“I don’t fight. I agitate, then I walk away.”
“Is my shirt too light? No?” John Salley adjusts his jacket and applies make up as the camera repositions to find the right angle. “I had three shirts, when they said it was a warehouse, I didn’t know if a lighter shirt would lighten my face or not.” He goes with the darker shirt, a shade matching his plaid jacket, sharp. Salley knows how to present himself.
The warehouse is a decent effect here, in the new 30 for 30 film, Bad Boys, but Salley’s a better one. While the brick walls and exposed fixtures in the building suggest the notorious blue-collar toughness of the late 1980s Detroit Pistons, Salley’s attention to sartorial detail suggests something else, equally important to the remarkable team—showmanship. While the Lakers of the day were “showtime,” and Bird’s Celtics renowned for their “pride,” the upstart Pistons embraced and cultivated a reputation as “bad.”
“It isn’t about everybody liking you,” narrates Kid Rock, “It’s about beating the guys that everybody else loves.” Assembling the team for one-on-one interviews in that warehouse, Zak Levitt’s entertaining film recounts a history that’s both revered and reviled. As much as Detroit fans like Kid Rock might celebrate the Pistons’ aggressive play, other observers—and targets—have been less laudatory, calling them thugs and villains. The film opens on Isiah Thomas exhorting haters to “erase the labels that you’ve given us and the names that you called us, all those people who said we were thugs and vicious. If you’re winning, you’re going to affect people’s emotions.” The clacking clapboard that introduces Thomas underlines the performance, now and then.
The Pistons made their name just as the Celtics-Lakers era was closing and just before Michael Jordan’s Bulls dominated the ‘90s, a rise initiated when GM Jack McCloskey drafted point guard Thomas in 1981, then traded for center Bill Laimbeer the following year, adding to a roster featuring Joe Dumars and Rick Mahorn. As different as they could be in background (Thomas grew up on Chicago’s West Side, and lost his brothers to heroin, Laimbeer hailed from the wealthy Chicago suburb, Clarendon Hills, a life that he calls “nice and stable and secure and no hassles”), the new guys shared a competitive ferocity. “We saw the game the same way,” says Thomas, “It was chess moves out on the floor.” Laimbeer follows up, “I’m one step ahead on the basketball court, he was always two steps ahead.”
Like chess moves, the Pistons’ use of language on the court, as well as elbows to chests or faces was calculated. As more than one interviewee notes here, the game was different then, and fighting was a means to lay down markers, to get inside opponents’ heads. No one is more aware of this than Laimbeer, whose daunting performance continues to this day. Currently the head coach and GM for the New York Liberty, he’s strikingly self-aware. Certainly, as the film recounts, he and the other Bad Boys spent a lot of time in front of cameras as young men, refining a show that may have inspired opposing teams’ “fear” (as Isiah Thomas asserts), but certainly bothered players enough that they were put off their usual games.
“We were the most devastating in the most devastating era,” observes Mark Aguirre, the camera close on his face as he comes at it from around a corner in the warehouse. Before that era ended, before regulations curtailed fights and limited fouls, teams like the Pistons might be fined for fighting, but persisted, understanding the effects their reputations might have. The film allows for ongoing debates between Pistons—Aguirre and Adrian Dantley, whose fights with Thomas and coach Chuck Daly went public, still don’t agree on how the former came to replace the latter (McCloskey answers an off-screen query—“Never what?”—that Thomas “never” came to him to demand he move Dantley), and so allows for the ongoing legend of the team’s fractiousness. This even as Laimbeer and Thomas and Dennis Rodman too insist on the sense of family they felt, their dedication to coach and their faith in each other.
Rodman, of course, might serve as the subject of another movie, but as one of the Bad Boys, before he joined the rival Bulls, his is a truly remarkable story. A shy kid who came up in a terrible home (his absent dad was a Vietnam war veteran and the father of over 25 children; as he puts it, “Me and my mother didn’t really have the greatest relationship,” he understates, “All she knew was abuse”), and after high school he took a job as a janitor at the Dallas Forth Worth Airport. When he grew nine inches, he took up basketball, became a 22-year-old freshman at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and was drafted by the Pistons in 1986. Daily became a father figure, and his teammates appreciated his gifts (“There was something special about him,” says Laimbeer, “He had a gear of speed that no one had ever seen”).
The film notes too the controversy attending the “unsophisticated” Rodman’s observation in 1987 that Larry Bird was overrated because he was white. The team’s support of him, especially Thomas’, reinforced their aggressive, impolitic image, not exactly forgiven when they won their back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. When at last the Bulls—that is, Jordan and Scottie Pippen—sorted out how to beat them in ‘91, the Pistons behaved badly, walking off the court with time left on the clock during their loss to the Bulls. “In my mind,” Jordan said then, “they’ve really dirtied up the game of basketball, I think the sportsmanship should be part of the game and they’ve taken that away.”
The Pistons’ performance goes on, as does Jordan’s. Even as Michael, so beloved and so lucrative as a brand, has sold millions of shoes and sodas and Hanes t-shirts, the Bad Boys raised their own questions about protocols and expectations, regrets and self-respect. In broader contexts, they may still be a step ahead.