in: Character, Manly Lessons, Podcast

• Last updated: October 4, 2023

Podcast #925: When the Game Was War — Lessons From the Greatest NBA Season of All Time

While there may be some heated rivalries in today’s NBA, the ferocity of competition doesn’t compare to the hard-hitting contests that took place during the 1987-1988 season, when four rising and falling dynasties — the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons, and Bulls — battled it out for supremacy.

Here to illuminate that epic era in basketball and share what can be learned from it is Rich Cohen, author of When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season. Today on the show, Rich makes a case for why there’s never be a season before or since like the one that played out in ’87 and ’88, and he profiles the players — Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan — who dominated that season and changed the game. Along the way, we talk about the life lessons that can be taken from these players and their teams, including the rules legendary coach Phil Jackson gave the Bulls, which were inspired by the jazz musician Thelonious Monk.

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Brett McKay: Hey, this is Brett. Thanks for listening to the Art of Manliness podcast. To show our appreciation for your support, we want to give you a free AoM sticker. To claim your free sticker, just go to The first 1000 listeners to fill out the form will get a free AoM sticker. The offer is open to both US and international listeners. Again, it’s to get a free AoM sticker. Thanks again for the support. And now on to the show.

Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. While there may be some heated rivalries in today’s NBA, the ferocity of competition doesn’t compare to the hard hitting contest that took place during the 1987-1988 season when four rising and falling dynasties, the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and Bulls battled it out for supremacy. Here to illuminate that epic era in basketball and share what can be learned from it is Rich Cohen, author of When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season. Today in the show, Rich makes a case for why there’s never been a season before or since like the one that played out in ’87 and ’88. And he profiles the players Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Jordan who dominated that season and changed the game. Along the way, we talk about the life lessons that can be taken from these players and their teams, including the rules legendary coach Phil Jackson gave the Bulls which were inspired by the jazz musician, Thelonious Monk. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, Rich Cohen, welcome back to the show.

Rich Cohen: Thanks. Great to be here.

Brett McKay: So we had you on last time to talk about your dad, Herb Cohen, the greatest negotiator in the world. You got a new book out called, When the Game Was War. And in this book, this is a lot of fun, I enjoyed reading this book because right now I’m watching The Last Dance.

Rich Cohen: Perfect.

Brett McKay: The Netflix docuseries about the Chicago Bulls, that last season they had all together. But in this book, you make the case that the 1987-1988 basketball season was the greatest season in NBA history. Why that season? What’s your case for that?

Rich Cohen: Well, the mathematical reason is that the most future NBA Hall of Famers were playing that season in NBA history. Among them, the oldest being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the youngest being either Scottie Pippen or Reggie Miller touched the whole history of the NBA because when Kareem started in the game, there were guys that had played since the beginning of the league in the 50s. And when Reggie Miller retired, he was playing with guys who just retired like last year or this year even. And also because you had at that time four great NBA historic dynasties all in different states of rise and fall at the same time competing against each other, ultimately in the playoffs and the finals.

And that was the Lakers, the Pistons, the Bulls and the Celtics. And I sort of pitched it as the Game of Thrones on the hard court. I got very into Game of Thrones and I thought this is sort of like four dynasties. And ultimately, the future is going to belong to the Bulls who’s the kind of team off stage who is just starting to come into existence. So to me, it was a moment where you could see the whole history of the league and the competition was so close and so intense. It just never got better than that. And I say that as somebody whose team, the Bulls, lost in the second round that year of the playoffs.

Brett McKay: And what got you thinking, “I need to write a book about this and talk about the history of this season.”?

Rich Cohen: Well, since I was a kid, I played sports. My father was a basketball coach, that’s the connection with this. I grew up sort of in the school of basketball and everything that happens on the court being analogous to life. And I always had this sort of fantasy of writing about all four major American sports. And I’ve written a book about the Chicago Bears, ’85 Bears, called Monsters and a book about the Chicago Cubs called Story of a Curse and a book about my son’s Peewee hockey team called Peewees. And I wanted to write a book about basketball and fulfill this sort of box set dream that I had. And I first thought I’ll write about the Bulls because that’s the team I grew up watching.

And then I realized it’s very uninteresting in a way to write a story about a team that won six times over eight years, that a lot of times when you get sports highlights what you miss is you miss how exciting it is in the moment. So if you see a great shot from the past, it might seem like nothing when you see it, you don’t get all the hubbub around it. But it’s the context of waiting and waiting and waiting. And I wanted to focus on one season to try to recapture the sort of drama of what it’s like to watch when you’re a kid in real time. And I sort of had this fantasy of it being like a nonfiction novel about basketball and the intensity of competition.

Brett McKay: So how old were you in ’87, ’88?

Rich Cohen: I was, Jesus, born in ’68, so I was just about to turn 20.

Brett McKay: So how did you, when you decided, “Okay, the ’87-’88 season was the best season in NBA history,” how did you sort of suss out, “Well, am I just being nostalgic because I was 20 and like it was great being 20?” Because for me, when I was a kid, I always think the best time in baseball was the late ’90s or that mid ’90s. You had King Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas. And a part of that, a lot of that’s probably just nostalgia ’cause like also during that time I was 14 and playing Super Nintendo, didn’t have a care in the world. Did you have to wrestle with that idea like, “Am I just being nostalgic about youth?”

Rich Cohen: Yes. I mean, it’s definite a case of mistaken identity in some case where like something was at its best in 1987, ’88, and it might have been the NBA or it might have been me. It’s sort of like believing is seeing. So, but I do think there are certain objective ways to look at it. And I’m able to recognize that like the 1950s and early ’60s was the golden age of baseball ’cause you had Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks and all these guys competing at the same time and it never really got to that concentration again even though that happened before I was born. And I think that you can look at the NBA in the late ’80s. You might not pick that exact season, but definitely look at those years and say, look, you had Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and if you go around and ask old NBA guys, they’ll say that was maybe the best team of all time.

