saying the Detroit Pistons were bad for the NBA and bad champions. It may have just been sour grapes from seasons of losing in the playoffs despite exceptional individual performance. From Jordan’s interview for this film (and Scottie Pippen’s for that matter), it may be that these guys still just plain don’t like each other. And that’s refreshingly honest. But the larger implication from that kerfuffle is that there’s a right way and wrong way to act as a champion, and there are arbiters of such conduct, though sussing out who exactly has the right to judge has never been clear.
Jordan was the media darling (despite all the negative aspects of his competitive personality, and the Pistons, embraced by Detroit for exemplifying the city’s identity in a blue-collar, Midwestern fashion against an east coast powerhouse and the glitzy reputation of Los Angeles, still got framed as the villain. The most interesting point in the entire documentary is probably when everyone on the Pistons, from Thomas down the whole roster, recognized that they weren’t going to win by fighting the black hat label, and so they embraced their roles as villains wholeheartedly, effectively using it against other teams en route to two championships.
Bad Boys isn’t a transcendent 30 For 30 entry, but it’s also not a tired retread of the same championship building arc that has been hardwired into the genre. It raises some particularly intriguing issues regarding race and reputation in relation to professional sports and the NBA media, while at the same time offering Pistons fans some opportunities for celebratory nostalgia.
- Any time I can plug Hoop Dreams, the fantastic documentary in which Isiah Thomas plays a minor but significant role, I will stump for Hoop Dreams. Considering the storyline in Bad Boys about Jordan “stealing” Chicago from hometown hero Thomas, it’s a nice companion piece
- It bears repeating: the idea that Patrick Ewing calls out another team’s defense and physical play as suspect, after all the furor over Georgetown’s reputation under John Thompson, is hilariously ironic.