To repeat. That was Pat Riley's obsession.
Soon after the Los Angeles Lakers had wrapped up their 1987 title, someone got around to asking their coach if the team could repeat as champions. "I guarantee it," he said flatly.
Beginning with training camp and throughout the season, he pushed them like a man obsessed. He was Captain Ahab, and the repeat championship was the elusive great whale. On occasion the crew came close to mutiny, but somehow Riley knew when to lighten up just enough to keep them going.
James Worthy was the Lamborghini in the Lakers' Rolls Royce motorcade. At 6-foot-9, he was incredibly quick and swift. No man his size in the league could stay with him. Without a doubt, Magic Johnson was the guard who drove the Showtime machine, but Worthy was the forward who made it go.
Other people stepped forward to do their parts as well. Byron Scott began to realize his potential at shooting guard. He led Los Angeles in scoring, averaging 21.7 points over the regular season while shooting .527 from the field. Also vital was the development of A.C. Green at power forward. He didn't shoot much, but his shot selection and accuracy were outstanding. He rebounded well and continued to learn the intricacies of low-post defense.
Magic once again played brilliantly, although he missed 10 games at midseason due to a groin injury. If there was a problem for the Lakers, it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's age. His decline was apparent throughout the season, but Mychal Thompson's presence off the bench provided just enough patchwork to keep the Lakers effective in the post.
The Lakers started the season with an 8-0 run, the finest opening in their history, and despite a series of ups and downs, they claimed the league's best regular-season record at 62-20. "Guaranteeing a championship was the best thing Pat ever did," Scott said as the schedule drew to a close. "It set the stage in our mind. Work harder, be better. That's the only way we could repeat. We came into camp with the idea we were going to win it again, and that's the idea we have now."
In the end, the Lakers' intensity became a way of life, one the Boston Celtics couldn't match. But there was another team in the Eastern Conference that could. The Detroit Pistons were driven by obsessions of their own. They, too, were a collection of mentally strong individuals who, like the Lakers, were led by a point guard with a beaming smile. But where Magic was 6-foot-9, the Pistons' Isiah Lord Thomas II was a mere 6-foot-1, a little man capable of dominating a big man's game.
Whereas the other Pistons merely wanted an NBA championship, Thomas was obsessed by the notion.
The Pistons came together under the guidance of coach Chuck Daly. By the spring of 1988, Daly was 57 years old and every bit as hungry as Riley for a championship. But where Riley was intense and professorial, Daly was subdued and fatherly. He flashed his anger when necessary, but he also gave his players, particularly Thomas, plenty of room to breathe.
The same couldn't be said for the Pistons themselves. They gave opponents no room for anything. Their signature was their defense. Daly liked it physical and aggressive, which brought a lot of attention from the officials. The league took to fining them frequently for altercations, and before long the Pistons had acquired the nickname "Bad Boys." They fancied themselves the "Raiders of the NBA," which pleased Al Davis, managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders. During the season, he sent the Pistons sweaters and various gifts displaying the Raiders' silver and black logo.
This style suited the Pistons' personnel, particularly Bill Laimbeer, a center from Notre Dame often described as the most disliked man in the league. The other major role in the Bad Boys' routine was played by power forward Rick Mahorn. As Detroit gained momentum, Mahorn's style became increasingly controversial. Some saw him as one of the game's best low-post defenders. Others considered him a thug. Regardless, he was immensely popular with Detroit fans.
To go with this muscle, the Pistons developed one of the best backcourts in the history of the game. Joe Dumars, an unselfish, well-rounded player, gave them the best big defensive guard in pro basketball. In time, he would also come to be known for his offensive brilliance, although the team already had plenty of that. The Pistons' firepower began with Thomas, and when he grew weary of scoring, there was always Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson, the veteran shooter so nicknamed by Boston's Danny Ainge because he heated up so quickly off the bench.
The team's leading scorer was another veteran, forward Adrian Dantley, a legitimate superstar who gave Detroit the one thing it didn't have -- low-post scoring. Although barely 6-foot-5 and hardly a leaper, Dantley had refined a unique ability to score inside. He had a scorer's ego and wanted the ball. Although he wasn't exactly negligent on defense, he also never really warmed to the task.
As the Finals opened at the Forum on June 7, Magic again made known his determination to win consecutive titles. Thomas allowed that he, too, was determined to win a championship. Yet all this was tempered a bit by the sight of Magic and Isiah exchanging kisses on the cheek before the tipoff of Game 1. It was a display of brotherly love, they explained, one which wore a bit thin as the series intensified.
