‘Bad Boys’ shows how little has changed in 25 years – and how wonderful that is


They haven’t changed one bit. Stubborn. Cocky. Proud. Entertaining. The Bad Boys in their modern form are still all those things, and that will become apparent to everyone tonight when the 30-for-30 “Bad Boys” airs at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

The documentary, which I saw a not fully edited version of,  is directed like an oral history as none of the members of the team appear together on camera during their respective interviews and reflections. The forum is a haven for honesty but also ambiguity. Answers to “Did Isiah Thomas demand that Adrian Dantley be traded for Mark Aguirre”? and “Who led the walkout off the court versus the Chicago Bulls?” receive perspective and reflection but never a straight answer. The interviews probe for answers, at times being so direct that it appears they are attempting to drive a wedge between former teammates who emphatically described themselves as a family and nothing less. If the producers were looking for an informer to give them the absolute truth, they didn’t find one.

Dantley expresses his perspective on the trade with a feverish accusation that borders violence, but his perspective can’t be affirmed by others re-telling their version of the events. Fingers are pointed for the walkout versus the Bulls, but singular responsibility is never relegated and only the collective act is remembered. It’s a post-modern narrative that is sorely lacking in today’s NBA, as agent and “source” leaks, despite strict media availability, have made the league more transparent and divisive at the same time. The documentary provides few answers, like the ones we are accustomed to today, but plenty of commentary, perspective and, for just a brief moment, remorse.

The remorse stems from Isiah Thomas, who reiterated that in hindsight, they shouldn’t have walked off the court versus the Bulls. This isn’t a revelation from a man who has had two decades to reflect on an act that he has been ridiculed for countless times, but is contradictory to the feelings he expressed earlier when discussing the “reverse racism” incident with Larry Bird. Thomas appears genuine, open and honest through the documentary, which offers little reason to question his story, but you still feel as if there’s a veil either covering something or sharing too much in each of those incidents. This feeling is our own because other than Dantley, Thomas is universally adored by his former teammates who independently protect him throughout the documentary as if they were still on the court battling the bruising Boston Celtics team of the 1980s.  

If Thomas is the intellectual challenge of the documentary, then Bill Laimbeer is the heart and Rick Mahorn the soul. Laimbeer admits to little wrong-doing, and his smugness suggests he wouldn’t change anything about how that era in Pistons history played out both on and off the court. It’s apparent throughout the documentary that Laimbeer was integral to the team’s identity and that remains his persona to this day.

Mahorn was not on the second Pistons championship team and his feelings about his absence are devastating as for the first time in the film, a member of that Pistons era let’s their guard down in a moment of vulnerability and emotion. Mahorn’s reaction to leaving the team was my greatest takeaway from the film as it ensures that hardness isn’t immune to love.

The documentary depicts the rise and fall of the Detroit Pistons in the 1980s and how the myth of the “Bad Boys” became an attitude and on-court persona. It became a metaphor they could rely on like a vilified and despised Ubuntu. At one point, Thomas is asked to reflect on the Bad Boys mentality and with a picture-perfect Isiah smile, he explains:

"We wanted to crush you mentally. We wanted your whole city to shake when we walked through the door. We wanted the fans to feel fear."

Nearly 25 years later, chances are you will still feel all those things tonight. They haven’t changed so there’s no reason to believe that our thoughts and feelings about them will. Even in old age, the Bad Boys are still the Bad Boys and our position on them is exclusively dependent only our respective geographies.