The two basketball heavyweights went toe to toe in the choking heat and humidity of Detroit’s aptly-named Joe Louis Arena.
They traded punches all night in this, the deciding game of a first round, best-of-five series, played in a hockey arena because the makeshift basketball gym in Pontiac was booked—probably for a tractor pull or some such monstrosity.
Slug! A post up move, a dribble and a dunk.
Slug! A pull-up jumper from 20 feet—swish!
Back and forth they went.
The heavyweights weren’t the teams involved—the New York Knicks and the Detroit Pistons.
They were the two stars—Bernard King of the Knickerbockers and Isiah Thomas of the Pistons.
The year was 1984 and the Pistons were making their first foray into the NBA playoffs in seven years.
A well-coiffed coach named Chuck Daly was in his first season at the Pistons’ helm. Isiah was three years into what would be a Hall of Fame career. Daly was destined for Springfield, too.
Bernard King was a wily NBA veteran small forward who was absolutely killing the Pistons in the series, averaging over 40 points per game.
In the deciding Game 5, Isiah and the Pistons tried like mad to quell King, who was again making mincemeat of Kelly Tripucka, Earl Cureton and whomever else Daly put in there to defend Bernard.
But Isiah wasn’t going to let King eliminate his team without a fight.
In the final 90 seconds of regulation, Isiah shimmied, shook and shot his way into NBA immortality. Possessed, Thomas scored 16 points in those 90 seconds, literally forcing overtime single-handedly.
King, of course, went ballistic, scoring 44 points on the night.
But in the end, the Pistons’ first post-season action since 1977 went awry, as Isiah fouled out (35 points) and King and the Knicks triumphed in overtime, 127-123, ousting the Pistons for the summer.
It was a bitter, angry defeat, but all it did was steel Isiah and the Pistons for playoffs to come.
More playoff heartbreak would follow, but five years after that epic battle inside Joe Louis Arena in 1984, Isiah hoisted the NBA Championship Trophy in the locker room at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, CA.
Last Sunday, another Pistons point guard found himself in quite a bout, though this one was perhaps more lightweight versus heavyweight—for now.
Reggie Jackson, the sweat gushing from his pores, had the basketball and a chance for some mini-immortality around these parts.
He jacked up a three-point shot that, had it gone down, would have defeated LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love—three heavyweights—in a playoff game, giving the Pistons their first post-season win since 2008.
And it would have snapped the Pistons’ 11-game playoff losing streak against the Cleveland Cavaliers, to boot.
But Jackson’s shot wouldn’t drop, and Cleveland escaped with a 100-98 victory, completing a four-game sweep of the first-round series.
In the aftermath of the loss, Jackson, speaking to the media, seemed at times inconsolable.
The Pistons had fought gamely and as far as sweeps go, this one was highly competitive. The Pistons weren’t outclassed—they were out-experienced.
Jackson was especially irritated at the notion that his young team must wait for its time, which wasn’t this spring.
“It pisses you off,” Jackson said. “To hear it’s not your time and not your moment … it kind of seems like it’s not made for you necessarily to win, so you have to find a way to run through the wall, find a way to get over the hump.”
A day later, as the Pistons cleaned out their lockers, Jackson sounded more like Isiah, circa the mid-1980s. He was asked about the next step for his basketball team.
“Finals. That’s what I set each year. I want to win the title, so I’m sure the team does, as well.”
They were much the same words that Isiah Thomas would speak in his soft but laser-focused voice, when the Pistons were making a steady, gradual rise through the NBA.
In Isiah’s world, the Pistons were simply destined to win a world championship. The only question was when.
It wasn’t in 1987, when a horribly ill-timed bad pass—ironically by Thomas himself—helped torpedo the Pistons against the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the Final Four.
It wasn’t in 1988, when a ticky-tack, ghost foul called against Bill Laimbeer on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helped crush the Pistons’ dream in the waning seconds of Game 6 of the Finals.
But in 1989 and 1990, Thomas and the Pistons made up for the playoff heartbreak of years past with back-to-back world championships.
Playoff heartbreak that began on a hot April night inside Joe Louis Arena.
You can dare to draw some comparisons between the Reggie Jackson Pistons of 2016 and the Isiah Thomas Pistons of the mid-1980s because both teams wandered back into the playoffs after an extended absence.
Both rosters contained a young core that figure to be together for several years to come.
And both teams had their heart ripped out in the final game of the year.
With any luck, we’ll look back at last Sunday as the baptism of Jackson’s Pistons and the April where the foundation of a championship-caliber team was built, albeit on the slab of discontent.
Maybe Jackson should give Isiah a call this summer. It can’t hurt.