By David A. F. Sweet
When you rabidly backed the Chicago Bulls in the 1980s, giving a Detroit Pistons player credit for anything in that contentious era may seem akin to treachery. But author Rich Cohen – whose newest book When the Game Was War has just been published by Random House – has no problem praising Detroit’s Isiah Thomas, who not only scored 25 points in one quarter in the 1988 NBA Finals but was hampered by a bad ankle during those 12 minutes.
“I like my whiskey neat and my basketball just a little bit rough,” says author Rich Cohen.
“That was the moment of moments for me. It made me an NBA fan,” said Cohen, a Glencoe native who has previously penned books on local champions such as the 1985 Bears (Monsters) and the 2016 Cubs (The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse). “No matter what happened between the Bulls and the Pistons — and I am a serious Bulls fan — I could not bring myself to hate on Isiah, (Rick) Mahorn, (Bill) Laimbeer.”
Why does Cohen’s subtitle call 1987-1988 the NBA’s greatest season? He writes that more Hall of Famers were playing in that one season than in any other year in NBA history — everyone from aging Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to 22-year-old Bulls rookie Scottie Pippen. Not only that, four historic dynasties – the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, and the up-and-coming Bulls – were all superb simultaneously.
“It was like that moment when all the planets in the solar system line up in single file,” Cohen said.
The author takes us back to a rugged time when LeBron was merely a toddler. Players driving in the lane got clobbered – when Jordan charged to the basket, for example, the Bad Boy Pistons made sure to knock him to the floor. Remember, this was Jordan before he had won any NBA titles, before a book called The Jordan Rules became a bestseller, before the phrase Dream Team (that Jordan led) meant American Olympic basketball dominance. With Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Thomas still flourishing, Jordan was merely another great player in a galaxy of NBA stars.
Cohen points out the huge role the Chicago playground basketball scene contributed to the NBA of that era. Thomas learned the game at Gladys Gunderson Park, along with stars Mark Aguirre, Doc Rivers, and Mo Cheeks. They played against each other in derelict conditions well before they reached the NBA.
“It’s basketball courts had more pits, cracks, and craters than the old parquet floor at Boston Garden,” Thomas noted in the book. “Weed and gravel claimed equal shares of what was not worn down to bare dirt. And then there was the Hole, the man-eating abyss that gaped directly beneath one of the baskets. The Hole swallowed up balls, players, entire teams.”
One will notice that quotes in Cohen’s book from stars such as Thomas are often from their memoirs or other sources; aside from the fact the greats’ stories are well-known, the author interviewed marginal players for another reason.
“They were the keenest observers with the most unusual insights,” he said. “Sam Vincent played with Jordan in high school, with and against him in the NBA and lived with Jordan when he first arrived in Chicago.”
Rich Cohen says the 1987-88 NBA season — which featured more Hall of Famers than any other — is the best ever.
How has the NBA improved for the better since that glorious season, and in what way has it gotten worse?
“I think there is more athleticism, as with all pro sports,” Cohen began. “The bad players today would be better than many of the good players back then. But the best players then would still be the best today. Isiah, Michael, Magic, and Bird would still be the stars of the league.
“My main problem with the modern game is the way the three-point shot has been used. There have been all kinds of unintended consequences – the big one being the death of the inside game, the dissolution of the mosh pit, the game inside the game, where the real war was fought over possession. What would Rodman do today? Could Steph Curry really go inside like Isiah? I like my whiskey neat and my basketball just a little bit rough.”
There are great snippets in the well-researched book. As a kid, Magic tried to ask the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for an autograph in the Bucks’ locker room; no words came out of the awestruck youngster’s mouth. A decade or so later, Magic went crazy after the Lakers won their first regular season game – his debut in the NBA – after Jabbar sank a skyhook at the buzzer, Magic tried to jump in his arms — and the seen-it-all veteran looked at him like he was nuts.
Scottie Pippen was a 22-year-old rookie during Cohen’s favorite NBA season.
And lest you think Cohen felt badly for Thomas when the Bulls finally plowed through the Pistons to reach the 1991 NBA Finals and then dispatch the Lakers, he reacted just like a true Bulls fan.
“If you imagine the Messiah either reappearing on earth or appearing on earth for the first time and saying, ‘Lay down your swords, forget about work and allergies, heartache and death, for you have all made it to the other side’ — just like that is how I felt,” he said.
The Sporting Life columnist David A. F. Sweet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.