The biggest, most tiring hill Michael Jordan had to climb early in his career was defeating Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and the Bad Boy Pistons. In the latest episode of The Right Time podcast with Bomani Jones, Dumars explained his side of the memories of those famous Bulls-Pistons clashes, and when he knew Chicago finally had the upper hand.
“When we got to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1990, we won, but we knew they were coming back. We knew they’d be back the next year,” Dumars said. “By the time 1991 came around, most guys had grown up and (the Bulls) had gotten stronger and tougher and mentally, they didn’t fold when things didn’t go their way. You’re looking at it and going, ‘They’re growing up. These aren’t kids anymore.’”
Jordan and the Bulls took on Dumars and the Pistons in 1989, 1990 and 1991, ultimately coming through in that final season en route to the first of three straight championships. In The Last Dance, we see how the Pistons’ physical defense and cohesiveness was too much for the Bulls to overcome.
Dumars said his relative success against Jordan was nothing special. The Pistons guard knew he was at a size and athleticism disadvantage, so he used physicality and momentum to limit Jordan’s effectiveness.
“(The way) I always looked at it with him is that it didn’t matter if you were 6’6 or 6’3, when he elevates, there’s no one else that’s going to elevate with him, so I tried to do all of my work early on the floor before he elevated,” Dumars said.
From a team perspective, Dumars doesn’t think he fit with the “Bad Boys” moniker, or that the team necessarily deserved the reputation.
“I never thought that the ‘Bad Boy’ part or the extracurriculars, for me it was kind of funny, I would look at guys get into it,” Dumars said. “(But) what I thought we really brought was toughness.”
Over time, the Detroit players understood it was the Bulls’ turn. Dumars knew the feeling because he’d been on the other side of it before, in the mid-1980s when the Pistons were on the come-up.
“We saw a lot of ourselves in (Chicago) during that time,” Dumars said. “We had gone through that transition with the Celtics and we had to grow up and get tougher. Not only physically, but mentally tougher to withstand (going) into the (Boston) Garden and they go on a 12-0 run, you can’t fold tent and that’s game. You have to learn how to call timeout, gather yourself, come back, and punch back.”
When the teams’ third battle took place in 1991, it was time for Chicago to step up. As we saw in the fifth episode of The Last Dance, the Bulls easily took down the Pistons in five games and vanquished their worst enemy.
What changed? To Dumars, it was the connection of the Bulls as a full team, as well as secondary players like Scottie Pippen improving.
“When you’re that team that the other one is trying to knock off, you notice everything about them,” Dumars said. “You notice when you can put them away. You notice that we’re physically tougher, we’re mentally tougher, and when it starts turning, you see that too.”
Matching up with Jordan in each series, Dumars never doubted that Jordan was up to the task. It was about all the pieces fitting together and the other guys stepping up.
“Michael’s competing at a crazy level all those years,” Dumars said. “It wasn’t like he all of a sudden got better. He was doing his thing no matter what. It’s the other guys that really grew into their roles and got much, much tougher mentally and physically.”
Not many guys can say they bested Jordan at any point in his career, but Dumars is one of the proud few. Throughout The Last Dance and in real-life interviews, Jordan has complimented Dumars as a worthy rival. But when the Pistons’ time was up, Jordan and the Bulls stomped them out.