Miller's model for Arizona: Pistons' Bad Boys

Miller's model for Arizona: Pistons' Bad Boys
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now

When ESPN debuted a special on an iconic era of Detroit Pistons basketball last spring, Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller had a new motivational tool.

The network's "30 for 30" documentary -- "Bad Boys" -- has become a foundational focal point for Miller's team, which continues its march through the NCAA Tournament with a game Saturday against Ohio State in Portland.

Miller's persona, as a player and as a coach, is of a bulldog from Pittsburgh, so the sensibilities of that Pistons era of basketball fit perfectly with what he is further trying to accomplish with the Wildcats, opening his players' eye to a slice of NBA history that faded before they were born.

With that as a background, there doesn't seem to be a wrong message these Cats could take from the "Bad Boys" special:

"How close they were as a team," said senior point guard T.J. McConnell.

"I'd say the main thing was, 'Know your role,'" said sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

"The biggest thing I took away from that were the sacrifices they made for each other," said senior center Matt Korcheck.

"Just being all in and playing hard basketball, that was the most important thing," said junior center Kaleb Tarczewski.

"For us, it's how to be tough; a mentality thing. It's like, 'We're not going to get punked,'" said freshman wing Stanley Johnson.

Miller gathered his returning players over the summer for a "30 for 30" watch party and then showed the documentary to the Wildcats again after the newcomers arrived. The team has seen at least part of the show multiple times since then.

"He wanted our team to be like that," McConnell said of Miller trying to impart the us-against-the-world mentality of that Pistons family.

"We've watched it so many times that we're pretty much like that. We kind of figured it out as they kept talking about how close they were and what they would do for each other. We said to ourselves, 'We have to be like that.'"

Arizona doesn't necessarily aspire to the level of thuggery and villainy achieved by those Pistons teams, who came of age in the 1980s during the Bird and Magic dynasties in Boston and Los Angeles before winning back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. Love 'em or hate 'em, though, those Pistons -- Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, John Salley, Mark Aguirre, Vinnie Johnson, etc. -- were admirable in that they didn't much give a damn about anything other than getting those rings.

"We're not going to back down from anybody, no matter who you are, where you come from, how big you are, how tough you are," Stanley Johnson said. "We're the tougher dudes and, guess what, we're going to show you -- not by fist fighting -- but by how hard we play on every possession, how hard we crash the glass, how we play our offense, how we play our defense.

"That is just the way we play our basketball."

While Lute Olson's great Arizona teams were often artistic, a flowing basketball poem, they sometimes carried a "soft" label into the NCAA Tournament, when the games typically slow down, grinding into a physical battle of wills. If Miller has anything to do with it, "soft" will never apply to his Wildcats. Remember how he advised his guys in the locker room during the 2011 NCAA Tournament: "Nastiness," he informed them, "is required."

Nastiness was the Bad Boys.

"There's a lot of messages that you can get out of it," Miller said of the lessons from the Pistons.

"I think most importantly is, with team success, it's amazing how individual accolades follow, how players within a team, when they sacrifice, it almost comes back around where again they benefit. Dennis Rodman would be a great example, someone who focused on being a great teammate, defender, rebounder. The next thing you know he's the sixth man of the year, Hall of Fame player. Somebody had to take on that role, and he did it. ...

"So there are a lot of lessons. I think the last part is that defense is something you can control better than offense. I thought for our team being totally committed to being a great defensive team will take us the furthest we could go."

It's as Dumars says in the documentary, "Every great team needs an identity."

For Miller, that identity is defense and rebounding -- just like those Bad Boys from yesteryear.

"I think the whole Pistons team was a true team, where defense and rebounding was the backbone of their team," Arizona assistant coach Joe Pasternack said last week.

"Everybody had a certain role on the team and everybody had to accept that role. Rodman accepted his role as being the defensive and rebounding king. Laimbeer was the enforcer. Isiah was the scorer. ...

"We have a lot of talent. We just need everybody to accept their roles and put defense and rebounding first. And, I think, obviously, we've done that. Guys have just done an unbelievable job of buying in and accepting their roles."

Such as the willingness of Hollis-Jefferson early in the season, and then Gabe York later, to accept a role off the bench.

For the Pistons, Adrian Dantley, worried about his shots and minutes and team leadership, couldn't accept his role, so he was traded for Aguirre in the 1988-89 season. A season later, when Aguirre realized the Pistons had to let the young Rodman flourish as a starter, he asked to come out of the lineup.

"The main point was how much of a team they were," sophomore guard Elliott Pitts said of the Pistons. "No matter what, they always had each other's back, even when they weren't wining as much. It takes time to form that kind of team. We started that early in the summer, and (Miller) just wanted us to come together as a team."

For the Pistons, it was a multi-year process toward their titles. For Arizona, with a strong spine of veterans such as McConnell, Brandon Ashley, Tarczewski and York, that is another message that resonates. The Wildcats went to the Sweet 16 in 2013, a regional final in 2014 and are trying to climb higher -- Final Four and beyond -- before an expected mass roster exodus to the pro ranks.

"If you think about it, in a way, we're like them because we have been in so many situations, so many places where we didn't break through," Hollis-Jefferson said. "Like with the Pistons, they were getting closer and closer every time. Eventually they broke through. That's also a message he tried to relate to us: It's time to break through."

Pasternack said the coaching staff continues to use the Bad Boys as a reference point, sometimes saying, "You have to be like Rodman tonight." In the closest player-for-player comparison, Hollis-Jefferson says he does identify with Rodman as far as "being the hustle guy."

He and his teammates, though, just want to identify with the Pistons as champions.

"We've been called the bad boys of basketball," Thomas said during a White House ceremony to celebrate a Pistons championship. "We're nice guys, really."

Bad boys, or good guys, they did finish first.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.