The champagne was spritzing and the players were singing and it was a Detroit party inside a Los Angeles locker room. The whole world lay ahead for the basketball players known as the Bad Boys, the Detroit Pistons team of 1989. They were young and lean and soaking with the bubbly and nothing, not even the Lakers, the glamour team of the NBA, could stop them.
Who could have seen the future back then? Who could have known that Rick Mahorn, the beefy power forward, had just played his last game as a Piston? Or that Dennis Rodman, his hair still its natural color, would one day become a painted cartoon growling insults from North Korea? Or that Isiah Thomas, the smiling superstar, would stumble time after time in his post-playing career, or that Joe Dumars, the skinny, quiet shooting guard, would end up running the franchise, or that John Salley, the team’s best shot blocker, would one day appear on every TV program from Rachael Ray to “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
You can’t see the future when your present is so bright. The light blinds you. You look at the photos from that year and the shorts seem so tight, the legs so skinny, the hair so thick. That night at the L.A. Forum, they were simply the best in the business, kings of their world.
“Bad boys! Bad Boys!” they sang.
That championship season.
Times have changed
This Friday night, at the Palace, the Bad Boys will reunite after 25 years, during halftime of the Pistons-Heat game. The crowd might be the biggest of the season, because this year’s Pistons team is a shadow of that 1989 group. In fact, the closest thing to a championship Friday night will be the opposing team, the Heat. Back in 1989, Miami was a new expansion team that would win just 15 games.
That just shows how time changes everything in sports. And it reminds me of something learned in three decades of covering this business: I do not envy athletes, and I never will.
Imagine a world that peaks in its late 20s or early 30s. Imagine never feeling quite as excited or invincible ever again. This is the tradeoff most pro athletes make for a chance at that golden ring. They are celebrated, showered in money, cheered around the globe, but it almost certainly will be a memory by their 40th birthday, and a more distant one every year since.
Meanwhile, the body aches and in time breaks down, betraying the youthful confidence with which it used to fly down a lane or slam down a dunk. There will knee operations. Hip replacements. Creaky backs. And for most athletes, there will be a permanent twist to the neck from looking back.
“Tell us about the time when…”
That’s what ex-athletes hear the most.
The good, then the bad
Ah, but back in 1989, none of this mattered. The Bad Boys were at the top, the pinnacle of what they had been working for since childhood. They had came together over the years, Thomas arriving first, as a draft pick in 1981, Vinnie Johnson in November 1981, Bill Laimbeer in February 1982, Dumars and Mahorn in 1985, Salley and Rodman in the next year’s draft, Mark Aguirre late in the process. They jelled around their wisecracking, inimitable coach, Chuck Daly, who stirred the stew. And finally, with a guard-oriented offense and a take-no-prisoners defense, they cut down the mighty Boston Celtics and the Showtime Lakers. The crown was theirs.
But in the years since then? It hasn’t all been bright lights and big fun. I doubt Isiah thought he’d fail as a coach, a general manager and a league owner (the CBA). I doubt Laimbeer thought he’d work so long in the WNBA and grow so frustrated waiting for an NBA head spot.
I doubt James Edwards anticipated some of the trouble he’d face. And I’d be pretty surprised if Rodman saw his future coming. It has been reported he’ll miss the reunion because he needs to grab a money-making opportunity overseas. Daly is gone. So is Matt Dobek, their longtime PR man.
Yes, Dumars has done well in the front office (although he’s currently dealing with a new owner and a restless fan base) and Johnson has had great success in the automotive world. But I’m guessing, if you got them all in private, they’d agree that nothing has been as much fun as that night in L.A. when they sang “Bad Boys! Bad Boys!”
In the famous play, “That Championship Season,” a group of ex-high school stars gathers 25 years later and discovers that the years have changed their view of that accomplishment. You wonder through what lens the Bad Boys will be looking back Friday night, nostalgic and bittersweet, or bright, young, and forever champagne-sticky?