Like millions of others, USF men’s basketball coach Brian Gregory ― raised on Chicago’s northern fringe ― has remained immersed in ESPN’s 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
But only to follow its portrayal of his all-time favorite team, which happens to be one of the series’ main antagonists. The more The Last Dance immortalizes MJ, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, the more nostalgic Gregory gets over Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and John Salley.
The “Bad Boys” were his boys.
“I still was a Bulls fan (in the ‘80s),” Gregory said. “But my team was the Pistons.”
Any Chicagoans inclined to label Gregory a traitor should note that his devotion to Detroit’s back-to-back NBA champions possesses a distinct Windy City origin. Gregory was a backcourt standout at John Hersey High in Arlington Heights, Ill., only 26.5 miles from St. Joseph High ― Thomas’ alma mater ― in Westchester.
Gregory, 5½ years younger than Thomas, carefully followed the coveted point guard’s sparkling prep career and evolved into a fan, watching him flourish in two seasons at Indiana, where he led the Hoosiers to the 1981 national title. At his Catholic confirmation, Gregory even took Isiah as his confirmation name.
“My mom said, ‘It better not be for the point guard, it better be for the prophet,’” Gregory recalled by phone Thursday. “So I had to do a lot of research on Isaiah the prophet to make sure I could get that one past my mother.”
When the Pistons drafted Thomas in ’81, Gregory ― then entering high school ― adopted the Pistons as his team. His allegiance was reinforced in ’86, when he transferred from Navy after one season to Oakland University just outside Detroit.
That same year, the Pistons drafted Salley, who had served as Gregory’s student coach at Howard Garfinkel’s prestigious Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh a couple of summers earlier.
Moreover, the Pistons practiced in Oakland’s gym.
“Because back then these NBA franchises didn’t have practice facilities,” said Gregory, who still owns Oakland’s career assists record (905).
“If my memory serves me right, my whole four years at Oakland (a redshirt season, three years as a player), during their preseason and during the season, they were there. During the preseason, it was every day they were there. They had the practice time from 10-12:30, so the gym was closed off.
“It was just a great environment to get an inside look at building a championship program.”
Over time, Gregory established relationships with several in the organization, and even culled a modest profit when the Pistons won consecutive titles in 1989 and ’90.
As an upperclassman, he worked at a screen-printing business about five minutes off campus. Meantime, a roommate who sold sporting goods had access to T-shirts at a bulk rate. Pooling those resources, Gregory printed hundreds of shirts with knockoff “Bad Boys” logos and sold them out of a garbage bag.
“That was initially during the playoffs,” he recalled. “And then when they won it, they came out with the official championship shirt, so we altered (the logo) in the slightest way imaginable. … It was great.”
Thirty years after peddling those shirts, Gregory still proudly wears that Pistons era on his sleeve. Funny how The Last Dance can invoke a nostalgic waltz.
“It was neat,” Gregory said. “It was really neat.”