Then you have the Detroit Pistons who never get their due, the Bad Boys, who I would argue was as good as any of those teams. And then you have the LA Lakers, Magic Johnson. There’s an HBO show about him right now, Winning Time. And you have Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Pat Riley as the coach, all on one team playing in the form at sort of the height of LA. And then ultimately, you have Michael Jordan, who I argue is… I would argue is like the best athlete we’ve ever had in America. And I just think it’s possible to stand back and look at those teams in that season. And in fact, that’s one of the things I did, is I asked all these old players I interviewed who was the best of those four teams of all time and all gave different answers. Some thought it was the Celtics, some thought it was the Pistons, some thought it was the Bulls and a lot thought it was the Lakers.

So, and I had… There was a great quote from Danny Ainge of the Celtics who said, “Look, here’s how you know it was the greatest era. There were five or six teams that would have won a title in any other era.” Teams like the Atlanta Hawks, who had Dominique Wilkins and the Milwaukee Bucks and the 76ers with Charles Barkley, these were all teams that got thwarted because of the intensity of the competition. So, yes, it’s definitely my opinion and one of the fun things is arguing about it, I try to give credence to some of the other great seasons but to me, the greatest season was this season where all these teams were playing together and it’s sort of like lightning in a bottle, you feel like you’ll never get it again.

Brett McKay: So what you do with this book, you focus on these four teams and then you just focus on four games during the regular season, plus the post-season. And what you do is you just, you do a great job of writing, it’s very novel-like, or like watching a movie. And along the way, you also extract these lessons about life that you can take from the season and these these players. So let’s talk about these players you focus on. You focus on Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas. And I think these… You really, I noticed how you tried to make this like a redemption story for Isaiah Thomas. Well, let’s talk about Larry Bird first. Whenever I see YouTube videos highlighting the best players in NBA history, Bird is always up there. But if you watch him play, he’s not particularly flashy or elegant, so what made Bird great?

Rich Cohen: Well, Bird, it’s this thing, you don’t have to be as athletic if you know what’s going to happen in the future. You just show up where it’s going to happen and you can be slower than everybody as long as you’re already there when they get there. And that’s what Bird had. Bird had incredible court vision and a lot of his greatest plays it seems almost like luck. You’ll notice the same thing with Wayne Gretzky, like, oh, he’s just standing there and the ball happened to come to him. The 1987 playoffs ended for the Pistons with this famous steal that Bird made. The game was basically over and the Celtics were probably going to be eliminated and all Isaiah Thomas had to do was inbound the ball to Bill Laimbeer and Bird faked like he was running up court you’d normally do and he just knew what Isaiah Thomas was going to do, and he cut back and Isaiah threw the ball right to him. And he dished the ball off and there was a quick layup by Dennis Johnson and the game was over.

It’s one of the most famous plays in basketball, it happened so fast. But that’s Bird’s talent in a nutshell, which is he knew how the game was going to unfold, he knew what was going to happen and it just made him the center of all the action and he could… And he also had, was an incredible shooter and he was a better athlete than people really give him credit for. He was big and he was great inside and outside. And he got hurt, he hurt his back and he was already sort of fading by the time the season I write about comes along but he just made the difference and he became, rightfully, one of the top three players of all time. And also he had incredible confidence that was unnerving to his opponents. And what’s interesting is you can see, like Dennis Rodman famously ran down Larry Bird and said, “If he was Black, he’d just be considered just another good player.” But the great players always recognize the great players. And Jordan always recognized Bird as right up, that they were equals and same with Magic Johnson and same with Isaiah.

Brett McKay: Well, the other thing Bird had, he just had a tenacity and an intensity and a work ethic that every time I watch him, like you can tell he was putting it all on the line every single game. How did he develop that tenacity?

Rich Cohen: Well, he had a tough childhood. He grew up in Southern Indiana, which is really more the South than the Midwest. And he grew up playing in games where he was the only White kid playing behind this hotel in French Lick, Indiana, where he played with the staff. And he just learned to compete. And he had brothers and they got in a lot of fights, played a lot of sports. And his father, who had sort of, I think, had PTSD from the Korean War was an alcoholic and killed himself when Bird was a kid. And I think that just made him very, very, very tough. And he was, had the sense that he was always being underestimated because he wasn’t really scouted very much in high school because he played at such a small school in the middle of nowhere and everybody dismissed him for all the reasons we’re still talking about right now. He didn’t jump very high, he wasn’t a great runner, all these things.

And he dominated when he played, but he played against such small schools that he couldn’t really get anyone’s attention. He went to Indiana University where Bobby Knight was the coach and he never really got a shot there. He dropped out of college, went back home, was working basically on a road crew in pick up games where he got spotted by one of the coaches at Indiana State. And then he just made his rise because he took Indiana State, a team you never really hear of before and never really hear of since and brought ’em all the way to the National Championship game, which was something that a lot of us remember very vividly, where Bird and Magic played in the National Championship.

And Bird was just this incredibly competitive person with a nasty streak who is what you’d call farm strong. Yeah, he wasn’t guy in the weight room, but he would work on farms when he was a kid and he was incredibly strong in a way that didn’t show necessarily in his physique. And it’s funny because I was showing my son, we talk about old hockey players who didn’t really go to the weight room. There’s just a picture of Gordie Howe in 1950s with his shirt off and he’s, just grew up on a farm and he’s stronger than anybody you see now. And it was this kind of endurance strength that you can never get anywhere but actually working outside.

Brett McKay: And speaking of his competitive nature, it is like he had a nasty streak. And one thing that surprised particularly a lot of the Black basketball players was that Larry Bird talked a ton of trash.

