The Way It Was – Isiah Thomas, 1981

The point guard spent his entire NBA career with the Pistons
Isiah thomas
Isiah Thomas photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

1981 To describe the Detroit Pistons’ record in the late 1970s and early ’80s as bad would be charitable. “Deplorable” might be a better word. In 1979-80, the team’s stats were lower than a snake’s belly: 16-66. The next season was only a marginal improvement, with a 21-61 showing. But things were about to change dramatically, starting with the June 1981 acquisition of a sharpshooter for Indiana University named Isiah Thomas, the Pistons’ first draft pick. He’s pictured above shortly afterward, presumably at a press conference. 

Things just snowballed from there. In short order, the team would acquire heavyweights Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer, John Salley, Dennis Rodman, and Joe Dumars, earning them the nickname the “Bad Boys” for their fiery aggression and an almost savage determination to win, which also cost them more than a few fouls. 

The Bad Boys era lasted roughly from 1986 to 1991. The Pistons were led by Chuck Daly, part coach and part lion tamer. Eventually, Detroit reached the NBA Finals and won back-to-back championships in 1989-90. Thomas, a point guard, was only 6 foot 1, but what he lacked in height was more than compensated for in his balletic agility on the court and his shooting acumen. He was also widely considered the heart of the team. “Isiah was a great leader. … I’ve never been around anybody who wanted to win as much as Isiah. He took a beating, but he always came back,” Mahorn told Perry A. Farrell, author of Tales from the Detroit Pistons. 

Thomas spent his entire NBA career with the Pistons and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000. After he was nominated, he declared, “I am a Piston for life.”

This story is featured in the October 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.