“Anytime Michael goes by you — nail him. Put him on the ground on every drive.” - Isiah Thomas
People are understandably obsessed with the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance that’s on ESPN right now. The series is crushing ESPN viewing records. It gives us an inside look into Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls.
But before he dominated in 6 NBA Championships, Jordan had to get to his first. To do that, he had to find a way past his nemesis — The Pistons.
A saga begins
The rivalry was born in 1988. That season, a 24-year old Jordan was fresh off a league MVP and a first-round playoff victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. After getting past Cleveland, Jordan and the Bulls squared off with the Bad Boys from Detroit.
That Detroit team was stacked with Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Mark Acquire, Rick Mahorn, John Salley, and Vinnie Johnson—known collectively as the Bad Boys. The series ended quickly with Detroit bouncing the Bulls in 5 games. It was a tiny appetizer for the main course we didn’t know was coming.
The “Jordan Rules”
Jordan came back on a mission in 1989. He lead Chicago to the Eastern Conference finals after hitting The Shot against Cleveland. It was one of the most iconic moments of Jordan’s epic career.
Riding that momentum, Jordan came out like a man possessed. He put up gaudy numbers in the first three games on the way to a 2–1 series lead. The Bulls looked to be headed toward their first NBA Finals appearance.
That’s when Detroit implemented, “The Jordan Rules.”
Isiah Thomas coined the phrase while sitting on a park bench contemplating how you stop the freak of nature that was Michael Jordan on a basketball court. The plan was simple…double-team Jordan when he goes left, triple-team him in the paint, and then foul the hell out of him when he gets past you — or above you because the man could fly.
Detroit bounced back for 3-straight wins. They would go on to win the NBA Championship while Jordan watched at home. It was a second frustrating loss for the best player on the planet.
New decade, same result
In 1990, the teams met in the Eastern Conference finals once again. It was a 7-game battle with Jordan putting up impressive numbers, but the result was the same. The Pistons danced into the Finals and Jordan headed home.
The “Jordan Rules” had once again killed the dreams of the Bulls. It was one final bit of evidence that Jordan wasn’t going to get past Detroit on his own. Although he’s the most freakishly athletic human to live, he’s still human.
Getting over the hump
It was in the 1991 Eastern Conference Championship when everything changed. The Bulls swept the Pistons on the way to their first title. In the loss, the Bad Boys showed one of the most memorable displays of poor sportsmanship to put a cherry on top of the rivalry.
Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, strong play from Scottie Pippen, and continued magnificence from Michael Jordan lead to the victory. The Bulls rallied together to overcome their enemy. Jordan was no longer doing it alone. The Bulls now had a team to compliment the best player to sport sneakers.
No team would stand in the way of the Bulls or Jordan ever again. It was that 4-year saga that shaped Jordan and the Bulls into the unbeatable champions they became. Having a nemesis pulled together a fragmented group of personalities, forced unselfish play, and gave everyone a common enemy.
For the Bad Boys, that 3-year domination of Jordan sealed their place in history more than their two championships. They did the one thing nobody else could do — stop Jordan.
Go pick a fight
That’s how rivalries work, they get the best out of you. When faced with a common enemy, we overlook internal squabbles and selfish thinking. We’re willing to sacrifice in order to win. Cultures come together, people put out maximum effort, and we search for ways to improve.
Losing to a rival can actually be a positive down the road. It’s often the losses that shape us into better teams, people, and companies. So, don’t shy away from competing with that industry heavyweight. Walk up and slap them across the face. Pick a fight and spur up a little unfriendly competition. Both combatants will come out better in the end.