Rich Cohen: Yeah. And a lot of Black players like Magic Johnson, they saw that as more part of the Black game, the White games, they seem more polite. And they were shocked when they played against Bird and he was trash talking them. And you hear all these stories and then players think they’re going to dominate him and they look up and he’s scoring from all over the floor. And that ultimately won admiration from a lot of people but a lot of fans found it shocking because he didn’t seem that way. Same with Jordan. Jordan was a huge trash talker but if you saw him sort of doing his public rounds, you’d never get that idea. He seemed like the nicest guy in the world. But once he got out on the basketball court, he was nasty.

And getting in people’s heads and messing with them and getting them out of their game is a big part of basketball I think more than other sports, because you’re so close for the whole game. In football, you have a helmet on, you have a mask on, mostly you’re separated except during the play. But in basketball, you have guys bodying each other up, fronting each other up and they’re face to face for 45 minutes and they’re just saying nasty, nasty stuff to each other. And when you hear it, it’s always a shock. And sometimes in these old games, you hear it because a mic picks it up. And I think they mostly cut it out of the television but it’s a part of the game that survived from when they were kids playing in the playground.

Brett McKay: Was there a moment from that season, that ’87-’88 season, that stands out for Bird?

Rich Cohen: I would say two. One is during the All-Star game, they had the three point competition. The three point shot was new and we could talk about it later if you want to, it changed basketball. Now, the first three point shot in the NBA was made in Bird’s rookie game. So he sort of career parallels the growth of the three point shot. He was in one of the first three point competitions. I think he won three in a row. But that one, the guys we talked to say he came into the locker room where the guys who were competing against him were getting changed and he stuck his head and said, “I just wanted to see who among you is going to finish in second place. I wanted to see the second place locker room.” So that was like a big FU. And that was Bird’s confidence and his cockiness. And then he went out and he won the three point competition but he did it in his warmup jacket without taking off his sweats, basically.

And if you watch it, when he makes the last shot, he puts it up, he rallies at the end, he puts it up and he turns and walks away and sort of raises his arms before it even goes in. And it was just ultimate confidence that Bird had and a belief that he would always win. Every time he played he believed he would win and no matter what the score was, he believed he’d come back and win. And a few times when he didn’t win, he seemed genuinely surprised. And the other moment is in the playoffs. One of the things that knocked the Celtics out was they had such a tough series against the Atlanta Hawks. And there’s this famous game sort of called the shootout, some consider it the greatest NBA game of all time, where it was Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird at the end of the game going shot for shot.

And Bird would come down the court and basically tell the people where he was going to make the shots from. And then later in it, he started to match Dominique shots like a game of horse. So every time Dominique made a shot, Bird would come back and make the same shot. To me, it’s kind of like The Hustler, when it’s Fast Eddie Felson and Minnesota Fats playing all night. It’s sort of like you can beat me all day but I’m going to beat you in the morning, I’m going to outlast you. And when you watch it, if you go back and watch it, it’s just this incredible scene of heavyweights exchanging blows until one of them finally prevails, and that’s Bird.

Brett McKay: So what’s the lesson from Bird that you took away, the life lessons from his career?

Rich Cohen: I think the lesson from Bird is, well, you said it, which is he could have prolonged his career as a lot of these other guys did by being more careful with his body, by not playing hurt, stuff players do now. This is what I liked about the era. And it’s like they had this sense that life was divided between like longevity and the fire or the intensity of the moment, right now or later. And they always chose right now. Another great example, this is Kevin McHale, who basically played a whole season on a broken foot. He was on the Celtics, a forward on the Celtics. And basically, that’s what Bird did, which is every game was life and death. And that’s what made him so intense. And he always had the sense that, you might even be out of the playoffs, the season might be over but ultimately, even if it seems like a meaningless game, this is still me against you and someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose. And he always wanted to win. And he sort of risked his health and his career every night that he played basketball.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Jack London famously said, “I’d rather be ashes than dust.” I want to just burn out in a flame in one moment.

Rich Cohen: Right. Neil Young, better to burn out than fade away.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Burn out than rust out. Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s one of the things I like about that period too. Even my son, he’s, he’ll be 13 here pretty soon, he’s really into basketball and he’s always constantly watching YouTube highlights of great basketball players and basketball games. And that’s what… He even picks up on that. He says there’s something about that era, the ’80s, maybe early ’90s, where it just seemed grittier. He says now they’re kind of soft. “I don’t really, it’s not as fun watching, but I love watching Jordan and Bird play just with that intensity.”

Rich Cohen: Yeah. And they had a sense that they represented their cities and they were from, they were mostly except for the Lakers, in working class cities. And they really identified with the people of those cities who are fans of those teams. And you could still get into those games without paying $300. And they very much exemplified and sort of personified the hustle of what was going on in America at the time.

Brett McKay: All right, you can’t talk about Bird without talking about Magic Johnson, the whole Bird versus Magic. I mean, that started when they were in college. How was Bird different from Magic?

Rich Cohen: Well it actually started, I believe, when they were in high school. They were in some sort of, I think so, I have to remember, they were in like an all-star game, they were all these showcases together and they hooked up and they realized, they just met briefly and they realized they could play together very, very well. They had a similar game in that both of their games sort of had this thing I call like LENR, which is a little extra for no reason, which is a lot of times when you watch those old Celtics and Lakers teams, there’s an extra pass, like they could score but the pass is so beautiful that they make the extra pass. When you go back and you see the ball sharing and the handling and every guy involved, they had that in common and it was both about court vision. And then when they got to college, they were both in these Midwestern schools that were both slightly off the radar, Bird’s way more so, Indiana State, and Magic used to watch Bird.

He thought of him kind of as a friend and he would follow him and root for him. And when players on his team sort of said, “He can’t be that good, he’s just a big goofy White guy,” Magic would say, “No, you don’t understand how good he is.” And when they met in the finals, I think that Magic thought they were gonna have this reunion and be buddies but Bird basically refused to acknowledge him, cut him and wouldn’t shake his hand. Because Bird’s thing is, if I’m gonna beat you, I want you to be an enemy. If I turned you into a friend or let you be my friend, then I’m not gonna compete as fiercely. So they had this relationship where at the beginning Magic felt slighted, I think, by Bird. And the finals, their first finals was really, they played against each other in the NCAA final and Magic won ’cause he had a much better team.

