Best rivalries in Detroit sports history

The Detroit Pistons eliminated Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls from the NBA Playoffs three times: in 1988, 1989, and 1990.

When it comes to the storied rivalries in sports: Michigan/Ohio State, Yankees/Red Sox, Celtics/Lakers, Cardinals/Cubs, etc., some teams will always bring out the best in other teams, and inflame their fan bases at the same time.

Detroit, despite it’s long history of athletic competition, has had few rivalries that have reached national stature. But still, our Detroit teams and their fans have rivalries that get the hair standing up on the back of their necks. Or, at least in some cases, used to. Some rivalries last only as long as the two competitiveness of the two teams.

With that in mind, what follows is a list of rivalries, some still in force, others a reminder of how things used to be. Here are the best sports rivalries on Detroit sports history.

Red Wings vs. Blackhawks
Since Detroit and Chicago sit at opposite ends of I-94, it’s natural that the two cities have a rivalry, one that has shown in several sports, but it’s been alive the longest on the ice. It has existed since the1926–27 season and continued from the Original Six days into the present. These two clubs have faced each other in more regular season games than any other two clubs in NHL history. Most recently, the Red Wings defeated the Blackhawks in the Conference Finals in 2009 and in 1995. The two teams met in the Stanley Cup playoffs five times in six seasons in the early 1960s.

Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs
This one was hot back in the 1940s, when these two members of “The Original Six” met in the Stanley Cup Finals four times, with the Leafs winning each time. Later they met two more times in the Finals in the 1960s, Toronto again triumphing both times. The Wings also matched up with the Montreal Canadians in the Finals four times in a five-year stretch from 1952 to 1956. The Wings vanquished the Canadians three of the four times.

Red Wings vs. Avalanche
Who will ever forget Fight Night at The Joe or Bloody Wednesday? That infamous melee between the Wings and Avs in the 1997 regular season stemmed from a controversial hit by Claude Lemieux on Detroit’s Kris Draper in the playoffs the previous season. Not only were the Red Wings and Avalanche arch enemies, they were arguably the best hockey teams in the game for a long year period during the intense stretch of this rivalry. Over an eight-year span from 1995 to 2002, the two teams combined to win five Stanley Cup titles and one of the two teams appeared in the Finals in six of those eight seasons.

Tigers vs. Blue Jays
No longer in the same division, the Tigers and Jays aren’t rivals anymore at all, but at one time in the 1980s they were. The Blue Jays were a talented ballclub who were second fiddle to the Bengals in 1984 and 1987 when the two were in the AL East. The Jays won the AL East  in 1985 and 1989, but it was the ’87 division race that served as the focal point of the rivalry. The Tigers erased a three-game deficit in the final seven games of the season, beating Toronto three times in Tiger Stadium by one run in the final weekend to clinch on the final day. One play late in the season helped fuel the rivalry when Detroit’s Bill Madlock slid hard into second and took out shortstop Tony Fernandez, who left the game with an injury. Madlock was clearly out of the basepath and the injury ended Fernandez’s season. It’s a play that still rankles Blue Jay fans with a long memory.

Tigers vs. Twins, Indians, White Sox
Only after the divisions were re-shuffled in the mid-1990s did these rivalries take form, but not for a while, since the Tigers stunk for so long. When the Indians were dominating the AL Central, Detroiters were demoralized at the sight of thousands of Cleveland fans who made the journey north to watch their team beat the Tigers in Tiger Stadium (and later Comerica Park). Now, the roles are reversed. Still, the baseball rivalries aren’t nearly as heated as those in other sports.

Lions vs. Browns
Four times in the 1950s, the Lions and Browns met for the NFL Championship, including three years running.

Lions vs. Packers
This is the longest-running annual meeting between NFL rivals. Though Green Bay dominated the series in the 1960s and recently, and leads overall, the Lions were kings in the 1950s and competitive in the 1990s. At one time, the two teams always met on Thanksgiving, which added more drama to the rivalry, but that tradition stopped in the 1960s. Both teams have a “hard working, middle America” image that they have often taken on the field in the form of hard-nosed, tough defenses. Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus and Joe Schmidt and Reggie White have been some of the names that have added to the tough-hitting history of the rivalry, which culminates twice a year in the regular season. The Packers and Lions have also met in the playoffs twice – in 1993 and 1994, when Green Bay defeated Detroit, each time by less than a touchdown.

