Before the Bulls won all their championships, back when they were trying to get past the NBA champion Detroit Pistons, the great Charles Cherney took a fantastic shot of Michael Jordan. It found him crumpled on the Bulls’ bench, having been beaten into submission by the “Bad Boy” Pistons during what must have been the 1990 NBA Eastern Conference finals. I clipped that picture and attached it to my framed Norman Rockwell Cubs print — the one with Charlie Grimm and the Cubs despondent in the dugout. Also in the frame, under the glass, were my 1984 Cubs World Series tickets and my 1989 series ticket. It was my shrine to Chicago sports honor in defeat, but after the Bulls began winning their championships in sets of three I had to take it down to the basement. It no longer resonated (well, except for the Cubs). I hated those Pistons and how they just simply pounded Jordan to keep him down, and it was the sweetest sports pleasure when the Bulls swept Detroit in 1991 on the way to their first championship.
Now the Bulls are once again trying to get past the Pistons, NBA champions three years ago, and again they’re being schooled. But this time it’s different: this Detroit squad isn’t a bunch of thugs. Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince play like three lean and long-limbed brothers on the perimeter, and Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber are athletic big men who pass well to set up the inside-outside game. They have a good bench and play great defense too, and in the first two games of their current NBA playoff series they’ve shut the Bulls down, keeping them out of their comfort zones on the floor.
The Bulls return home Thursday down 2-0, having lost by 26 and 21 points in Detroit and again learning from the best — but this time from the actual best, not just the NBA champs. The old Bad Boy Pistons passed on to the Bulls a steely sense of will and purpose, but these Pistons are showing the Bulls just how selfless team basketball is played — beating the Bulls, in effect, at their own game. No matter whether the Bulls rally this series or not, it’s a hard-earned lesson. Just be glad it’s not as hard as the Pistons used to teach it.