And you can see Bird at the end of that game with his head in the towel crying. And Magic has this great thing where he said, “I felt sympathy for him because I knew that if the situation was reversed, I’d be doing the same exact thing. I’d be sitting with my head in a towel crying.” And then the next year after he wins the NCAA championship, Magic wins the NBA championship and Bird is sitting at home watching him. And he always had Magic as this “marker” of the guy that I have to beat. And Magic and Bird for a long time had this Ali, Frazier kind of thing, where they were the measure of each other and they had to beat each other to really make the season a success. And I remember at the time, this is going way back, I had a early video game on Apple II computer and it was called One-on-One.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I remember that.

Rich Cohen: And it was Larry Bird… Yeah, it was great game. And you could break the glass on the backboard and a guy came and swept it up and, but it was Larry Bird and Dr. J, which made a lot of sense ’cause Dr. J was a big star, but all of us knew it really should have been Larry and Magic and something had gone wrong with it. Dr. J was already from an earlier era.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, that’s the one thing I liked about the way you juxtaposed Johnson and Bird. One thing I got from their relationship was that rivalry can spur you to greatness. It seemed like they used each other to get better.

Rich Cohen: Yeah, you always see that. You see like, even with like Mike Tyson. When Mike Tyson was young, and that’s when I was young, same thing and I felt he was the greatest boxer I had ever seen in my life, man. But there was nobody really worthy of competing with him. So you never really found out how good he was. He had no Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier or George Foreman to fight. So I felt like that the great luck for Larry Bird and for Magic is that they came right up together. And that’s really, people will tell you that’s what made the NBA the NBA because not long before that, the NBA had been kind of a slightly unwatched league. It’s playoff games, a lot of it’s were not carried live. They were carried on a tape delay, they weren’t on tv. And these two guys came battling each other and they just got everybody’s attention and brought the game, made it kind of America’s game. So they were, you gotta be lucky in your teammates and you gotta be lucky in your competitors. And they were both.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think so. You hear that people talk about, “Well, you just gotta compete against yourself.” And like, I understand what people are saying, but there’s something about having an external thing to measure yourself that really does spur you to things that you’d never thought capable of doing ’cause I’ve seen that in my own, there’s people in in the sphere that I’m in where I’m like, “Man, I want to be like that guy. I wanna do better than that guy.” I’m curious, do you have your own Bird versus Magic competition in your own life to become a better writer?

Rich Cohen: I do, except, the thing about being a writer is you get to measure yourself against people who are dead or who aren’t writing anymore. So that’s like always a good thing, which is, I mean, it’s bad to be dead of course, but it’s sort of, writing never changes, it exists on the page. So yes, I have writers that I’ve always looked at as sort of my heroes and my model and people I try to imitate. It’s funny ’cause there’s a really funny old New Yorker story about Ernest Hemmingway by Lillian Ross. And Hemmingway starts talking like he’s an athlete and just what you said. And he says in that story, “I trained and I trained and I whipped Mr. De Maupassant. And I trained and I trained and I whipped Mr. Turgenev but I have never gotten into the ring yet with Mr. Tolstoy. When I get into the ring with Mr. Tolstoy then we’ll see what kind of fighter I am.” So he’s very much saw it that way, that he was in competition with other writers who were already dead when he was writing. So I do think that having people push you is what makes you great. Everybody knows that and you can’t really compete against yourself. You don’t really know how good you are until somebody is actively trying to thwart you, basically.

Brett McKay: And something that Magic Johnson did is he changed the game of basketball. A lot of people credit him for making it what it is today. How did he change the game?

Rich Cohen: Well, Magic was kind of a, not a very tall kid when he started playing basketball, but he was great at dribbling the ball and he was a great dribbler. Everybody forgets basketball starts with dribbling. And he played point guard and he wanted to play point guard and the point guard comes up and he controls all the action and sort of distributes the ball. And he grew a lot and there was this move to push him into forward, be like a power forward ’cause suddenly he was a big guy, tall but also big and he wanted to play his position. And in fact, he won a high school championship playing point guard at, whatever he is, 6’7 or whatever he is. And he was deciding between Michigan and Michigan State. Now, normally you’d go to Michigan, Michigan is a much bigger school, as far as sports, it’s got this pedigree, it’s the Michigan Wolverines.

And he went to Michigan State because coach of Michigan said he wanted to move him to forward and the coach of Michigan State said, “If you come here, you can play wherever you want.” So he wanted to play point guard. And what was different about him is suddenly you had a big, big guy who could handle the ball like a small guy. And what that did is, first of all, he had this incredible vision of the court because the people covering him were usually five inches shorter than him and he could see over their heads. And he had the ability to when necessary to go inside and be kind of like a swing player who could go in and play the inside game or drop back and play the outside game and lead the rush. And his first year in fact is sort of famous, which is he was on the Lakers and the Lakers depend their whole offense round around Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was probably 7’4.

He always kind of lied about his height a little bit ’cause he was embarrassed, I think, to be how tall he was. And Kareem got hurt and couldn’t play against the 76ers and Magic came in and, the team’s point guard, and played center in the final. He was able to switch from point guard to center and they won the championship and he won the MVP of the finals because Philadelphia was completely unprepared for a point guard suddenly switching to center who could then switch back to point guard. So he is this incredibly diverse player with this incredible court vision. And he had this ability to pass, similar to Bird, but he could do it on the run faster than Bird.

And if you go back and watch when that team was clicking, it’s like a magic show. I still know what’s gonna happen, I’m still surprised where the ball ends up because his whole body is pointing this way and the ball is suddenly coming out that way. And it was kinda like a little earlier there was Pete Maravich when I was a kid. He was basically done by this time. But it was a kind of a Harlem Globetrotters thing but for real, where the passing became so crazy and so dazzling that sort of the joy of the game was watching your team score but also just watching him move up court.

