Watching Bad Boys, the ESPN documentary on the late 1980's Pistons, what seemed to set this team apart was not so much their physical play, since as was noted other teams played physical as well, but the intense commitment to the culture of the team.
Even though the Pistons seemed to flout both the official rules of the league and general sportsmanship, they had a very strict internal code that they all honored. Those that showed they could not commit at that level, such as Adrian Dantley, had to go.
And though he played up everybody else's sacrifices in the post-film interview, I don't know that anyone ever sacrificed more for a team than Isiah Thomas sacrificed for the Detroit Pistons.
Specifically, in two incidents, the Larry Bird controversy and walking off the court after the Bulls eliminated them, Isiah clearly chose loyalty to his teammates over his long-term personal legacy.
Looking back, it does seem absurd that Isiah was left off the Dream Team. he was the leader of a team that was one year removed from consecutive championships. Magic Johnson came out of retirement to be on the team. Larry Bird was on the team in despite both his and his team's decline. But not the best player on the team whose dynasty had just finished?
But I have to tell you, as a teenage basketball fan at the time, it didn't seem odd at all. Maybe we were all just Michael Jordan fanboys. But I don't recall any outrage. That's how much his star had fallen.
This is something deeper than giving up individual statistics for team success, which is what Isiah lauded his teammates for. This is going along with and defending guys like Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman at their most obnoxious, because they were your teammates.
And whole it is obvious that this enabled to win more basketball games than they would have otherwise, including the two championships, and this is how we tell people we want them to commit to the teams and families they are on, like Michael Jordan's hyper-competitiveness, I'm not sure I would recommend it to others.
It seems as if this is the same dynamic that leads people to favor (or at least shut up about) policies of their political parties that they would never otherwise tolerate. Or for members of various professions to defend actions of their professions that seem indefensible.
What if the Donald Sterling incident happened on a team with a culture like the Pistons'?
The obvious answer is that Donald Sterling would never inspire such loyalty. Perhaps not Donald Sterling personally, but history is littered with people who have inspire people to commit or condone despicable acts.
It is wonderful to watch a team come and stick together like that, and it was inspiring to hear Isiah talk about it.
But I'm not sure I'd advise a young Isiah Thomas to follow the same path.