Isiah Thomas Insists the NBA Didn’t Take Off in the ’80s Because of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers

Word is the NBA skyrocketed in popularity in the 1980s when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came on board. The two rekindled the Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers rivalry after they took part in their epic NCAA title game in 1979. Bird and Magic wasted no time putting the NBA back on the map.

While either the Celtics or the Lakers reached the NBA Finals in every year of the decade, former Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas recently dispelled the idea that the Celtics and Lakers were responsible for that rapid NBA growth.

Isiah Thomas says the Detroit Pistons were the reason the NBA soared in popularity in the ’80s

Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons dribbles the ball up the court during an NBA game circa 1990 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Ask any knowledgeable NBA fan why the league became a global game in the 1980s, and they’ll tell you it started with Bird and Magic. Bird and Magic came into the league as rivals and took that rivalry to another level in two of the biggest media markets. Commissioner David Stern knew what he had in the two stars and ran with it.

“Every time we played, that was a massive build-up, and rightfully so,” said former Celtics star Kevin McHale during a 2021 appearance on The Cedric Maxwell Podcast. “Those two guys at the time were the face of the league.

“I thought David Stern did a great job of using those two guys and their teams and everything to kind of propel the league. I tell everybody there’s three people that propelled the league — Larry, Magic, and David Stern.”

Thomas, however, disagreed.

“They like to give the Lakers and the Celtics, you know, they changed the league and brought the league back,” Thomas said recently on The Pivot Podcast.

“This is how I remember it now. When the league took off is when the Detroit Pistons showed up.”

Thomas tried to explain why he thought the Pistons helped save the NBA

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There’s no question Thomas’ Pistons had appeal. Detroit’s “Bad Boys” also had talent. But by the time the Pistons overthrew the Celtics as kings of the Eastern Conference in 1988, the league had already taken off.

Thomas stuck to his story.

“When we showed up, we was putting 50-thousand in the stands,” he said. “This is all documented. Fifty-thousand in the stands. Sixty-thousand in the stands. Forty-thousand, thirty-thousand. Then they say, ‘Yeah, but you was playing in the Silverdome.’ Yeah, but s***, there was still fifty-thousand people there watching us play basketball.

“The highest-rated games of the ’80s, these are the highest-rated games: Pistons against Lakers. Pistons against Celtics. Pistons against Bulls. Those are the highest-rated games of the ’80s. They all have one thing in common, and that’s the Detroit Pistons.

“You can talk about all them other teams all that you want, but those are the facts.”

It’s one thing to have confidence in yourself and be proud of your accomplishments, but it’s likely Thomas won’t find too many people out there agreeing with him on this one.