Brett McKay: Yeah, his ability to pass on the run and do misdirection, it actually threw off the players on the Lakers when he first got there. They were so used to setting up and waiting for a pass and in those first few games, they’d have a ball just hit ’em right in the face ’cause they weren’t ready for a pass from Johnson.

Rich Cohen: Yeah. And you read stories about basically he had to train his teammates to play in a different way because they’d be running with their back to him and suddenly the ball was hitting ’em in the back of the head. They didn’t even know that they were open or they were eligible for a pass, they were just getting to their position. And finally Jerry West, who was the General Manager of the Lakers, was able to bring in the players like James Worthy and Byron Scott who could play that kind of game with Magic. And once they had the ability to do it, they sort of became showtime in this kind of speed offense nobody had ever seen. And that’s what was so amazing about the Pistons, which is another thing, which is they found a way to frustrate that which nobody had done.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Was there a moment from that season that really stands out for Magic?

Rich Cohen: Well, what’s amazing to me, he had always had amazing moments, but in the playoffs, one of the things so exciting about it is almost every series for the Lakers went seven games and they played so many post-season games. It’s like a second season, which is why teams have trouble repeating. I mean, if you do what they did, which is play an additional 25 very intense games or whatever it is, it’s very hard to come back in shape and start the next season. And in every game, no matter what happened to Magic, no matter his physical state, he would come back in the game seven, take over and win the game. So when they played like, I think it was San Antonio, he would just step up in game seven.

I think he again played center and he would just be the guy who even though he might not be leading in every category, would sort of emerge in the clutch to somehow do whatever he had to do to win the victory, which was different every game. So it might be hitting a lot of baskets from the outside or it might be rebounding, which you don’t really think of him as a rebounder because he’s a guard. But he would come in and move to forward and out rebound the other team’s best rebounder if that’s what was needed to win. And to me, that’s what I really remember about Magic. I remember him in the playoffs, sort of this heroic performance where he would, like in a war movie, carry ’em across every single time.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about Isaiah Thomas. Isaiah Thomas holds a special place in your heart because he’s from Chicago, just like you grew up in Chicago and you and your dad actually went to go watch Isaiah Thomas play when he was in high school. Tell us about that experience watching Thomas all the way from high school into college into his NBA career.

Rich Cohen: Well, my last book was about my father and I wrote about my father as a basketball coach, which informed his whole philosophy of negotiation. He had a real, and he grew up playing in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and Coney Island on those courts. And he believed in something called Brooklyn Basketball, which was, if you go up for a layup and this is even playing one-on-one with him in the driveway, if you go up over him for a layup, now he’s old, he doesn’t like that, it’s like disrespect and he would slam you into the garage. So the play would often end for me with you score a basket and you wind up crumpled on the pavement. That’s how he played. It was a very punishing game. And when Isaiah came around, specifically with the Pistons but earlier in high school, he recognized the kind of Brooklyn basketball he played as a kid.

And one of the reasons that I found fascinating was Isaiah grew up on these outside courts in Chicago where I think that year there were like four players in the All-Star game who grew up on the same courts. There was Mo Cheeks and Doc Rivers and Mark Aguirre and Isaiah all grew up basically playing on the same outdoor courts. And if you know Chicago, it’s the windy city. And they would play basketball in the fall and in the winter, in the snow and in the wind and in that kind of court you gotta play defense and you gotta shoot from inside because if you shoot from the outside, the wind will blow the ball off course and you will not score. And it gave them all this kind of very ferocious, ferocious style. And my father had seen Isaiah and he would bring us to see Isaiah when he played in these high school tournaments and sort of teach us about basketball by watching the young Isaiah Thomas.

I also liked Isaiah because he was relatively short even in high school compared to other players. And he looked like he was 10 years old. And then when he went to Indiana and played for Bobby Knight, the fans would hold a sign up in Indiana that said, “And the child shall lead them,” which was a quote from the Bible because he looked like a child, and it was from the book of Isaiah ’cause he looked like a child. And at Indiana he would come back and play, we’d watch him play at Northwestern, which is near where I grew up, where Indiana would kill Northwestern but you get to see Isaiah play. So I continued to follow him and root for him. And in his first few years in the NBA, he was a real favorite in Chicago. I wasn’t alone in rooting for Isaiah but then when Michael Jordan came along and the Bulls started to become a real contender, then he went from sort of hero to villain to Chicago sports fans.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Talking about the street ball, that’s another thing that stood out to me about these players from that era, today there’s these academies and these basketball camps that are really fancy and the best players end up there, right? That didn’t exist back then. That stuff didn’t exist. So they had to learn on their own playing in the snow and the ice and whatever. It’s like, it’s very like Rocky-esque.

Rich Cohen: Yeah, it’s natural and you kind of feel like, it’s hard to argue that the players now are anything but as good as any players ever but there’s something about growing up outside with your friends and playing that’s just different. And even with my own son playing hockey, he plays pretty serious hockey but he’s gotta go to the rink with all these coaches and he spends maybe a couple hours six days a week on the ice. But if you go talk to the old guys from the NHL, they grew up in Canada. They played on ponds, they were outside 10 hours a day just playing hockey. Same with basketball. My father growing up, they were out on the court, when they weren’t in school they were on the basketball court playing hour after hour after hour.

And in Brooklyn, which is where these Brooklyn rules come from, and a bunch of these players were from Brooklyn actually, the rule is if you make a basket, you keep the ball, that’s make it take it. And if you lose the game, you have to leave the court and the next team comes up. So there was an incredible incentive to win because if you lose, you stop playing. So I just felt like there was a whole ethic of that and it made them incredibly resilient ’cause when they got knocked down or hurt, they had to call their own fouls and you played no matter how you felt.

