Book excerpt: The 1987-88 NBA season was the best in NBA history

From the book When the Game Was War. Copyright © 2023 by Rich Cohen. Published by Penguin Randomhouse. All Rights Reserved. 

I have long believed the 1987-88 NBA season was the best in NBA history.


Because of the incredible talent. There were more future Hall of Famers in action that season than in any other single season from the very young (Scottie Pippen) to the relatively old (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Because of the four great dynasties, each at a different stage of development, competing in 1987–88. The Celtics, who’d won three titles in the 1980s, were beginning to slip but were still the Celtics. The Lakers, who’d won five titles that decade, though slightly past their peak, were still among the best ever. The Pistons were just reaching cruising altitude and might well have been the best team that year, even if few realized it. And the Bulls, in whom, though nascent and in the act of becoming, the contours of the great dynasty— six titles in eight seasons—could already be seen.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve fallen prey to the common belief that the past is always better than the present, that what we once had is always better than what we have now. Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity. I was nineteen in 1988. Maybe it was less the 1987–88 season that was great than my life at the time.

I called friends, basketball players, sportswriters, fanatical fans, people involved in the game and kids just coming up, and asked their opinion: “Which NBA season was the greatest?”

I kept hearing about the same few seasons:

1976–77. The post-expansion, post-merger NBA. The talent pool was diluted. There were no dynastic teams, but parity made for thrilling competition. The Nets were the only team to finish the season with fewer than thirty wins. Kareem won the MVP. Pete Maravich scored the most points. Six of the seven playoff series went six or seven games. The Trail Blazers, led by a young Bill Walton, won the title.

1995–96. Having achieved peak power in Michael Jordan’s second iteration—MJ’s father had been killed, he’d left the game to play baseball, flailed, then returned—the Bulls recorded probably the greatest single season in league history. After finishing 72–10, that team went 15–3 in the playoffs and won the first of three consecutive championships.

2015–16. The Golden State Warriors broke the Bulls’ regular season record, finishing 73–9. Even so, the level of competition was high. It took Golden State seventy wins to clinch the top playoff seed. The Spurs, led by Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, went 67–15. The postseason was a dogfight that ended with the Warriors battling the Cavaliers, whom LeBron James led to victory in Game 7 after being down three games to one.

But great as all of those seasons were, none of it changes my mind about 1987–88. Though I admit each campaign has its merits, that cases can be made, I believe that sports scenes, like scenes, experience the occasional golden age that can be objectively recognized. I’m able to accept the 1950s and 1960s as the golden age of baseball—Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial—even though I’m too young to have seen any of those icons play. I am able to accept that the golden age of hockey—Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon—is happening right now. Men’s tennis rode a peak from Sampras to Federer. And to me, it seems clear the NBA experienced its peak, a boom that still enriches every player, in the late 1980s, when Bird and Magic were still great, the Bad Boy Pistons (meaning Isiah Thomas) were ascending, and the Bulls (meaning MJ) were in the shadows, stage left.

1987–88 was the NBA’s version of Mickey, Willie, and Stan the Man. It was not just the games but the context in which they were played. The country we inhabited in 1987 and 1988 was not the country we live in today. There was no Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. TV viewership had not yet splintered. Each city still had its own newspapers, morning shows, point of view. The best teams played in cities that still felt vibrant and unique, each exhibiting its own neurosis. The fans of each city were each weird in their own ways; fans in Detroit were different from fans in Boston, L.A., or Chicago. And those differences were reflected in the ways the teams played. The Pistons stood for the work ethic and underdog grit of industrial America. Boston was a white city represented by a mostly white team that played a white version of what had become a Black game. Chicago had recovered from the stagflation misery of the 1970s, and its team, like its skyline, was booming. Los Angeles was the movie industry. It had models, movie stars, cocaine, sex, and fun. Just like the Lakers.

There was also the style. It’s not just that the best players were great back then. It’s that they had flair. Magic. Michael. Larry. Isiah. There hasn’t been a collection like that since. Plus the physicality, the violence of the game, which told you how much these players would suffer to win, and something important about the world, too: In the clutch, grit matters as much as talent. It meant something in the 1980s that the Bulls had to stand up to the Pistons as you stand up to a bully before they could become champions. It meant the Bulls were on a schoolyard quest. That’s why, when they finally won in 1991, Michael Jordan fell to the court and cried.

To some, the NBA reached its peak only after rules were enacted in the 1990s and aughts that tamed the teams that played like the Bad Boys. Not only did the violent playground style inhibit stars like Magic and Michael, not only did it let the mediocre pummel the superior into acquiescence, it led to career-ending injuries, and pain. The value we placed on toughness, on the ability to “play hurt”, seems wrongheaded to some today. It robbed players of health, livelihood, humanity. If the game had not been so brutal, they tell you, Isiah Thomas might’ve lasted another half decade on the floor.

I understand this, but don’t agree. Maybe it’s generational. Members of my cohort grew up during the terrifying last days of the Cold War. We spent much of our time sitting around, waiting to be nuked. Life seemed a brief respite before annihilation, and we admired athletes who offered examples of people who refused to be cautious. Kevin McHale posting up James Worthy with a broken foot. Bird running the floor with a ruined back. Isiah hitting for 25 on sprained ankle leg in the third quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Life comes down to big moments. If you’re not on the floor in those moments, what’s the point?

Maybe Isiah could have played longer if he’d taken better care of himself, but I doubt he’d have made that trade. It’s not longevity we remember, the steady accumulation of seasons. It’s the lifetime burning in a single moment. The 1987-88 NBA season was an extended moment that burned like flash-paper.

Now: tell me I’m wrong.

This was an excerpt from the book ‘When the Game Was War’ by Rich Cohen. If you are interested in purchasing the book, visit this link.

 (Photo of the 1988 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)


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