Detroit wasted little time casting doubt on Los Angeles's repeat plans. Dantley went to work, making 14 of 16 shots from the floor. Dantley's confidence was enough to lead the Pistons to a shocking 105-93 win and a one-game lead in the series. Suddenly, the Los Angeles press noticed that the Lakers bore a striking resemblance to the Celtics: i.e., old and tired.
As the shock of the loss wore off, the Lakers felt humiliation. Like the Bulls and Celtics before them, the Lakers had gotten a taste of Detroit's defense.
The Detroit staff immediately sensed the danger of false security. "The onslaught will be unbelievable," Daly said before Game 2. "They'll attack in every way. Usually, when something like this happens, Pat comes up with some big move or something unusual. So we spent all night trying to figure it out. Nothing came to mind."
Actually, things looked bad for the Lakers. They were tired and down a game to a confident, eager opponent. To make things worse, Magic came down with the flu. He played anyway and scored 23 points in Game 2. Worthy scored 26 and Scott had 24, and as Daly had feared, the Lakers charged back and evened the series with a 108-96 win.
"I'd like to say I'm satisfied with a split," said Daly, "but I'm not really. We had a chance to win the basketball game. Now we've got three at home. It'll be interesting to see if we can hold serve in our home territory."
It was interesting. Game 3 would bring the Finals to the Pontiac Silverdome, where crowds of 40,000 or more were expected. On Sunday, June 12, the Lakers broke the Pistons' serve with a 99-86 victory. The main damage was done in the third period, when Los Angeles shot 64 percent and outscored Detroit 31-14 to break open a one-point game. Once again, Magic had shone despite his illness. His 18 points, 14 assists and six rebounds had pushed the Lakers right along.
The Pistons realized that they had finally met the real Lakers, the defending NBA champions. "Today's the first time in a long time that we felt we were beaten." Laimbeer said. "In all the Boston series, we felt we won all six games. And we felt we outplayed the Lakers in the first two games of the series even though we lost Game 2. This is the first time since Game 2 against Chicago we felt someone beat us rather than us just blowing it."
The Pistons also aimed their offense at Magic and drove him to the bench early in the second half with foul trouble. "We looked to go inside very strong and try to get fouled," John Salley explained. "It put Magic on the bench."
With Magic out of the game, the Pistons built a substantial lead. During the timeouts, Laimbeer was almost frantic. He kept saying, "No letup! We don't let up!" They didn't, and blew out the defending NBA champions by 25 points.
Left open by the trapping Lakers defense, Dantley led the team with 27 points. Vinnie Johnson came off the bench to add 16 while James Edwards had 14 points and five rebounds.
Daly was probably as pleased as he'd ever been with a Pistons effort. "It's not just the talent on this team -- we've got a lot of pride and determination," he said. "Our guys gave us a big effort. They've been doing it all year when we've had our backs to the wall. Now my only concern is they don't go back to prosperity in the next game."
The Lakers opened Game 5 with a fury of physical intimidation, scoring the game's first 12 points. But that approach soon backfired. "It seemed to me [the Lakers] were trying to be physical," Dantley said later. "They made fouls they didn't have to make. It seemed they were trying to say, 'Hey, we can play physical.' Then they had all their big guys on the bench."
Dantley played a major role in this turnaround, scoring 25 points, 19 of them in the first half, to rally the Pistons to a 59-50 halftime lead. "A.C. and the guys played him hard, as hard as they could," Magic said of Dantley. "Give him credit. He made the fallaway jumpers."
Daly also turned the full heat of the Pistons' bench on the Lakers early. Vinnie Johnson scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half to keep Detroit moving.
It was just another example of Detroit relying upon its "D's" -- defense, depth, Dantley, Dumars (19 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the floor) and, of course, Daly. The depth received extra emphasis. "They [the Lakers] played great in spots," Vinnie said, "but we had fresher guys: myself, Salley, [Dennis] Rodman, and Edwards. When you're playing against fresh guys, it's tough to hang in there."
The Lakers had gotten away from what they did best: rebounding and running. "We couldn't contain anyone on the boards," Riley said. "We had 2 defensive boards in the fourth quarter and they had 10 offensive boards. You're not going to beat anyone with that."
The Pistons' 104-94 victory was a perfect farewell to the Silverdome. "I told Joe Dumars with a minute left in the game to look around and enjoy this because you'll never see anything like it again," Laimbeer said. "Forty-one thousand people waving towels and standing. It was awesome."
Detroit held a three-games-to-two lead, but the Pistons would have to claim the championship in the Forum, and that wouldn't be a cakewalk. The series had come down to a classic confrontation, and both sides responded appropriately.
