Yes, the Pistons were sore losers when they walked off without shaking the Bulls’ hands at the end of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals.
But the Bulls – especially Michael Jordan – were also sore winners.
Jordan, via Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports:
“The Pistons are undeserving champions,” Jordan said on the day between Games 3 and 4 in Detroit in 1991. “The Bad Boys are bad for basketball.”
Jordan, via Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press:
“Most people I know will be happy the Pistons aren’t champions anymore . . . they didn’t play the kind of basketball you want to endorse . . . ”
Jordan, via Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune:
”I don`t think people want that kind of basketball. I think they want to push that type of basketball out. We may not have liked Boston because they (the Celtics) won, but they were a good, sound basketball team.
Now – with grudges still held and the controversy being revisited due to “The Last Dance” documentary – the Pistons have an unlikely ally from those Celtics teams.
Kevin McHale, via Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:
“First of all, you can see why the Pistons didn’t like the Bulls,” the Celtic legend told the Herald. “The Bulls complained all the time. That’s one thing that came across (in the documentary). Like, ‘This is not basketball. This is thuggery.’ All that stuff. I thought the Bulls really disrespected what the Pistons were able to do.
“But, hey, when you kill the king, you can talk (expletive).”
“I’m going to tell you this: of all the series that I played in all through the ’80s, after a close-out game, unless you were walking with somebody you knew, you almost never said anything. You might congratulate them if you saw them later, but there wasn’t a lot of talk, I mean, congratulatory or (expletive)-talking or anything,” McHale said. “You just kind of went in the locker room. Ninety percent of the series we won, I didn’t talk to anybody. They didn’t come up to me, and I didn’t think they should.”
Larry Bird voiced a similar, though even more stringent, sentiment about not shaking hands after a playoff series. He definitely left the court without congratulating the Pistons after they eliminated Boston in 1988.*
*Even if the Celtics left the court before the game ended due to security concerns, they still passed Detroit’s bench en route to the locker room. Bird had ample opportunity to shake hands. He passed.
Ironically, McHale was instrumental in the whole Pistons-Bulls narrative taking shape.
As the Pistons finished off Boston in 1988, the telecast focused on McHale congratulating and high-fiving Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. The story became “The Celtics shook hands with the Pistons,” not “Kevin McHale shook hands with the Pistons.”
A few years later, McHale’s sendoff for the Pistons was weaponized against them, as “proof” Boston treated them better than they treated Chicago. Yet, just like the Celtics in 1988, a few Pistons – including Joe Dumars and John Salley – shook hands with the Bulls in 1991. It just wasn’t enough to tilt the team-wide perception like McHale did for Boston.
Detroit happened to beat Chicago as the NBA was changing. As McHale said, the Pistons’ approach would’ve been common in the 80s. In the 90s and beyond, post-series embraces became the norm.
The Pistons probably should have adapted by the time they lost. But Jordan’s comments sure didn’t make Detroit eager to congratulate him.
This wasn’t a battle of good-vs.-evil, though it has been presented that way. These were two good, stubborn teams – one rising, one falling – that took plenty of cheap swipes at each other as they passed.