More than three decades after the Detroit Pistons stalled Michael Jordan’s ascending stardom by bouncing the Chicago Bulls from the playoffs in three straight postseasons, Jordan admitted that he still harbors animosity for the “Bad Boys” team that threatened to derail his success.
“Oh, I hated them,” Jordan said in Episode 3 of the ESPN docuseries “The Last Dance,” which aired Sunday. “And that hate carries even to this day.”
Jordan and the Bulls lost to the Pistons in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1988, in six games in the conference finals in 1989 (after holding a 2-1 lead) and in seven games in the conference finals in 1990.
Along the way, the Pistons tormented Chicago’s high-scoring shooting guard, employing a bruising style of defense that came to be known as “The Jordan Rules.”
“We knew Michael Jordan is the greatest player, and we tried to use it as a rallying cry to come together,” Pistons star Isiah Thomas said in Episode 3. “We had to do everything from a physicality standpoint to stop him.”
“They made it personal,” Jordan said. “They physically beat the s— out of us.”
The Bulls finally broke through in the 1991 conference finals, and they did so in dominant fashion, sweeping Detroit 4-0 to deliver an unceremonious end to the Pistons’ back-to-back championship reign.
With 7.9 seconds remaining in the Bulls’ 21-point rout to end the series, the Pistons — at the behest of big man Bill Laimbeer, according to Thomas — walked off the court without shaking the Bulls players’ hands or congratulating them on advancing.
Thomas was part of the procession, slightly ducking his head as he walked by the Chicago bench en route to the tunnel to exit.
“Straight-up b—-es,” Bulls forward Horace Grant said in Episode 4 of the decision by Detroit. “That’s what they walked off like. We just kicked your ass, go ahead and go.”
Laimbeer, to this day, is comfortable with the choice that was made and thinks that the Bulls don’t get enough criticism for how they comported themselves.
“They whined and cried for a year and a half about how bad we were for the game, but more importantly, they said we were bad people,” Laimbeer told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in a recent interview. “We weren’t bad people. We were just basketball players winning. And that really stuck with me because they didn’t knew who we were or what we were about as individuals and our family life. But all that whining they did, I didn’t want to shake their hand. They were just whiners. They won the series. Give him credit. We got old. They got past us. But okay, move on.”
Thomas defended his team’s actions, noting that the Boston Celtics conducted themselves in a similar manner when the Pistons beat them in the 1988 conference finals.
“To us, that was OK,” Thomas said, looking back on the Celtics’ leaving the court while there was time left on the clock, rather than exchanging pleasantries. “Knowing what we know now and the aftermath that took place, I think all of us would have stopped and said congratulations like they do now.”
Thomas then imitated players in today’s game, who are viewed by some as being too friendly with the competition.
“‘Hey, congratulations.’ ‘Love you, man.’ ‘Love you.’ ‘Hey, congratulations,'” Thomas said sarcastically. “I mean, we would have did it. Of course we would have done it. But during that period of time, that’s just not how [the mantle] was passed. When you lost, you left the floor. That’s it.”
The director of the documentary, Jason Hehir, let Jordan watch video of Thomas’ explanation. But before he played it, Jordan said, “Well, I know it’s all bulls—.
“Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then,” Jordan said. “He’s had time enough to think about it — or the reaction of the public that’s kind of changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you’re going to convince me he wasn’t an a–hole.”
After watching Thomas, Jordan rolled his eyes and pointed out that the Bulls paid their respects to the Pistons in previous years.
“All you have to do, go back to us losing in Game 7 [in 1990],” Jordan said. “I shook everybody’s hands. Two years in a row, we shook their hands when they beat us. There’s a certain respect to the game that we pay to them. That’s sportsmanship, no matter how much it hurts. And believe me, it f—ing hurt.”
Jordan then smiled and revealed how much it meant to him to beat the Pistons at long last and earn his first trip to the NBA Finals, where he and the Bulls captured their first of six championships by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in 1991.
“But they didn’t have to shake our hands,” Jordan said of the Pistons. “We knew we whipped their ass already, we’d gotten past them, and that, to me, that was better in some ways than winning a championship.”