When the Game Was War

The NBA's Greatest Season

About the Book

The gritty, no-holds-barred account of the 1987 NBA season, a thrilling year of fierce battles and off-the-court drama between Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan—from New York Times bestselling author Rich Cohen.

“Cohen brings new life to these athletes and their legendary rivalries.”—Bob Ryan, sports columnist emeritus, The Boston Globe


Four historic teams. Four legendary players. One unforgettable season.

The 1980s were a transformative decade for the NBA. Since its founding in 1946, the league had evolved from a bruising, earthbound game of mostly nameless, underpaid players to one in which athletes became household names for their thrilling, physics-defying play. The 1987–88 season was the peak of that golden era, a year of incredible drama that featured a pantheon of superstars in their prime—the most future Hall of Famers competing at one time in any given season—battling for the title, and for their respective legacies.

In When the Game Was War, bestselling author Rich Cohen tells the story of this incredible season through the four teams, and the four players, who dominated it: Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, and a young Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls. From rural Indiana to the South Side of Chicago, suburban North Carolina to rust-belt Michigan, Cohen explores the diverse journeys each of these iconic players took before arriving on the big stage. Drawing from dozens of interviews with NBA insiders, Cohen brings to vivid life some of the most colorful characters of the era—like Bill Laimbeer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Danny Ainge, and Charles Oakley—who fought like hell to help these stars succeed. 

For anyone who longs to understand how the NBA came to be the cultural juggernaut it is today—and to relive the magic and turmoil of those pivotal years—When the Game Was War brilliantly recasts one unforgettable season and the four transcendent players who were at the center of it all.
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Praise for When the Game Was War

“Rich Cohen brings new life to these athletes and their legendary rivalries, both on and off the court, over the course of the 1987–88 NBA season. Now new fans can plug into a world where rivalries really mattered, bodies were flying around, and the arenas for these memorable games—all gone now—were themselves characters in drama.”—Bob Ryan, sports columnist emeritus, The Boston Globe

“Rich Cohen writes about basketball the way an artful astronomer would author a book about the cosmos. The stars—the Birds, Magics, Michaels, and Isiahs—are aligned in insightful, colorful, and dramatic order, while other NBA players, and meaningful games, of the era are fitted into their proper orbits. It’s not necessary to be a basketball fan to relish this book: It’s simply good stuff, beautifully composed.”—Ira Berkow, Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times sports columnist

“A rollicking ride through the 1987–88 season and a compelling case for why it was the greatest season in NBA history . . . Magic, Michael, Larry, Isiah, and friends—they’re all here and in their primes, and their clashes are brought to life in this richly reported book. No basketball fan should be without it.”—Seth Davis, senior writer, The Athletic, and author of the New York Times bestseller Wooden: A Coach’s Life

“I was highly skeptical of Rich Cohen’s premise that the 1987–88 season was the greatest ever. But now, like a chastened sinner, I repent. That season was a carnival of wondrous hoops and competition. But most of all, it is Cohen’s warm and easy writing combined with his deep research and personal recollections that move the premise on to fruition.”—Rick Telander, senior sports columnist, Chicago Sun-Times, and author of Heaven Is a Playground

“The ‘incredible pool of talent’ on display in the NBA’s 1987–1988 season makes it the league’s best to date, according to this exhilarating account. . . . Cohen excels at wringing the human drama out of the sport, as when he portrays the ascendant Bulls’ rivalry with the powerhouse Pistons as a ‘schoolyard quest’ to ‘stand up to a bully,’ or draws pathos from 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stoically facing down the end of his basketball career. . . . The empathetic portraits humanize the legendary players, and the play-by-play game recreations thrill. . . . This love letter to the NBA’s golden age is an instant classic.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“In a smooth-flowing narrative, given ballast from numerous interviews with principal players and coaches, Cohen reanimates those teams and their era with such color, and the games with such suspense, that readers should be forgiven for getting caught up in the games, even as they know the outcomes. A nice addition to the strong sports shelf.”Booklist
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When the Game Was War


You wouldn’t think a single basketball game could turn a person into a fanatic, but that’s what happened. Of course, it wasn’t just any game. It was Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. I was nineteen years old, and the Los Angeles Lakers, the great and godly Showtime Lakers of Kareem and Magic and Worthy, were trying to deliver on their coach Pat Riley’s promise, made twelve months earlier in a champagne-­filled locker room, to repeat as NBA champions. But it was looking like Riley was about to make a fool of himself: By Game 6, the Detroit Pistons, the so-­called Bad Boys made up of Isiah, Laimbeer, and Rodman, were threatening to spoil the Lakers’ dreams of a repeat.

It was clear the oddsmakers had underestimated Detroit, a team that had thwarted two dynasties, one of the past (the Celtics) and one of the future (the Bulls) on their way to the finals. The Pistons, up three games to two in the best-­of-­seven series, were looking to finish off the Lakers in their own arena, the “Fabulous Forum,” in front of their own celebrity fans, which in this world is akin to getting stomped in front of your parents.

I spent the afternoon preparing for the game by playing one-­on-­one, twenty-­one, and HORSE in the driveway with my father, a Brooklyn-­born basketball coach and the man who taught me to admire the Pistons. “L.A. is class and flash,” he explained, “but Detroit knows how to win.”

