Tell me when you think the golden age of Saturday Night Live was, and I’ll tell you what year you graduated high school. Such is the power of nostalgia. It makes us think the cultural artifacts from our own particular salad days were the product of a special moment. As we age, and decline, we see that decline mirrored all around us. The new stuff is never, to us, as good as the old stuff. They don’t make movies like they used to. The mid-list novel is dead. Today’s hitters couldn’t have touched Satchel Paige.
But sometimes our nostalgia is right. The early Aughts really were a golden age for scripted television. The ’27 Yankees really were that good. And the 1987–88 NBA season was the best ever.
That last is the contention of Rich Cohen in his book When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season. I agree with him—but I have to say that during the season in question I was 13 and basketball-crazy. I cared as much about the NBA that year as I have ever cared about sports, and there are times when Cohen’s book feels less like mass-market nonfiction and more like a bespoke piece of fan service directed specifically at me. And in a sense, When the Game Was War really was written for me. Because Cohen was also a teenager during the ’87–’88 season, living and dying with every game. This is what led him to choose to chronicle a now-forgotten piece of Gen-X history for his 14th book, which follows previous semi-autobiographical accounts of his family’s triumph in the artificial-sugar business (Sweet’n Low), his father’s negotiating genius (The Adventures of Herbie Cohen), and what it was like to grow up in the northern suburbs of Chicago (Lake Effect).
Cohen starts out by trying to convince readers who are not precisely our age why the ’87–’88 season was special.
For starters, there were more future Hall of Famers active that year than in any other single sea-son. And not just replacement-level Hall of Famers, but top-shelf greats: Jordan, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Worthy, Dominique, Moses. All of them played important roles in meaningful games that season.
Also, the season was the bridge that connected the NBA’s past to the modern era. As Cohen points out: “Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] play-ed his first game in 1969, when Bob Cousy, who’d played his first game in 1950, was still active. He played his last seasons in the league with Reggie Miller, who continued until 2005, when he (Miller) played with Dwight Howard, who was still going in 2022.”
You could see this entire tapestry, even then. The past, the present, and the future of basketball were all happening on the court, at the same time. The ’87–’88 season featured Kareem’s skyhook and Michael Jordan’s dunks. It had old man Bill Walton and a rookie named Dennis Rodman.
The final ingredient for the season’s greatness was the presence of four legitimate dynasties—the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls. But what made this dynamic so interesting is that each of them was at a different stage of development. The Celtics might have been the greatest team ever to play, but they were at the precise minute when the tide ebbed. The Lakers, meanwhile, were the best they would ever be. The Pistons were a rising power that had been built to beat both Boston and Los Angeles. And the Bulls, while still a year or two away, had begun to put the right pieces around the greatest player in the history of the game.
When the Game Was War is a story about a season that’s a story about four teams that’s a story about four men: Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan.
Cohen gives us broad-stroke histories of these four figures and manages to include bits even serious fans might not know. For instance: Bird had never seen an NBA game before he played in one. When Magic was in middle school, he visited the Milwaukee Bucks locker room after a game, asked Kareem for his autograph, and called him “Sir.”
But Cohen understands that in the NBA, great players are necessary but not sufficient. Organizations win championships and, as Cohen explains, “behind every NBA dynasty is a trade that looks like a crime.” The Celtics dynasty, for instance, emerged after Red Auerbach traded Bob McAdoo and Joe Barry Carroll for Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. He then added Dennis Johnson—a third Hall of Famer—for the price of two future second-round picks and a broken-down center who would retire 50 games later.
The creation of the Pistons dynasty is the most interesting of these heists because it involved finding not two or three players, but nine of them.
The Pistons started their build by taking Isiah Thomas—a 5’ 10” point guard—with the second pick in the 1981 draft. Later that year, they traded a sack of beans for Bill Laimbeer. (Who would go on to become the most hated player in the league without a felony rap sheet.) Over the next six years, the Pistons would add Vinnie Johnson, Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, James Edwards, Adrian Dantley, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley. Of this group, only two were considered high-level talents; they would all become stars in the NBA.
This Pistons team was known as “the Bad Boys” because of their physical and often dirty play. They were my favorites. I grew up a Philadelphia 76ers fan, but in years when the Sixers weren’t contending—which was most of them—I took my pleasure with the Bad Boys from Detroit.
For me, the Celtics were too old, too patrician, too boring, too white. The Lakers, with their Showtime fast breaks, were too flashy. And the Bulls? Let’s just say that I have a great deal of sympathy for Stu Inman. He was the general manager of the Portland Trailblazers in 1984; he was the man who picked Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. The 13-year-old version of me, like Inman, thought Jordan was a volume shooter who would be good, but not great, in the pros. Oops.
When it comes to many of the games Cohen discusses in the book, I can tell you where I was and who I was with as I watched them. (My best friend Chris’s house, with Chris.) I can tell you what color the carpet was in the room. (Blue.) I remember the exhilaration I felt during Game 6 of the finals watching Isiah score 21 points in the third quarter on a busted ankle—that was the moment I learned the connection between sports and heroism.
There are also things in the book that, at the time, I didn’t understand.
In that same Game 6, the Pistons were robbed. Up 3 games to 2, they had a 1-point lead and the ball, with 14 seconds to play. Suddenly the whistle blew. The refs called Bill Laimbeer for a foul against Kareem. That foul call mattered a great deal to me—a stand-in for all of my teenage resentment of authority. It was evidence that the world wasn’t fair.
In the years since, this play has become legendary as “the Phantom Foul” because not only did Laimbeer not touch Kareem—he wasn’t anywhere near Kareem. But while it wasn’t fair, it was just.
Cohen says the Phantom Foul “was the result of a lifetime of good and bad works, the first of which made people trust and respect Kareem, the second of which made people suspect and disdain Laimbeer.” Reading this passage, for the first time, I felt at peace with Game 6.
The Pistons would go on to lose that game and the series, making the Lakers the first back-to-back champs in a generation. But this crucible also forged the Pistons into greatness themselves: They would go on to win the next two NBA championships. And then the Bulls would win the following three. It was an age of empire.
Rich Cohen’s book is full of pleasures. In one sequence, he describes interviewing Dominique Wilkins while shooting hoops in Wilkins’s driveway, which is almost impossibly cool. In another, he describes the delicate chemistry of NBA teams: “A basketball team is a family, a collective, a series of alliances, relationships, rivalries, and triangles. Horace Grant loved Scottie Pippen, who loved Michael Jordan, who also loved Michael Jordan.”
You will learn a good deal about basketball history from When the Game Was War. But I doubt you will love it as profoundly I did, unless, that is, you too were 13 in 1987.
Photo: AP Photo/Reed Saxon
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