They were the bane of the NBA.
Rude, arrogant, snarling basketball players who played as if they stowed their own version of the rule book in their locker room. Champions, they became, with the league commissioner smiling at them in public and grousing about them privately.
The Bad Boys!
That’s what they called the Pistons of the late-1980s, early-1990s. It’s also what they called themselves. They didn’t shy from the reputation; they embraced it. Maybe a bit too much.
They played hard and they fouled hard. They used their superior defense to break their opponent’s neck, then their spirit. Other teams called them dirty, unfair, cocky, you name it. It was all true, of course.
For two seasons in a row, the Bad Boys terrorized the NBA as they won the league’s brass ring. Commish David Stern and his lieutenants fretted that this rambunctious, rowdy bunch of hooligans would forever change the way the pro game would be played. Namely, would other teams take the brutish route toward victory?
But then Superman, aka Michael Jordan, swooped in and rescued the NBA from the Bad Boys. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, thrice swatted out of the playoffs – literally and figuratively – by the Pistons (1988-90), finally toppled the Bad Boys in 1991. The Bulls then won six of the next eight championships. Stern and his minions didn’t have to worry about the Bad Boys, or anyone else following their lead, any longer.
Since every gang has to have a leader, the Pistons of those days were no exception. And little Isiah Thomas was the team’s Leo Gorcey to its Dead End Kids.
Make no mistake – Thomas WAS the face of the Pistons. There was the flopping, maddening Bill Laimbeer. The Neanderthal-like Rick Mahorn. That pest, Dennis Rodman, aka The Worm. The petulant, dark Adrian Dantley, who was replaced by the petulant, once-upon-a-time troublemaker Mark Aguirre. But the leader of the pack was Isiah, all six-foot-one of him. The smiling assassin. He had that cherubic face but he just as soon stomp on your heart on the basketball court.
They were the Bad Boys but know this: Thomas was the first person you thought of when you thought of the Detroit Pistons. He was one of those NBA players that only needed to go by one name, or a nickname. There was Magic. Kareem. MJ. Dr. J. And Isiah.
It says here that ever since Thomas retired in 1994, the Pistons have been faceless. Doesn’t mean they’ve been unsuccessful. Just faceless.
What about Grant Hill, you ask?
Hill, a Piston from 1994-2000, was a very nice young man. A terrific basketball player. He still is both of those things, though not as young. But he didn’t have the strong, dominant personality needed to be the “face” of any basketball franchise. Plus, the teams he played on weren’t all that good. Some wouldn’t even want their face associated with those Pistons teams to begin with, much less BE the face.
The Pistons got better and won another championship, in 2004. But the way they did it was opposite of a franchise with a face. They prided themselves on being a franchise that didn’t need a face. They beat the star-studded Lakers in ’04, and this was going to usher in a new way of winning: the way that didn’t need a superstar player. Just a bunch of hard-working dudes – good, but not great players coming together in a common goal.
That lasted about one year.
The Pistons lost in the 2005 Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, who featured superstar Timmy Duncan. They lost in the 2006 conference finals to the Miami Heat, who featured superstar Dwyane Wade. They lost in the 2007 conference finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who featured superstar LeBron James. And they lost in the 2008 conference finals to the Boston Celtics, who featured superstars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
See a pattern here?
But now the Pistons, some 14+ years since Isiah Lord Thomas hung up his sneakers, finally have a face. A superstar. Someone around whom to worship on the basketball court.
Allen Iverson is about Isiah’s size: six-feet tall, on his tippy toes. One-hundred-and-sixty-five pounds, soaking wet and with $100 worth of quarters in his pockets. Tougher than nails. Still some street in him. A shrimp, really, in a giant’s game. And also one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history.
A face, finally, for the Pistons.
Iverson isn’t cherubic like Thomas, but he’s the new Pistons face
A couple weeks ago, Iverson came over from Denver for Chauncey Billups, the poor man’s Isiah. A point guard who had a lot of journeyman in his resume but who found gold in Detroit. The MVP of the 2004 Finals. Mr. Big Shot, they called him. But it was mainly a Detroit nickname – an invention of announcer George Blaha, spouted after some clutch Chauncey shots, once upon a time.
But Chauncey Billups wasn’t the face of the Pistons, either. He was merely one of the starting five — albeit one of the very best starting fives in the league. But he was no more the face than was the bellicose Rasheed Wallace, or the whirling dervish Rip Hamilton, or the quiet beanpole Tayshaun Prince. Together, they were A face. But there was no REAL face.
Iverson gives them that face. For the first time since Isiah, as noted above. The first genuine superstar to wear a Pistons uniform in 14 years-plus. The first player who can truly create his own shot, who craves the ball with the game on the line. The first one who mingles among the NBA elite. He’s AI and The Answer, Iverson is. He’s nicknamed and everything.
Ironically, Iverson might not be a Piston beyond this season. He’s a free agent at the end of it, and there’s sourced talk that president Joe Dumars (himself a one-time Bad Boy) is perhaps using Iverson’s contract so that when it comes off the books next summer, Dumars will have lots of cash to spend – whether on AI or on someone else. But rest assured, it will be a superstar player. No more of this “basketball is a team sport” stuff. The Pistons have tried it that way for the past four seasons, and it hasn’t worked.
Allen Iverson, the face of the Pistons. For one season, anyway. But it’s one season longer than they’ve had a face since 1994.