Brett McKay: No, it reminds me of, the difference between back then and today, it reminds me of Kierkegaard. I know you studied philosophy when you were in college, and Kierkegaard, he wrote this essay called The Two Ages. And he did a compare and contrast of what he saw as two ages in human history. There was the age of passion and then there’s this reflective age that it lacks passion. And he has this one sort of an example of the difference. He talked about this skater, ice skater, there’s this thin ice and there’s this treasure in the middle of the ice and this sort of amateur skater who with daring and boldness goes out there and just with passion goes gets this treasure. And everyone applauds that in an age of passion.

And he says in a reflective age, passion has been replaced with skill. So you get this skater who’s really good at skating, he’s talented. He doesn’t require any passion or any sort of risk taking ’cause he’s so good. He can get the treasure without any danger, it just becomes theater almost. It no longer has stakes anymore. So it’s not as fun. I think it’s the same thing. I think the game today, like you said, these guys, they’re awesome. They’re probably the best we’ve ever had, but they’re so skilled it lacks some of that passion. Does that make sense?

Rich Cohen: Yeah. Yes. Well, also, I’ve really seen it with youth hockey compared to when I played hockey, which is they break, and they do this in basketball too, they break the act of playing into a series of movements and they teach those movements. Then they have tryouts where they choose kids who have perfect form that they’ve been working on, same with football quarterbacks. And it’s like we were saying before about competition, you don’t really know if a kid’s like a player or whatever until, not how he plays an A game but if he has to play five games on a weekend, what’s going on in the middle of game four when they’re down by 20 points? Is he still playing? Is he still working? That’s when you figure it out and you only can figure it out by actually watching it. And I would add to Kierkegaard’s thing, another thing that I think hugely changed everything, which is the whole enter of the algorithm and the math people.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Kierkegaard talks about that. He was a big critic of Hegel who was all about, you had to find, discover the system and once you know the system, you’ll know the meaning of life. You don’t have to think about it anymore. Kierkegaard thought that was dumb.

Rich Cohen: Right. Well, what they’re doing is they kind of reverse engineer everything. So like it’s as if you don’t know how to talk to a person naturally so you learn a series of techniques to talk to somebody. Now, if you’re good at talking to somebody, you just do it naturally. But you have all these people that have learned it kind of backwards, so they’re perfect but there’s something missing, like a little bit of soul. And the thing with the algorithm is, look at basketball, which is, so talking about how basketball has changed, the three point shot was introduced Larry Bird’s rookie year into the NBA. And it existed for a long time as it was intended to exist, which is, if a team is down by nine points with a minute left, fans can stay and watch ’cause there’s a chance they can hit three threes in a row and tie the game as opposed to everybody thinking the game is over and filing out.

But somebody did the math when algorithms started changing baseball and football and everything else and realized probably with computers that we’re better off taking basically 100% of our shots as three point shots and making 30% of them than taking all these two point shots and making 60% of them. We will win if we take only three point shots. And that’s a little bit of an exaggeration ’cause obviously we don’t take only three point shots but almost. And that’s changed the entire game. And it’s the game is taught that way and you lose… It’s kind of like an unintended consequences thing. You make this little rule change and everything around it changes. And I do think that some of the fun and some of the play is gone of it. And another thing that was said to me, this is about my Bears book, I asked the owner, one of the owners of the Chicago Bears why the players aren’t connected with the fans, I feel like they’re not the way that they were when I was a kid.

Like I was talking about feeding off the energy of the city. And some of it of course is free agency and all that, but he said it’s ’cause of the phones because they come out of the locker room and all the fans are standing after the game and they’re all looking at their phones. They’re not interacting with the fans at all, just like everybody else. I remember as a Chicago Cubs fan, after every home game, Mark Grace, who was the first baseman, would go to Murphy’s across the street and drink with the fans. And that just gives you a completely different connection to the game. And I would like Kierkegaard to sit with me and explain to me what’s going on in the current NFL game ’cause I’d like to hear what he has to say… I mean, NBA game.

Brett McKay: So going back to Isaiah Thomas, he’s often given the short shrift when they make the list of greatest NBA players. Why do you think that is?

Rich Cohen: I think two reasons. Okay. First is, the big reason is Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas were involved in a battle over the hearts and minds of Chicago fans. Isaiah was a Chicago bred player, he played the Chicago style of basketball and he wanted to be famous and popular in his hometown. He grew up just a couple blocks from Chicago Stadium where the Bulls played. And then Jordan came along from North Carolina and suddenly Jordan was the favorite, not Isaiah. And it became this very nasty battle between these two guys, then between the Pistons and the Bulls that went on for about four seasons, really nasty. And I always say it was like a local battle. It’s like the battle between the early sects of Christians and Jews. And suddenly Michael Jordan became the official religion and Isaiah went from like a local enemy into a national foe. So when you see like the last dance, which everybody watched during the quarantine pretty much, you really see Isaiah Thomas presented as sort of the devil in the garden.

And that was just like a local battle that became a national thing. And I think that destroyed his reputation. That and also the team he played on played a very violent, rough, dirty kind of basketball because that was the pieces they had. If he played on a different team, he would’ve played a different style. That was how he had to win with that team. He sublimated Isaiah, his own talent for the good of the team. He could have scored 35, 40 points a night, but he knew that’s not how the Pistons were gonna win. And then the other thing is Isaiah is, he’s a nasty guy, just like these other guys, except the difference is that like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird know when to turn it on and know when to turn it off. And Isaiah would go out in front of the cameras… Just a couple days ago he said something nasty about Michael Jordan, why? He can’t help himself, he just says nasty things.

