One by one they filed past the Chicago Bulls’ bench, with nary a glance at the opponents who had vanquished them. A couple of them were even sneering as they strode by the Bulls, who looked at them with a mix of amazement and incredulity.
The Pistons were losing without honor, without dignity.
But they were losing with disdain, and that was just fine with them, apparently.
It was 1991, just past Memorial Day. And the Pistons’ reign was ending.
Five straight years in the Eastern Conference Finals. Three victories in four appearances in the NBA’s Final Four. Could have been four straight, had it not been for a tragic pass in Boston in 1987.
The Bulls had been swatted out of the playoffs by the Pistons in 1988, 1989, and 1990. Each year, though, Michael Jordan’s boys from the Windy City inched closer to their nemesis.
In ’88, the Bulls were flicked off the Pistons’ shoulders in the conference semi-finals. In ’89, the conference finals in six games. In ’90, the conference finals in seven games.
And now, in ’91’s conference finals, the Bulls had catapulted themselves over the “Bad Boys.”
They ran the Pistons out of the building in Games 1 and 2, in Chicago. They ran them out of the building in Auburn Hills, too, in Game 3.
Game 4 was nearing its end. The Pistons were being run out of the building once more. This time literally.
It was reported, then later confirmed, that Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer concocted the idea of walking off the court before the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Two of the Baddest Boys were, frankly, pissed off.
For three years they listened to the Bulls whine and complain about the roughhouse tactics the Pistons used on the basketball floor. The Bulls, and other teams, went to the papers and eventually the league with their concerns.
The Pistons were accused of being thugs. Bullies. Purveyors of a type of basketball that was deemed unseemly by the complainers.
It was mostly true. And the Pistons knew it.
But that’s how they won—with rugged defense and a “take no prisoners” style that doled out not just fouls, but often times sheer punishment.
The Pistons knew, deep down, that they were thugs. They just didn’t care to be called out on it—especially by the Bulls and Jordan, who the Pistons looked at with disdain as he was being anointed as the next prince of the NBA.
So the plan was discussed. If the Pistons looked to be losers in Game 4, they would stride off the court before time expired, with nary a handshake or a nod at the new champs of the East.
A bold, unmitigated show of disrespect. The Pistons may as well have spit at the Bulls’ feet as they walked by.
The TV cameras, of course, captured the display. The NBC announcers didn’t even really know what to say. No team had ever walked out in that fashion, leaving only the five players on the floor to remain as representatives.
Coach Chuck Daly maintained he knew nothing of the planned walkout. I believe him.
GM Jack McCloskey, who built the Bad Boys from scratch, taking most of the 1980s to do it, intercepted Thomas, Laimbeer, John Salley, Dennis Rodman, and the others as they made their way to the tunnel.
McCloskey, weeping openly, embraced each player tightly. He, too, knew that the Bad Boys Era of domination had ended.
A couple years ago, I asked McCloskey what he said to his players as they staged their dramatic early exit.
“I just thanked them,” he told me. “I thanked them for all that they did. We had a great run.”
One Pistons player didn’t join the walkout.
Joe Dumars stayed on the bench.
He would explain later that he didn’t quite know what to make of the display, and that he didn’t feel right participating in it.
T-shirts like this captured a league-wide view of "Bad Boy" Laimbeer
This weekend, the Pistons will stage the beginning of the end of their run as conference finalists.
Six straight seasons the Pistons have made it to the NBA’s Final Four. Twice they’ve survived and qualified for the Finals.
That all comes to an end this spring.
The 39-43 Pistons figure to be nothing more than gnats in the face of LeBron James and his 66-16 Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. The Pistons, the experts say, will be lucky to win even one game, much less the entire series.
I have them bowing out in five games, as well.
But unlike 1991, when the Pistons still appeared to be competitive, until the series with the Bulls began, this year’s squad has been sprouting red flags all season.
Even when they had a winning record around the turn of the year, everything seemed so much harder for them. The teams they should have been blowing out were giving the Pistons fits. There would be an occasional win over an elite team, but then one of the bottom feeders would come to The Palace and slap the Pistons around.
In the season’s second half, the Pistons played well below .500. At times, they appeared to be mailing in their efforts.
Now, of course, they talk bravely about having playoff experience and that it’s a new season and everyone is 0-0 again.
It’s all talk.
The Pistons are over with at being an elite conference team. You can see it coming this time, a mile away.
Dumars is the GM now. Like McCloskey, he’ll be near the court when the final horn sounds on the Pistons for the season, likely after either Game 4 or 5. When the final horn sounds on a fine run as a conference elitist.
Joe D. didn’t walk out on the Bulls, or his teammates on the floor, in the waning moments in 1991. It wasn’t in his nature.
But I’ll bet he privately congratulates the old guard—Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess—after the elimination. It’s fitting and proper to do so.
They thrilled us, that’s for sure.