They Share a History

Times Staff Writer

It was so easy to reduce the 1989 Lakers and Detroit Pistons to stereotypes, to think they were nothing more than what their nicknames suggested.

The Lakers were cruising along in their “Showtime” era, the glamour team of the NBA in a city that lived on celebrity and glitz. They were led by the effervescent Magic Johnson, the unshakable “Big Game” James Worthy, the complex and regal Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the hard-driving Pat Riley, whose slicked-back hair and expensive suits set style standards other coaches imitated but never pulled off.

They were the team of the ‘80s, having won championships in 1980, ‘82, ‘85, ’87 and ‘88, becoming the first team to win consecutive titles since the Boston Celtics of 1968 and ’69. They were Hollywood, with all its good and bad connotations.


“The style we had, the flair and the flash, if you can hang a moniker on a team, that’s great for marketing,” said Riley, who took over as coach early in the 1981-82 season. “We also had a team of talented players that transcended any nickname.

“People look at ‘Showtime’ as lacking substance, as being all style, but we had guys who worked hard.”

Michael Cooper agreed. “The thing I think most people don’t remember is, we were a very good defensive team,” said Cooper, renowned for his ferocious defense. “People just saw ‘Showtime’ as run-and-gun, skyhooks, alley-oop dunks and Big Game James driving to the hoop. But we were a very good defensive team, especially in 1985.”

The “Bad Boy” Pistons of the late 1980s were an outstanding defensive team as well, without question. But they also had a formidable bench and could score. They had surpassed 100 points five times in their seven-game Finals loss to the Lakers in 1988, a fact often forgotten.

“We could score the basketball,” said Isiah Thomas, the floor general of a team that was deceptively quick at the guard position thanks to him, Vinnie Johnson and Joe Dumars, and better offensively than its brutish nickname implied.

The Pistons had, at first, resisted the “Bad Boy” tag that had been affixed to them after a couple of rugged playoff series against the Celtics and Chicago Bulls. But they soon came to see it as a tool to create an us-against-the-world mentality.


“We became victims of the labeling theory,” said Thomas, now president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks.

“People in bigger markets labeled us as dirty, and everybody picked up on that. We were from a small market and didn’t have a media pool that made it clear how good we were, and larger markets had the power of perception behind them.”

It was a pervasive perception. In an introduction to Thomas’ 1989 book “Bad Boys!” Detroit News sportswriter Shelby Strother wrote that the 1988-89 regular season “provided a nine-month incubation period in which a robust and swashbuckling image grew to monstrous proportions. Their jack-o’-lantern smiles, their arrogant nature, their apparent love of being everyone’s designated villains, became a calling card. And a signature. Bad Boys in town; lock up the women and children, get ready for their welcome wagon of elbows and forearms and good-natured aggravation.”

The Pistons had given the Lakers considerable aggravation in 1988. Their Finals series had gone to seven games and was won by the Lakers in no small part because Thomas, who had been playing despite a sore back, injured his ankle in Game 6. Thomas stoically managed to score a game-high 43 points, but the Lakers won, 103-102, after Abdul-Jabbar had made two free throws with 14 seconds left and Dumars missed a last-second shot in the lane.

The Lakers won Game 7, 108-105, fueled by 36 points from Worthy and 19 points and 14 assists from Johnson. It had been tough, but the outcome was what Riley had promised in the spring of 1987, after the Lakers had beaten Boston: “I guarantee you, we will repeat as champions next year.”

At the parade and ceremonies to honor the 1988 team, Riley intended to make the same promise again, that the Lakers would win in 1989; he even copyrighted the term “three-peat” in anticipation. But before he could say it, Abdul-Jabbar clamped a towel over his mouth and tied it, bandanna-style, to silence him.


“It’s one of my favorite pictures,” Riley, now president of the Miami Heat, said Friday, laughing at the memory.

It also was the last picture of Riley with the Lakers after a victory parade. The Lakers were swept by the Pistons in the 1989 Finals and were eliminated by Phoenix in five games in the second round in 1990. Soon afterward, Riley was gone, sitting behind a microphone instead of pacing the sidelines.