And when Dennis Rodman said… Dennis Rodman was a rookie, he’d just been completely humiliated by Larry Bird in this playoff game. Bird had won the MVP and he said he only won it ’cause he’s White and if he’s Black he would’ve been just another player. Now, Dennis Rodman is Dennis Rodman, he says stuff and he was a rookie and he just had this horrible moment in his life. And then they went to Isaiah and asked him, “What do you think?” And he said, “I agree, I agree with what Dennis said.” And that became the big story. And that marked him for the rest of his career. And the fact is, I don’t believe he believed that. I believed he, Isaiah knows how good Larry Bird was, but he was pissed off and he was angry and he thought he was supporting a young guy in his team and he backed him up and it, that’s the kind of thing that he just could not… He did not know when to stop talking basically.

Brett McKay: Alright, let’s talk about Jordan. What made Jordan the greatest NBA player, greatest athlete of all time?

Rich Cohen: Well, first of all, you realize that being great and winning is not good enough to be an all time great. There’s another element which is kind of style or charisma. And Jordan had this incredible charisma. He was beautiful, his game was beautiful, he looked beautiful and when you watched him, you couldn’t take your eyes off of him. And he changed the way the game looked and the way… After we watched Jordan, we’d all go into our driveways and play, try to play, we couldn’t play offense like Michael Jordan, but the way he would lean in and slap at the ball and then of course famously before Jordan, everybody wore these short shorts in basketball. That’s why when you look at the old games, it’s shocking how short their shorts are. Jordan started wearing long shorts supposedly so he could wear his University of North Carolina shorts underneath ’cause those were his lucky shorts.

And people at first made fun of Jordan when he wore those long shorts and within two years, everybody in the league was wearing their shorts the same way and for no reason. And then a year after that, when you went into Banana Republic or the Gap, you could only buy long shorts. So he basically changed the way it looks when you go to the beach to this day. And one of the iconic images of Jordan is at the free throw line, bending over, gripping all that extra fabric of his shorts, which we would all imitate. So I think that the really, really great players like him changed the way everybody looks, the way the game looks and the style. And then of course Jordan did everything else. He could win on his own, ultimately he couldn’t, but he could score 64 points if he wanted to in a night against a great team like the Celtics, or he could sublimate his game to a degree where he distributed the ball and helped everybody else win.

And then he did things like when he retired to play baseball for a year and a half or whatever, missed two NBA seasons and he came back in the playoffs and he lost to the Orlando Magic and Penny Hardaway, they kind of made fun of him. He went out and he worked like crazy to get into shape and came back and won three more championships just ’cause he was mad, just ’cause he couldn’t stand being made fun of. And talk about competitive, he’s the guy who went to the NBA Hall of Fame induction and trashed everybody who treated him wrong, including guys from high school. So I think that Jordan was just one of those athletes that sort of gave birth to the modern game, built on the shoulders of Bird and Magic, he gave birth to modern basketball and I still believe that he would be the best player if he were coming up today.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Jordan had that Kierkegaardian passion. I’m watching The Last Dance and I just finished the episode where Jordan broke his foot and there was this battle between him and the front office, Jerry Krause.

Rich Cohen: Jerry Krause.

Brett McKay: Right. Where they just wanted… The front office is emblematic of the reflective age. They’re just thinking about business. How can we get the most out of this player? Even if we do lose, it’s okay because then we can get a higher pick in the draft. And Jordan just thought that was the dumbest thing in the world. “No, I wanna play. Like the point of the game is to win, it’s not doing this… That’s what you do. Even if I have to play hurt, I’m gonna play. And it doesn’t matter if it hurts your investment.”

Rich Cohen: And the idea that in the larger sense, at a certain point in the season there’s nothing at stake, which is a very much a thing you see now where teams tank, they make rules against it to get draft picks. Everything is at stake every time you play, by the way that’s similar to writing, which is every time you write something, everything is at stake. You live and die with it. And I think that that’s how Jordan and all these guys, all of these players that I wrote about approach basketball, which is there were no games that were meaningless, there were no games that didn’t matter. Everything was at stake every time they played. And not just the season, but their ego and their sense of themselves. And that’s why it was so hard to lose because when you lose, you’re diminished and you kind of die a little. So that’s the intensity.

Brett McKay: So you also feature other characters that were just getting their start during the season. And one of them is Phil Jackson. And Phil Jackson, he’s a weird guy. He’s not your typical, you think of a basketball coach. What was Phil Jackson’s role during the ’87, ’88 season?

Rich Cohen: Well, Phil Jackson was kind of a hippie basketball player in New York who used to walk through the village and had long hair and won a championship with Bill Bradley and Willis Reed for the Knicks. And he went off and he coached sort of, I guess you’d call it minor league basketball in Albany. And they’d hired Doug Collins, the Bulls, to be their coach. They went through a lot of coaches early in Jordan’s career and Doug Collins, people don’t remember, but he’d been a superstar player who had his career shortened by injury, played for the 76ers and Doug Collins, they were hired him because they thought he could handle Jordan ’cause he was another superstar. He could relate to him on that level. And when they first met Jackson, Jackson was like a hippie with long hair and Krause, who really liked Jackson, said, “Come back next year and cut your hair and wear a suit.”

And he got the job and at first his job with the Bulls was sort of to advance scout, to go on the road and watch the teams who Bulls were gonna play and write up reports on them. And he was just the opposite of Doug Collins. Doug Collins was fiery, he was hot, he would sweat more than the players playing in the game. He went out and got in a fistfight with Rick Mahorn, ran out onto the floor, he’d be suspended now probably for half a season. I think he was fined and it was almost too much like he, and Jackson was reserved, he was cool. He saw what the problem with the Bulls was, he saw what needed to be done. And by the end of Doug Collins’ term, he became a little bit like the king in waiting to the point where it really bugged Doug Collins because he knew that his replacement was working for him on the bench.

So ultimately his role, Phil Jackson’s role was not to try to relate to Michael’s superstar to superstar, but to teach him something new, which Isaiah had already learned, which is he had to be less good or less of a superstar every night for the team to win. The only way to beat a team like the Pistons was a team, took a team to beat a team. And to do that, Jordan had to sublimate his own talent and he had to convince Jordan to buy into that and Jordan did buy into that and they ultimately won those six titles.

