Bad Boys for life

The Detroit Pistons closed out the 1980s with back-to-back titles. Doug Pizac/AP Photo

Isiah Thomas' phone screen lights up with text messages going back and forth.

Thomas lets out his distinctive laugh as James "Buddha" Edwards and Rick Mahorn are at it again, firing jokes at each other like it's a Comedy Central Roast.

Another chime with another message, this one from another Bad Boy who'd run into the team's longtime physician.

Later, John Salley sends a photo of a detailed Bad Boys tattoo. No, he isn't having a midlife crisis; rather, the tattoo belongs to an enthusiastic fan.

The notorious Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s rip on each other and laugh it up like they're still on the team bus heading to Chicago Stadium. Only now they're spread out all over the country -- or in Dennis Rodman's case sometimes, the world -- and busting on each other in a group text.

"We get on a Bad Boys chat, since modern technology put us in a group," says Mahorn, who played four seasons with those Pistons and won a title in 1989. "They so silly."

As the 1989 team gathers for its 30-year reunion at the brand-new Little Caesars Arena on Saturday, Thomas wants to remind everyone that the Pistons left a lasting impact on the NBA -- the back-to-back champions Thomas feels the NBA has relegated to a forgotten bridge from the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the '80s to the Michael Jordan Bulls of the '90s.

"I mean, that's how they wrote it [in the history books]," Thomas says to ESPN, laughing.

"There was a team that was after the Lakers that had a pretty significant run from '87 to '91. That part of history, the NBA -- the league office -- just took and said, 'We are not going to talk about it. We are going to bury it.' And everything that was bad that was happening in the '90s, they blamed it on the Pistons."

Thomas says the Bad Boys' legacy is about much more than the blood they drew -- and spilled -- with brutal physicality. He scoffs at the notion that they're most remembered for their suffocating defense.

And he still can't resist taking a jab at Jordan, whose Bulls were eliminated by the Pistons in three consecutive postseasons (1988-90).

"Keeping it real right, we weren't the only team that shut down Michael Jordan," says Thomas, who is an analyst for TNT and partner in Cheurlin Champagne. "I mean, during the '80s, they were finishing fourth and fifth in the division. I mean so ... and people like to say, 'Well, Isiah, you're hating.' It ain't got nothing to do with that."

Thomas proudly remembers the Pistons as a team that had to deal with race and wasn't afraid to fight against social inequality, even if it meant causing a furor. He believes this was just one of the many reasons why so many disliked the Pistons.

"Well, that was the narrative that was perpetuated to get us off the stage," Thomas says. "Because when we were on the stage as champions, the things that we were talking about -- the things that we were doing and discussing, at that time -- the league didn't like.

"When you talk about social justice, when you talk about race, when you talk about the perception of athletes, the perception of media coverage, bias in media coverage, racism in media coverage -- those things -- they were frowned upon."

Race was at the center of perhaps the biggest Bad Boys controversy from the Eastern Conference finals in 1987, when Pistons versus Celtics suddenly became about black versus white.

When asked by reporters about Rodman saying Larry Bird was overrated due to his skin color after Boston eliminated Detroit in Game 7, Thomas fueled the controversy by saying if "[Bird] were black, he'd be just another good guy."

Thomas would apologize during the Finals with Bird seated next to him, saying it was a joke that was misunderstood. But the point guard used the moment to discuss "the stereotypes that do exist" about white and black athletes; how black athletes are often credited with "God-given" or natural talent and not necessarily with working hard.

"They were definitely one of the first -- Isiah, in particular, himself being one of the first guys -- to mention black and white relationships," former Lakers guard Byron Scott says. "When you look at Boston and the Pistons' rivalry that they had, he was one of the first or that team was one of the first to come out and make a big deal of it. We just looked at Larry as a great basketball player, period, and that is what he was."

All of this only led to more hatred for the Bad Boys.

"Man, listen, I remember the fire alarms would go off [at our hotels]," Mahorn says. "It got to the point where [fans] would call your room directly. I got called 'n----' so many times by fans. And I would laugh if I answered the phone. At that time I knew you are trying to disrupt me, you're trying to degrade me to a degree that ... I understand you're a fan and you want your team to win, but don't bring the racial stuff in there. ... But sometimes it would hit you and it hurts."

"The thing is you have to stand up for something," Mahorn adds. "Isiah stood up for some social injustice down in Detroit. We were the murder capital of the United States [from 1985-87] and you know we don't need to do this."

Despite Thomas' belief that the Bad Boys' fame exists only in their infamy, he says the team's DNA lives on in the NBA's latest dynasty -- the Golden State Warriors. Like the Pistons' Hall of Fame backcourt of Thomas and Joe Dumars, the Warriors feature their own unstoppable point guard in Steph Curry and two-way shooter in Klay Thompson.

And then there's Draymond Green, who grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. Detroit Bad Boys flows through his veins.

"They're the toughest m-----f-----s to ever play this game, period," Green says. "They're champions, toughest guys to ever grace this NBA. That legacy will continue to live on."

Much like how the Pistons' defense overshadowed their offensive capabilities, Green notes, the Warriors' beautiful offense makes people forget about how good their defense is.

"Obviously, me growing up in the state of Michigan, I know all about the Bad Boys, with Joe D. being sort of like a father to me in my life," Green says. "I try to embody that and play with that same type of force and confidence that they played with."

Mahorn admits to waking up some mornings and feeling the repercussions of that era. But then he gives a taste of what he dishes out to his old teammates via text.

"I'm 60," Mahorn says. "Oh and I don't color s--- like Isiah. Let me stop. Ask them.

"Let us see your gray hair. Either they are going to cut it off or bleach it!"

Asked for a sample of the texts in the group chat, Mahorn politely declines.

"I will die with it," he says, laughing.

Bad Boys for life.