Pistons vs. Bulls
Even during an era when the NBA featured Larry, Magic, and Dr. J, one of the most exciting games for many years was a meeting between the Detroit Pitsons and Chicago Bulls. The reason were “The Jordan Rules”, a philosophy established by Pistons head coach Chuck Daly which dictated that Bulls high-flying superstar Michael Jordan wouldn’t be allowed to beat Detroit. The Pistons self-styled “Bad Boys” bumped, hounded, harrassed, defended, antagonized, and frustrated Jordan so much that he rarely was able to take over the game as he did against most opponents. As a result, Chicago’s second-tier players had to provide heroics. But they rarely did. In three straight seasons, from 1988-1990, the Pistons eliminated the Bulls in the playoffs, twice in the Conference Finals. With each series loss, Jordan grew more exasperated and Chicago fans increased their claims that Detroit played dirty. Finally, in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls vanquished their nemesis, sweeping the “Bad Boys”. The Pistons felt so disrespected by the way the Bulls treated them in that series, that they walked off the court before the final seconds had ticked away, led by point guard Isiah Thomas, a native of Chicago who was jealous of Jordan’s popularity in his hometown. In 2007 the franchises met again in the playoffs with an entirely different cast of characters. The Pistons won, increasing their advantage on playoff games to 16-12. Testament to the high temperature of this rivalry is that after all these years and the changing fortunes of these teams, there still remains a level of anticipation when the two teams meet.

Pistons vs. Pacers
More than any other Pistons rivalry, these two teams do not like each other. It came to a head in 2004, when the Pacers and Pistons battled in the Eastern Conference Finals. There were several story lines involved: the Pacers head coach was Rick Carlisle, whom Detroit had fired. Pistons coach Larry Brown had previously coached the Pacers. Indiana’s front office was led by Larry Bird, who had battled the Pistons when he was a Celtic in the ’80s. The Pacers and their fans saw themselves as the natural successors to Detroit’s once “Bad Boys” image. The Pacers were a tough, defensive-minded team. But Detroit still was too.

The next season, in November, things boiled over completely when Pacer guard Ron Artest climbed into the stands at The Palace to assault a fan. The ensuing brawl between players and fans was ugly – one of the ugliest in sports history. In that season’s playoffs, the Pistons once again eliminated the Pacers in six competitive games.

Pistons vs. Celtics
As the Pistons were to the Bulls in the last 1980s, the Celtics were to the Pistons in the mid-1980s. The up-and-coming Detroit team had to pay their dues and try and try before they could get past the legendary Celtics of Bird/McHale/Parish in the NBA Playoffs. Twice – in 1985 and 1987, the Celtics defeated the Pistons in competitive playoff series. The second time, the Celtics snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat when Bird stole a sloppy inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas with seconds left in the game. But, Thomas and the Bad Boys got their revenge the following year by defeating the Celtics in the Conference Finals in six games. In the final game, played at the Silverdome, Detroit fans chanted “Beat LA” as the Pistons defeated the veteran Celtics. Detroit beat Boston two more times in the playoffs – in 1989 and 1991, before the principals of the rivalry retired.

Pistons vs. Lakers
These two teams have met three times in the NBA Finals, during two different dynasty periods for each franchise. In the 1980s, the Pistons met Laker “Showtime” in back-to-back seasons, losing one series in seven games and winning the next year in a sweep. That rivalry featured best friends Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, who famously kissed each other one the cheek before each game. Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer took center stage in some of the best meetings between these two in the 1980s, swinging his elbows and sending players like Michael Cooper and James Worthy flying. It was Joe Dumars who was MVP of the 1989 Finals, which resulted in Detroit’s first championship.

Later, in 2004, with a new cast of players, the Pistons were underdogs to the favored Lakers in the NBA Finals. In the last seconds of their victory in the Eastern Conference Finals, fans in Detroit chanted “Beat LA!” in anticipation of the next matchup. Led by superstar guard Kobe Bryant, the Lakers were seeking their fourth title in five years. But the Pistons manhandled the Lakers in five games to win their third title in Detroit, and second over LA.

3 replies on “Best rivalries in Detroit sports history

  • John

    Packers & Lions met at least TWICE–how can you forget the Favre bomb to Sharpe?!?!? The 16-12 game was in GB, Barry held to negative yardage.

    in 1988 I was at game 6 at the dome– PISTON fans were chanting “beat l-a”–I can assure you that game was NOT in Boston.

  • Dave

    Some bad fact checking and/or a bad memory when it comes to Detroit sports. Lions also lost to the Packers at the Silverdome in the 1993 playoffs. The Pistons beat te Celtics in game 6 of the 1988 ECF at the Silverdome, not the Garden. And the Pistons beat the Pacers in the 2004 ECF, not 2003.

  • Dan Holmes

    John & Dave,

    Thanks for taking me to task for those mistakes. I’ve made the change to the article. I appreciate you reading the blog.


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