Isiah’s heroics nearly brought Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys their first NBA title in 1988

Isiah Thomas writhes in pain during the late stages of Game Six in the 1988 NBA Finals.

Isiah Thomas writhes in pain during the late stages of Game Six in the 1988 NBA Finals.

This Thursday ESPN will debut its long anticipated 30 for 30 two-hour documentary, Bad Boys, which profiles the Detroit Pistons’ hard nosed squad that wreaked havoc in the NBA while capturing two world championships and nearly a third in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The ESPN promo states in part:

No drama is complete without compelling characters, and the Bad Boys Pistons had a full cast. Viewers will see the many factors that drove one of the best — and most complex — players in NBA history: Isiah Thomas, a lethal combination of sweetness on the outside and toughness within. In addition, the team was characterized by the toughness of Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn; the quiet intensity of Joe Dumars; the savvy and fearlessness of a young Dennis Rodman; the comic relief provided by John Salley; and the mixture of grit, professionalism and style possessed by coach Chuck Daly. Now, viewers will finally get the untold story behind one of the most unique championship teams in NBA history.

Although they would go on to win NBA titles against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989 and the Portland Trailblazers in 1990, thanks to the courage and heroics of Isiah Thomas, the Bad Boys nearly won their first of what could have been three consecutive titles in June of 1988.

That year the high scoring and defending champion Lakers led by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and James Worthy were odds on favorites to throttle the scrappy, defense oriented “Bad Boys” lead by coach Chuck Daly.

In an interview I did with Isiah Thomas for a Detroit Free Press article that appeared a few days before the Pistons won their third World Championship in 2004, (also against the Lakers) he told me: “I knew how good we were. We respected the Lakers but didn’t fear them. I just wanted to kick the crap out of them.”

What Isiah Thomas did in the final two games of the ’88 NBA Finals was extraordinary and one of the gutsiest performances in the history of professional sports.

After leading the 1988 Finals 3-2 when they returned to L.A, the Bad Boys were down 56-48 early in the third quarter of Game Six when Thomas scored the next 14 points in every way imaginable, reminding many of the ’84 playoff game against New York when he scored an incredible 16 points in 94 seconds to send that contest into overtime.

But at 4:21 of the quarter, Thomas was writhing in pain holding his right ankle after landing on Michael Cooper’s foot. Hobbling with one good foot, Thomas returned 35 seconds later to score another nine points – setting an NBA Finals record for points in one quarter with a total of 25 while single-handedly giving the Pistons an 81-79 lead.

“I was so pissed off that I was injured that I wanted to beat the Lakers even more,” Thomas told me.

With under a minute to play, the Pistons held a one point lead 102-101. The Lakers then set up and guard Byron Scott got it to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was fouled by Bill Laimbeer as he wheeled for a skyhook on the right baseline. Many refer to this as a “phantom foul,” as Laimbeer appeared to make no illegal contact. Abdul-Jabbar hit the two free throws for a 103-102 lead with 14 seconds left.

After a time out, the Pistons set up for a final shot. Thomas stumbled over Rodman after inbounding the ball, and Dumars put up a wild shot that missed badly. After a mad scramble, Scott came up with the ball for the Lakers and was shoved out of bounds by Rodman, inciting a near-fight. After control was maintained, Scott missed the two foul shots, but it hardly mattered as the Pistons missed from half court at the buzzer.

Thomas would end up with 43 points and eight assists in a heroic performance.

At game’s end, Thomas hobbled off the court with awestruck praise, an empty feeling, and injuries that included a severely sprained ankle, dislocated left pinky finger, a cut near his temple, and two sore eyes from pokes. Remarkably, despite these bumps, bruises, and discomfort, he had the game of his career to that point.

For Game Seven, Thomas was listed as doubtful, his ankle injury so severe that Piston trainer Mike Abdenour told the media, “If it had been the regular season, Isiah would be out three weeks.” Team physician Dr. Benjamin Paolucci said Thomas wasn’t medically fit to play, but when the All-Star guard insisted, Paolucci refused to give a painkiller for fear that it would cover up further damage that Thomas wouldn’t recognize.

Like Game Six, Game Seven came down to the last minute. Despite their captain only playing 28 minutes and scoring 10 points, twice the Pistons overcame 15-point deficits to take two point leads. But then a boneheaded play derailed opportunity.

Trailing 103-100 with 39 seconds left, John Salley blocked a James Worthy shot and Dennis Rodman ended up with a clear lay up to the basket. Instead, he threw up a jumper that missed and later admitted that “it was a dumb shot.” Fans screaming at their television sets at home agreed. Thomas politely says “it was a learning moment for Dennis.”

With six seconds remaining, Laimbeer nailed a three pointer but the Lakers scored again instead of being intentionally fouled, repeating as world champions on a 108-105 victory.

“To this day, I still believe we were the better team,” Thomas says. “Remember, back then the Lakers and Celtics had this exclusive club. No one, including the NBA, wanted to see Detroit come through their door. But we kicked it down, and those games were some of the highest rated games ever.” (In fact, Game Seven set an all-time record for an NBA television audience as CBS obtained a 37% share.)

Despite the bitter defeat, the Piston’s gutsy effort was appreciated by Detroit fans. When the team flew in to Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, they were greeted by 700 cheering admirers. The next day, an estimated 30,000 fans swarmed Hart Plaza at an appreciation rally where Detroit Mayor Coleman Young presented Isiah Thomas with the key to the city.

Still stinging from their bitter loss, the Bad Boys were resolved to rip off the “runner up” tag the next season. And 25 years ago they did when the team got its revenge on the Lakers and captured the first title for the franchise since it arrived in the Motor City via Fort Wayne in 1957.

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Watch highlights of Isiah’s Game Six performance in the 1988 NBA Finals: