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How Bad Boys can become good

“The film don’t lie” – Isaiah Thomas

Last week I sat down and watched a documentary that left an impression on me like a bruise.

Wedged in between the Los Angeles Lakers/Boston Celtics dominance of the 1980s and the Michael Jordan-led dynasty of the Chicago Bulls through the ’90s was a back-to-back championship run of the Detroit Pistons from 1988-90. The documentary is titled Bad Boys, which was the name bestowed upon this team that played with such a fearsome defensive attitude that it changed the face of basketball forever. It also ruffled a few feathers along the way.

Bad Boys is a study of how a club is built, how a team is built, but also how a team can connect with its home city. Detroit is a city that knows hard times. At the time of the Pistons’ reign in the late ’80s it was a working class battleground that had been the richest city in America through the middle of the century after the boom of the motor industry. In more recent times, Detroit has slipped even further into economic ruin.

‘Chief agitator Laimbeer summed it up like this: “Someone has got to wear the black hat.”‘

The architects for the Pistons’ revival were their general manager Jack McClosky and head coach Chuck Daly (at the time a virtually unknown). Piece by piece, they began to accumulate a playing roster that could begin to dream of competing against the glamorous franchises, the Lakers and the Celtics.

The spirit of the Pistons team that would go on to notoriety came from two players, Isaiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer.

Thomas was the star point guard in the country, and despite his best efforts to play elsewhere the Pistons took him at No.2 in the draft. Soon after, a trade was made to lure Laimbeer from Cleveland.

Thomas was from a tough Chicago neighbourhood, and his million-dollar smile distracted people from what he essentially was – a street fighter. Laimbeer was from a different world. His home life was one of privilege and comfort, but like the smile of his point guard teammate, his blue blood belied a fighting spirit that would eventually make him the most hated man in the NBA.

Around these two cornerstones, McClosky and Daly put together a team of role players. Their core business became ruthless team defence.

The Pistons’ story lifts out of the earth like a great mountain. Warmly embraced by their hometown for their working class style and attitude, they were shunned by the rest of the league, considered by many to be thugs. As the players themselves saw it, it was “us against the rest of the world”.

After some initial hesitation they began to embrace their image as the bad boys. Chief agitator Laimbeer summed it up like this: “Someone has got to wear the black hat.”

For anyone who loves team sport, the Detroit Pistons are a fascinating tale. Bad Boys covers the full arc, the rise to the top and the eventual fall.

Made up of a wild mix of characters, the Pistons were “a great bunch of soldiers”, according to McClosky. They may have lacked the polish of some their glamorous contemporaries, but they were a formidable force with just the right mix of silk and steel on the court.

It’s a balancing act that my football team hasn’t really captured yet this year. After a disappointing weekend for my Bulldogs, there were quite a few lessons to take away from the Pistons’ story. You can’t let opposition teams brush you aside like the Gold Coast Suns did to us on Sunday night. I hate to think what Bill Laimbeer would’ve made of our third quarter.

The responsibility to make amends lies with the 22 players this Sunday. Ultimately, a team connects with its people when it wins. This week against the Dockers presents our next opportunity to get the balance of silk and steel right.

This article was orginally published in The Age and can be accessed here