Having spent his childhood on outdoor courts in Bensonhurst and Coney Island, he recognized in the Pistons what he called the “playground” or “Brooklyn” style. He demonstrated this style during our driveway contests by moving me around with his butt, hitting from the same spot again and again, and getting into my head by spewing a series of not-­very-­nice comments about my mother and my manhood. “Hey, Mama’s boy. I think you’ve got a little drool on your collar. Want me to get Mama to wipe it up?”

He recognized the same ethos in the Pistons, and that’s what he admired. There were no easy layups against Detroit. That team made certain that, when morning came, you’d remember you’d been in a fight. They lived by the Avenue X maxim: “If we ain’t gonna beat you, we’re at least gonna beat you up.”

It did not hurt that the Pistons were led by 27-­year-­old Isiah (Zeke) Thomas, who was not only great-­looking and charismatic but was also, in the relative terms of the NBA, small. Five-­ten in shoes, Isiah was a short man in a tall man’s game, which meant, my father explained, he did not have to be merely as good as the others; he had to be better. Most fans today don’t remember Isiah as he was in the late 1980s, when he was the best player on the best team. Say what you want about Michael and LeBron, but, pound for pound, inch for inch, grading on a curve, Isiah was the GOAT.

And he was local, a Chicago area product just like me, and so, though my home team wasn’t in the finals that year, Isiah—­a short, underestimated, baby-­faced Chicagoan—­became my avatar. The Pistons were looking to close out the defending champions in six games, eager to inaugurate their own dynasty (they would go on to win in 1989 and 1990). Pat Riley trademarked the term “three-­peat” for the Lakers, but the Pistons would have used it first had they also won in 1988, putting them among the all-­time greats instead of the not-­quites. Today, the Bad Boys are remembered mostly as a foil—­what, in the world of pro wrestling, they call a “heel.”

That night, Isiah and the Pistons were hanging in midway through the second half, when, on what looked like an otherwise routine play, Isiah ran over the foot of L.A. guard Michael Cooper, turning his ankle ninety degrees. Isiah fell to the floor, reached for his foot, and screamed.

The Forum got quiet—­it was the kind of uncanny silence only a crowd can make. Jack Nicholson was on his feet. Barbra Streisand looked concerned.

A trainer helped Isiah to the bench, where he sat, leg extended, as trainers and doctors worked all around him. The injury capped off what had been a punishing postseason for Zeke, who had been cut, tripped, banged, and knocked out over the course of the last seven weeks. The game continued. The announcer said Zeke was probably done for the night; my father—­we were watching on the Magnavox in the family room—­agreed. “You roll an ankle like that,” he said, “it blows up, then you can’t put any weight on it.”

Isiah, who seemingly had the same thought—­I’ve got to do what I can while I can still walk!—somehow got his busted self back onto the floor. It was as if, knowing his ankle would soon triple in size, he decided that this was his best chance to push his team across the finish line.

He took an inbound pass, then went to work. Though hobbled—­he moved like a supermarket cart with a punk wheel—he set up plays, delivered pinpoint passes, hit shots from all over the floor, and now and then, in that third quarter that seemed to stretch into a lifetime, even drove the basket, going one-­on-­one with players who were a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier, including Magic Johnson, who had been (but would soon no longer be) one of Isiah’s best friends.

The Detroit Free Press later ran a list of all the shots Isiah hit in the third quarter.

    11:01    2 free throws    Lakers 56–­50

    10:31    Follow up 5 footer    Lakers 56–­52

    10:06    18 foot jumper from the key    Lakers 58–­54

    9:37    12 footer from the right side off drive    Lakers 62–­56

    8:14    14 foot bank shot from left side    Lakers 64–­58

    7:38    12 foot jumper on left side, from Dumars    Lakers 64–­60

    6:22    Breakaway lay-­up, from Dumars    Lakers 66–­62

    3:29    12 foot jumper on left baseline from Dantley    Lakers 74–­68

    2:59    14 foot bank shot from [Vinnie Johnson],         Cooper fouled on play—­Zeke missed free throw    Lakers 76–­70

    1:13    26 foot 3 pointer, from Vinnie Johnson    ties score at 77

    0:46    Breakaway lay-­up from Rodman    tied 79–­79

    0:02    20 footer from left corner, from Johnson    Pistons 81–­79

Isiah’s 25-­point third quarter remains a postseason record. But it wasn’t just the numbers that dazzled. It was the grit, the determination, the way this small man at play in a world of giants put his team on his back and nearly delivered them: The Pistons came up just short, and many believed they were hosed by the refs with a bad call at the end.

Isiah became a symbol in those twelve minutes, an embodiment of everything that a person who wants to live ecstatically should be. He played with fury and joy. He loved his teammates and his opponents—­you could see it in every move. He never gave up, never stopped trying. He did this not in spite of his injury but because of it. As a professional athlete, he knew it would only get worse, that it was now or never, that the pain did not matter if he did not notice it, that, in this league, there is only today, this quarter, right now. He was like a protagonist out of a Camus novel—­I’d taken existentialism in college that year—­who is free because he knows he will die.

That’s the night I fell in love with the NBA.

About the Author

Rich Cohen
Rich Cohen is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of FootballThe Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse, and Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent, among others. He is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, the co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. He lives in Connecticut. More by Rich Cohen
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