The Pistons were down 56-48 early in the third quarter of Game 6 when Thomas scored the next 14 points in trance-like fashion: two free throws after a drive in the lane, then a 5-footer off an offensive rebound, followed by four jumpers, a bank shot and a layup.
Then, with a little more than four minutes to go in the period, Thomas landed on Michael Cooper's foot and had to be helped from the floor. Despite a severely sprained ankle, Thomas returned 35 seconds later and continued the offensive assault. By the end of the quarter, he had hit 11 of 13 shots from the floor for 25 points, setting an NBA Finals record for points in a quarter. Better yet, he had given his team an 81-79 lead.
That momentum stayed with the Pistons, and with a minute left in the game, they held a 102-99 edge. They were a mere 60 seconds from an NBA title, the franchise's first ever. The league trophy was wheeled into the Pistons' locker room. Iced champagne was brought in. CBS requested the presence of team owner Bill Davidson to receive the trophy. Moments later, those preparations would be rapidly disassembled, and the trophy taken away before Davidson could touch it.
"A minute is a long time," Magic would say later. "A long time. It's just two scores and two stops and you're ahead."
The Lakers' first score came on Scott's 14-foot jumper with 52 seconds left, which brought Los Angeles to within one at 102-101. Detroit struggled for the right shot on its possession and failed when Thomas missed an 18-footer. With 14 seconds left, Kareem set up for his sky-hook from the baseline, and Laimbeer was whistled for a foul. The Lakers' captain made both free throws, giving the Lakers a 103-102 lead.
Although they had lost their lead, the Pistons were in a good position to regain it. They had the ball and a chance to win. With eight seconds left, Dumars took the shot for Detroit, a double pump from 6 feet away. The shot missed, and the rebound slipped through Rodman's frantic hands. Scott controlled the loose ball, the series was tied, and the Lakers were smug again. The dream ending had quickly become a nightmare for Detroit. They now faced Game 7 in enemy territory with Thomas' status in deep doubt.
"His ankle is pretty swollen," said Daly. "We got a miraculous game from Isiah, as hurt as he was. He got us back in the game. On offense, we didn't give him as much support as I would like. We were 45 seconds away from an NBA championship. What can I say?" Thomas had finished the game with a jammed left pinkie, a poked eye, a scratched face, a ballooned ankle, 43 points, eight assists, six steals and enough respect to last a lifetime.
"What Isiah Thomas did in the second half was just incredible," said Riley.
Magic added: "I think he was just unconscious. I think he said, 'OK, I'm going to take this game over.' I've seen him do that before. He was in his rhythm. When he starts skipping and hopping, that means he's in his rhythm. That means he's ready."
The team trainers had 48 hours to try to work a miracle. But nature needed more time. The ankle took Thomas to the third quarter but no further. Despite limping badly in warmups, he scored 10 points in the first half on the way to leading the Pistons to a 52-47 lead at intermission. But the time between halves brought on stiffness, and he was no longer effective.
The Lakers, meanwhile, got going behind Worthy's low-post scoring and raced to a seemingly insurmountable 90-75 lead in the fourth quarter. But just when Riley could taste the reality of his repeat fantasy, the Lakers let up. Somehow the Pistons found a way back. Daly went with a pressure lineup of Vinnie Johnson, Dumars, Salley, Rodman and Laimbeer, and they ate up the Lakers' lead in big gulps. At 3:52 Salley knocked in two free throws to close the gap to 98-92, and the Lakers were in an obvious panic.
At 1:17, Dumars, who led the Pistons with 25 points, hit a jumper to make it 102-100. But Magic scored a free throw off a Rodman foul, stretching it to 103-100. Detroit then had its best opportunity, but Rodman took an ill-advised jumper at 39 seconds. Scott rebounded and was fouled. His two free throws pushed the lead to 105-100.
After Dumars made a layup, Worthy hit a free throw and Laimbeer canned a trey, pushing the score to 106-105 with six seconds showing. Green completed the scoring with a layup, making it 108-105, and although the Pistons got the ball to Thomas at midcourt with a second remaining, he fell without getting off a shot.
Worthy had racked up a monster triple-double: 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists. For that and his earlier efforts in the series, he was named the Finals MVP. Self-effacing as usual, Worthy said he would have voted for Magic.
The league had another repeat champion at last. The Lakers had realized their greatness. They were all relieved. And to make sure Riley had no more wise ideas about the future, Abdul-Jabbar kept his eye on the coach during the postgame interviews.