The Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s had an excellent, vicious rivalry, but it gets overshadowed by battles between teams who actually met in the playoffs. Still, the divisional foes despised one another, and their battle for the 1989 Central Division Crown, in particular, delivered some memorable hostility. Take, for instance, Detroit’s Bill Laimbeer and Cleveland’s Brad Daugherty getting rowdy in January of ‘89:
… or Rick Mahorn concussing Mark Price with an elbow to the skull at the end of a blowout Cavs victory in February of ‘89.
That injury kept Cleveland’s All-Star point guard out for two games, and Price supposedly wasn’t himself the rest of the season.
People admired this Detroit team, which won the championship that year and again in 1990, but mostly they just fucking hated them. And the Bad Boys built their nasty reputation in part by harassing and maiming the Cavaliers. Legendary Cleveland GM Wayne Embry, who actually got fined for running onto the floor during that Laimbeer-Daugherty fight, tells the perfect story to encapsulate what made those Pistons special, the sort of brotherhood-in-grime that separated them from the equally competitive Cavs.
Embry included the anecdote in his autobiography, The Inside Game: Race, Power, and Politics in the NBA, and the story resurfaced during Embry’s stint as a Toronto Raptors consultant. Embry says that after the Pistons won the 1989 title, he found himself on a flight from LA to Detroit, seated next to heroic Piston point guard Isiah Thomas. Embry grilled Thomas about how his team reached that championship level, and the superstar described how he and Laimbeer (a former Cavalier, but that’s another story) gathered the team late in the regular season to insist they do everything together. That meant reinforcing straightforward disciplinary stuff …
… but it also meant literally doing everything together:
“From now on,” he instructed, “we’re going to operate as one unit. We’re going to be together. What one person does, the other is going to do. We’re going to cut out night life, and all that, and be together.”
Almost immediately after the Pistons had that conversation, one player tested his teammates’ camaraderie. After a late-season victory in Cleveland (presumably this game), someone spotted Embry’s car in the parking lot and spit on it. So … judgment time. Were they a team or not?
“We knew where your car was parked on the ramp in Cleveland,” Thomas told him. “And after the game, one of our guys spit on your car. And then we stopped for a second. If one of our guys was going to do something, we were all going to do something. So, all of our guys spit on your car. Everybody had to.”
That’s that championship teamwork.
In his 2004 book, Embry describes himself hearing a slightly different story in a different setting, with Laimbeer as narrator and Embry himself as old-but-intimidating comeback-deliverer:
In a different conversation with Laimbeer, he told me that after every game in the [Richfield] Coliseum, as a sign of unity, each of the Pistons would spit on my car, which they passed en route to their bus. He stepped away from me as he told the story, not quite sure how I would react, and he seemed genuinely surprised when I said, “Good for them. It probably needed to be washed anyway.”
Embry also says his wife, Terri, was particularly displeased about the spitting because it was all on the passenger side. Whichever version of this story you prefer, it sure sounds like 1989 Pistons — all of them — spat on a car together.
The Bad Boys were assholes, is my point.