He couldn’t know it in the spring of 1989, but “Showtime” was grinding to a halt.

“I don’t think anybody saw it coming,” he said.

Perhaps the Pistons did. Having been stopped by the Lakers in 1988, they wouldn’t let the Lakers take them down again.

Their 1988 Finals loss “was a huge factor,” Thomas said. “We believed in ’88 we were the better team, and we lost that series. Statistically, we outperformed the Lakers in every category, except we lost and they won.

“When we went into ‘89, we felt we were the better team again, and we were primed to play them again.”

To get to the 1989 Finals, the Pistons had swept the Celtics in a best-of-five series, swept Milwaukee in four and stymied the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in six games.


“They weren’t as ‘bad boy’ as their image portrayed, you know,” said current Laker assistant coach Kurt Rambis, who was part of the 1988 Laker Finals team but had signed as a free agent with the expansion Charlotte Hornets in the summer of 1988. “They had Rick Mahorn, a quote-unquote enforcer, but he wasn’t a bad guy. Bill Laimbeer picked on guards, and everybody else just worked hard.”

The Lakers, perhaps inspired by knowing those playoffs would be the last for Abdul-Jabbar before he retired, won 11 consecutive games, then a playoff record, against Portland, Seattle and Phoenix to reach the 1989 Finals. But the catch to their efficiency was that they had more than a week between their West-clinching victory over the Suns and the start of the championship series.

Riley took the team to Santa Barbara for a minicamp, which seemed reasonable at the time. But his decision was second-guessed when Byron Scott tore a hamstring on the eve of Game 1 of the Finals and Johnson severely pulled a hamstring during Game 2, with the score tied at 75. Had Riley overworked a team that was, after all, getting older?

“I remember Magic coming to me and saying, ‘We’ve got to get out of town,’ ” Riley said. “I was always accused of pushing the guys too hard, but it really wasn’t a training camp. We practiced half a day, had team dinners.... There was so much time off. I don’t know, maybe we ran a little too much.”

Without Scott, they were handicapped. Without Johnson, they had no ball movement, no life, no “Show” in their “Showtime.” They lost Game 1 by 12 points, Game 2 by three points and Game 3 by four points, and the Pistons finished them off in Game 4, at the Forum in Inglewood, 105-97. Detroit won again in 1990, but the string was ended by the Bulls in 1991.

If Scott and Johnson hadn’t been hurt, might the 1989 outcome have been different?

“They still would have lost,” Thomas said. “Had I not gotten hurt the year before, they would have lost. I think anybody can look back at the series in ’88 and definitely see that my injury affected the series....


“We never said we were hurt. The Lakers were the winners and that was that. But in ‘89, when they were hurt, we made them pay for being hurt. And if they would have made it back the next year, we still would have beaten them, but they weren’t good enough to get there.”

“No way,” Riley said. “They would not have had an answer for Magic. It’s just the way I feel about it. We’ll never know. They got their win. Injuries play a big part in these things, and luck plays a part too.”

Riley remembers those teams and that era fondly. He said he expected to return to Los Angeles someday with his wife, Chris, “and buy our $85,000 courtside seats.”

He added, “If you can keep a dynasty, a legitimate championship team, together as long as we kept that team together, that’s pretty good. We had the same players, the same coach for nine years, or at least that was my tenure. They went to the Finals once after I left, so they kept that team together 10 years.

“It didn’t come apart. It’s just that people grew old.

“You can’t replace greatness with good players. Kareem retired, Magic and Worthy were a little older and other teams got stronger. Before you know it, you’re not as good. And then it was Michael Jordan’s time.

“You get a run of nine or 10 years, you feel absolutely blessed. A roll for 20 years, no team has done that. We went as far as you can take it, and the teams we were always better than, teams like Detroit that had a window to succeed, they succeeded.


“We had a good run at it. When I left I said, ‘I don’t think you’re ever going to see anything like this again.’ ”


Times staff writers Mike Terry and Thomas Bonk contributed to this report.