' ' Cinema Romantico: 30 for 30: Bad Boys

Thursday, April 24, 2014

30 for 30: Bad Boys

What’s always most struck me about the Detroit Pistons infamously walking off the court in the waning moments of their series-ending Game 4 loss to the Chicago Bulls in 1991 without shaking the hands of Michael Jordan and cronies was how it so perfectly fit the Bad Boys’ storyline. For all intents and purposes, that was the end of the Bad Boys era and thus, their final act – defiant, classless, giving a Motor City middle finger to His Airness.

It was indescribably appropriate and eternal ammunition for Bad Boys haters, and the thing is, the Bad Boys never minded offering that ammunition. They thrived on it. They were cheap shot artists but they were not frauds. A few years later, my favorite Bad Boy, my favorite basketball player ever, Dennis Rodman, playing for the San Antonio Spurs, laid a horrific cheap shot on John Stockton of the Utah Jazz. But he laid it openly, refusing to mask his intentions, and so the media labeled Rodman the ultimate villain (not incorrect) while holding up Stockton as a wronged paragon of virtue. A few years after that a poll was taken of those in the league regarding its dirtiest players. The Top Two? Dennis Rodman and John Stockton. Rodman was himself, for better or worse. Stockton played dumb and hid in the shadows.

Chuck Klosterman has argued that everything in a male’s nature comes down to whether he rooted for the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980’s NBA. Well, I rooted for neither. I rooted for the Detroit Pistons. I was Divergent. After all, I hailed from the Midwest, and if one more coastal elite called us “flyover country”…… Wedged between the greatest rivalry in the league’s history, Magic vs. Bird, and Michael Jordan’s six-time dynasty were back-to-back championship banners raised by the Bad Boys. They might be the most unknown greatest team of all time, or the most ignominious greatest team of all time. They prided themselves on defense, which wasn’t exactly sexy in the offensive light show of the Me Decade, though they could certainly pile up points with anyone, and they played a physical and physically grotesque brand of basketball that hackneyed sports columnists would probably claim wasn’t “the right way” to play the game. They were also a team of characters – genuine characters, complex and fascinating, which is at odds with the force-fed black & white narratives of most sports journalism.

Director Zak Levitt yearns to give this team its due, and does, chronicling its rise from moribund franchise to upstart challenger to the league’s kings to eventual king itself, and all the pieces and personalities that went into it. The centerpiece of their turnaround was Isiah Thomas, a Chicago native who would become Chicago’s foremost enemy, a gleeful irony that perfectly complements Thomas’s high-watt smile. That smile was the ultimate emblem of the Bad Boys. It wasn’t necessarily masking the metaphorical knife in his hand as much as it was reveling at the metaphorical knife in his hand, and daring you to do something about it. You probably wouldn’t. And he knew it. In fact, listening to Thomas, and especially to Bill Laimbeer, Public Enemy #1, the guy who makes supposed “enforcers” of today’s NBA look like chess players at Caltech, you might find yourself incensed, but you might also find yourself refreshed by their candidness. Laimbeer may speak in monotone but he pulls no punches, akin to his attitude on the court. It’s a league anymore of yawn-inducing sound bites – “One game at a time”, “No ‘I’ in team”, “Get back to fundamentals” – but Laimbeer says what he means and means what he says. He always did. Most people didn’t like it. He loved that you didn’t like it. You can tell he still does.

One of the ideas that drove the Bad Boys and that drives “Bad Boys” is the idea of what a champion is a “supposed” to be. Because the Pistons openly wore the Black Hat (and in a couple shots Laimbeer literally wears a black hat, one of which finds him simultaneously embracing the Championship Trophy) and because they unabashedly used thuggish tactics and because their overall attitude was Us vs. Everyone Else, they were often seen as not being respectable titleholders. Look no further than the NBA's ultimate emissary, Michael Jordan, who still clearly, and not wrongly, harbors a grudge.

Yet, in a sport rife with egos and selfishness, the Bad Boys, viewed through a single prism likely more than any champion in league history, were also perhaps the ultimate manifestation of unselfish, loving team basketball. For instance, much is made of how the Pistons viewed themselves as a family. When the problematic Adrian Dantley, upset he was losing minutes to the more defensive-minded Rodman, refused to exit a game at coach Chuck Daly’s request, he was quickly traded. The trade, however, was for notoriously pouty Mark Aguirre, to whom Laimbeer says: “I don’t like you. But Isiah vouches for you.” Sentence one denotes utter honesty. Sentence two denotes an almost mafia-esque family atmosphere. And because Isiah vouched for Aguirre, he was accepted into the family, and the team went on to Title #2.

This is a diametric that almost defies belief, and one that the film, I think, only tangentially connects to the larger legacy of the Pistons, a legacy rarely given its due because it included thumbing their noses at the NBA fraternity. Much of the film is merely a traditional telling of an untraditional team's rise and fall, but it hints at and occasionally comments on the overridding truth - that the Bad Boys were a magnificent outlier, a team of mean-spirited straight-shooters, a united collective of rugged individualists.

Among the interviewed is the New York Knicks’ Patrick Ewing. He laments how dirty the Pistons played. Of course, a little more than a month ago, on another “30 for 30” installment, “Requiem For The Big East”, it was Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown teams who were accused by everyone else of being dirty. “We weren’t dirty,” Ewing said on camera in that film. Ah, athletes, the tall tales they tell and the lies they stifle in hopes of fine-tuning their public image. All except the Bad Boys. They didn’t care what anyone else thought. Right down to the Chicago Bulls walk-off, they were themselves. It’s why they are the only professional sports team I ever have and ever will love.

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