It has been 23 years since the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons first met up in the first of three playoff series' that pitted Isiah Thomas' nasty Bad Boys versus Michael Jordan's group of soon-to-be-champs. The young Bulls were obvious up-and-comers. The tough Pistons wanted in on the championship party first, before the Bulls initiated what was clearly going to become a dynasty. And in doing so, as they beat Chicago in the 1988, 1989 and 1990 playoffs, the Pistons used every legal trick in the book. And a few illegal ones. Whatever worked.
Those Bulls, clearly, are still smarting. The team was everyone's choice to replace the Lakers and Celtics at the top of the NBA's heap, but the Pistons had to go and ruin that narrative, winning two championships in 1989 and 1990, and downing a Bulls team (before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games) that featured two rookies in Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen in 1988.
Pippen, who will be honored on April 7 as a bust of his likeness is introduced at Chicago's United Center, was particularly candid about the Pistons in an interview from early in March, telling the Chicago Sun-Times this:
''The Pistons were a nasty team. You always had to expect them to play dirty because, remember, they were the Bad Boys of Motown. They'd go out of their way to be mean and try to hurt you.
"And because we had better athletes, coach Chuck Daly just let them play the way they had to play to win. Bill Laimbeer was no real athlete. The same for Rick Mahorn and Joe Dumars and James Edwards. We were faster, quicker, more competitive and smarter."
Interviewed over the weekend, former Piston (and former teammate of Pippen's, in 1996) John Salley, wanted no such part of that noise:
"They were more athletic -- and they were younger," Salley said. "But obviously not smarter because we're not talking about him 22 years later. He's talking about us."
"Guys who said we played dirty couldn't have played in the '80s and the '70s. I watched those games in the '80s and '70s, and it's how I learned to play that hard. You fouled a guy who needs to be fouled. If he's going to the basket, you don't give a knick-knack foul and then argue with the ref. You foul him so he knows, so the next guy coming behind him knows, so his team knows you can't go in the lane. …
"We beat them psychologically, and obviously it's still working."
It clearly is still working. Every time Pippen goes to shave, he sees a scar on his chin that Dennis Rodman (who will have his number retired on Friday in Detroit, with the Bulls in town) gave him following a flagrant shove. And though Detroit was the better team from 1988 through 1990, those Bulls still can't get over having a puncher's chance against the would-be champs in 1989 and 1990. Even after six rings, Scottie Pippen wants more.
And John Salley will always be there to remind him of the two rings that got away. Obviously, like the city of Detroit, the Pistons' plan is still working.