Brett McKay: And something else you talk about in the book is his unique philosophy towards basketball and he incorporated Zen, like he’s really big into Zen. Then he also had these rules or these sort of guidelines he would talk to his players about that were inspired… That were taken from Thelonious Monk, the jazz pianist. What were some of those rules that Jackson talked about?

Rich Cohen: Yeah. So he had these rules that he adapted from Thelonious Monk, great jazz musician, which is one, just because you’re not a drummer doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time. Two, stop playing all those weird notes, that’s bullshit. Play the melody. Three, make the drummer sound good. Four, don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Five, don’t play everything or every time. Let some things go by, what you don’t play can be more important than what you do. Six, when you’re swinging, swing more. Seven, whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself. Eight, you gotta dig it to dig it, you dig? Now, it’s interesting ’cause Phil Jackson was a big music fan and jazz fan and he wanted the Bulls playing to a rhythm that he taught them, that they should be moving the ball around in kind of a rhythm.

And some of these rules you can even imagine who they’re for, which is you don’t have to play everything every time, that’s to Jordan. Which is, just ’cause he sees an opportunity to score, it might be better at this point in the game to let somebody else score so later on when Jordan’s being triple teamed, that person that he lets score earlier is not gonna be incredibly cold because he hasn’t shot all game, but he’s gonna be ready to play. So you gotta get everybody involved, all the instruments involved. What I like about sports and basketball and writing about them is these are all rules you can apply to your life. They will give you a better life. And who cooler to make your philosophy than Thelonious Monk by way of Phil Jackson, by way of Michael Jordan.

Brett McKay: What made the finals of that ’87, ’88 season so epic? How did it exemplify the title of your book, When the Game Was War?

Rich Cohen: Well, it was incredibly physical, incredibly violent and there were great centers all over the game that these guys had to contend with.

Brett McKay: And we had, it was the Lakers and Pistons, right?

Rich Cohen: Right. But with the Lakers and Pistons, now, Isaiah Thomas and Magic were really good friends. And Magic had sort of befriended and mentored Isaiah who was younger and they went on vacations together, all this stuff would’ve made Bird throw up in his mouth. And before each game in the finals, they would meet at center court and kiss on the cheeks like Parisians. And this was filmed and mocked by everybody at the time. And a certain point, Pat Riley, the coach of the Lakers got mad and said to Magic, “There’s gonna be a moment where you’re gonna have to choose your team above your buddy.” And there was a game where Isaiah was coming up the lane, Isaiah’s very small, but going inside like he did and Magic just sort of laid him out. And that was it. I mean, that was really kind of the changing of the friendship.

It wasn’t quite the end, but the beginning of the end. And it was really a thing where people chose their team and winning over their friends and they were willing to turn friends into enemies. They took it very, very seriously. And I know when you talk to any old timers in any of these sports about what they dislike most about the modern games, it’s that the players on opposing teams seem to be friends, that they’re sort of chatting on the field before the game. And this was the era before that when your opponent was your enemy and someone was gonna walk away with everything and someone was gonna walk away with nothing. And you felt that all through the playoffs. And like I said, the Lakers had to go almost the distance and every series was a point where they had to step up and basically knock someone down physically. And of course the Pistons’ whole strategy as basically, if we’re not gonna beat you we’re at least gonna beat you up.

And they had Dennis Rodman, they had Rick Mahorn, they had John Salley, they had Bill Laimbeer, often considered the dirtiest player in the game, and they would beat the crap out of teams. And one of the things that Pat Riley did that was incredibly cool to psych up the Lakers is he made a highlight reel that he showed his team before one of the last games of the season of the Pistons doing all this dirty stuff to the Lakers, stuff that was not penalized that you wouldn’t notice away from the play. Like Laimbeer elbowing somebody in the kidney or hitting somebody in the back of the head away from the play running up court. And that was just what you had to survive as a Laker. And that’s what really made this about more than just a skill contest but a physical two guys fighting in center court in front of the whole world to decide who’s the champion.

Brett McKay: So what’s your big takeaway from this ’87, ’88 season? Like how can watching or reading about this season make you a better man?

Rich Cohen: Well, for me there’s a couple, there’s several lessons you can take from each team. From the Bulls, what I take away from them is basically don’t let other people get in your head and don’t let them stop playing your game. One of the big problems the Bulls had in those years, which Phil Jackson helped them with, is they would go in as this hot team and they played the Pistons and the Pistons would just needle them, taunt them, foul them until they blew their stack, went crazy, played the Pistons game, which they could not win and the season was over. And that happened year after year until Phil Jackson finally got them to become a little more zen. That’s what the zen was about. Don’t let the other team get in your head and don’t play their game, play your game.

And with the Pistons what I got was sort of just because you’re the best team, because I think the Pistons were the best team in this season and they won the next two titles in ’89 and ’90. Just because you’re the best team doesn’t mean you’re gonna win. And the Pistons players and fans still gripe about a phantom foul at the end of game six that really gave the Lakers life and let them win the thing. So I take that. And for the Lakers it’s sort of win while you still can because the sun was setting on them and ultimately on Magic’s career for other reasons. And for the Celtics, sadly, it’s like when it’s over, it’s over. They were still a great team, but they were old and they were beat up. And ultimately the big lesson, I know I’m giving too many, is that you can beat a better team with players that aren’t as good if you have a plan.

Brett McKay: I love that. Well, Rich, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Rich Cohen: Well, it’s on the Random House website. I have a author page, which is It’s on there and a bunch of my other stories and books and I’m on Twitter, @richCohen2003, that’s the year I peaked. So that’s what I always pick as my handle.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Rich Cohen, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Rich Cohen: Thanks so much. Loved it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Rich Cohen. He’s the author of the book, When the Game Was War. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you all that listen to AoM Podcast, put what you’ve heard into action.

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