Sunday, April 19, 2009

Eulogy.


Cleveland 102, Detroit 84; Eastern Quarterfinals, 0-1 (like it matters)

My relationships with the teams I follow are bizarre. Michigan football is far and away my first love. If I could pick any single team of mine to win a championship, it would be them. I've been "aware" of and followed the Red Wings for the longest. My earliest memory of any of my teams is the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, with the Red Wings getting swept by New Jersey. Since then, I have seen four Stanley Cup Championships, and I immensely hope that a fifth is a couple months away.

And yet, I haven't felt "closer" to a team than I have to the Detroit Pistons over the past seven years. Which it makes this even harder to say: the end has arrived.

I suppose it's already come and go, because the Pistons I watched vanquish the Lakers and battle valiantly to the end against San Antonio have been gone for some time. Some of the faces and names may be the same, but the sum of the parts has long since departed. We tried to convince ourselves that Larry Brown was replaceable. We tried to convince ourselves that Ben Wallace was expendable. The truth is, no part of the machine that produced back-to-back Eastern Conference Championships could be replaced. When you build something that is based on chemistry and teamwork above pure talent and skill, you can't lose any of those parts and expect a favorable outcome.

Back in 2001-2002, Detroit was still very much Hockeytown. The splash arrivals of Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull and Dominik Hasek made the Red Wings the odds-on favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup in June. Adding those three to a lineup that featured names like Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan, Lidstrom, Larionov and Chelios meant that anything short of a championship would be deemed a failure. Ultimately the Red Wings lived up to those expectations, surviving a scare against Vancouver, winning the blood feud against Colorado in the Western Finals, and vanquishing the Hurricanes in the Finals. Hockeytown, indeed.

But on the undercard to the Red Wings in the spring was a scrappy, imperfect bunch of basketball players in Auburn Hills. After a 32-50 season in 2000-2001, the Pistons ditched the abysmal teal jerseys and went back to the trusty red, white and blues. It was a ragtag lineup that most general basketball fans would scoff at: Chucky Atkins, Jerry Stackhouse, Michael Curry, Clifford Robinson and Ben Wallace. Of those five, only Stackhouse looked the part of an NBA star. And yet with the mentality of backstreet brawlers, the Pistons muscled their way to a 50-32 record, a Central Division title, and the 2 seed in the East. They won the first two games against Toronto at home, and then dropped the next two in Canada, setting up a decisive Game Five at the Palace. I remember it well. Stackhouse was awful until the end, and the end was all that mattered, because the Pistons had won 85-82 and won their first playoff series since the tailend of the Bad Boys era in 1991. They quickly bowed out in five games to the more experienced Celtics in the second round, but it seemed like the franchise that had toiled in mediocrity for over ten years was finally looking up.

It was in 2002-2003 that the Pistons began to show signs of something special - along with a flair for the dramatic. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton replaced Atkins and Stackhouse in the backcourt. Another 50-32 record, another division title, and the #1 seed this time. And yet it looked like it would all be for naught, as Orlando jumped ahead of them 3-1 in the first round. That's when we got to see that resiliency that would endear these Pistons to our hearts. When their backs were to the wall, they responded with ferocious vigor fit for a champion. They throttled the Magic in Games 5 and 6, setting the stage for another elimination game at the Palace. The Pistons revved their engines and blew Tracy McGrady away, 108-93. The Game 6 win in Orlando would be the first of eight straight Game 6 victories for the Pistons.

The second of those eight would come in the next round against Philadelphia. They still had problems on the road, as they again lost a 2-0 series lead in Games 3 and 4 in Philly before escaping by the skin of their teeth back home in Game 5. Chauncey won us over in that Game 6, returning from a badly sprained ankle to score 28 - including nine on three triples in OT - and lift the Pistons to the conference finals, 93-89. Despite being the 1 seed and having homecourt, the Pistons were underdogs against New Jersey. The Nets were the defending Eastern champions, and they played like it. They won two nailbiters in Detroit and two laughers in Jersey. In a swift four games, the Pistons were done.

We all know how it went from here. Exit Rick Carlisle, enter Larry Brown. It was ugly, unattractive basketball. And it worked. Throw Rasheed Wallace into the mix at the trade deadline. They played backseat in the Central Division in 2003-2004, as Indiana won 61 games and claimed the one seed, while the Pistons finished 54-28. After easily dispatching of Milwaukee in round 1, the Pistons' pride was tested as they once again met up with New Jersey. Those damn road jitters struck again. After two dominating wins at home, Detroit got absolutely dusted in New Jersey. Game 5 was one of those games where you always remember where you were at when it was going on. Me? I was bowling with my then-girlfriend. I HATE bowling. I hated it then, I hate it now. I eventually stopped bowling and ended up watching the Pistons on one of the TVs they had there. As the 4th quarter wound down, it seemed like the Nets would get away. I was disgusted, so I turned away and drifted back toward a lanes. A few moments passed before a roar went up from the same group of people who had also been watching the game. I turned and ran back to see replays of this:




Like I said, everybody who watched remembers where they were when that shot went down.

Of course in the end, the Pistons lost the game in three overtimes and were down 3-2, having to win in a place where they had been blown out four straight times over the past two postseasons. It was here that I developed a bizarre, weird superstition: I withdrew. I didn't watch. I wasn't bailing on my team or anything. I just had the amusingly naive notion that if I didn't watch it, they wouldn't lose and be eliminated. I haven't the faintest idea how I came up with that. I don't apply it to any of my other teams. And of course, I can never make it last. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and I had some useless project or something to work on, so I stayed away from any TV. And even then, it didn't work. I lasted most of the game, but I eventually caved and put it on - and saw the last couple minutes of an 81-75 win. THIS was that fabled "Pistons Basketball" everyone talks about. On the road in an elimination game in a place they had no luck at coming off the most gut-wrenching of losses...and they got the job done. And then like they did to Orlando the previous year, the Pistons held no quarter in Game 7 at the Palace, this time to the tune of 90-69.

To outsiders, the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals were an abomination, a display of offensive ineptitude that set the sport back for years. Neither the Pistons nor Pacers broke 90 in any game. Four times, the losing team didn't break 70. And yet, for my money, it was one of the most exciting and gritty series I've ever seen. Was it bad offense? Sure, probably. But it was also excellent, excellent defense. The entire series was really summed up near the end of Game 2 in Indianapolis, with, in my opinion, the defining image of the last eight seasons of Detroit Pistons basketball.
Nowadays I often rant to friends and family about the Pistons. Last year after their season ended I was downright poisonous, cursing them for not playing "Pistons Basketball". When people would ask me what that is, the image above is what I tell them. Tayshaun Prince's block on Reggie Miller won Game 2 for the Pistons, and it symbolized everything that these Pistons were about and built upon. Defense. Hustle. Determination. Never giving up.

The Pistons split the first four with Indiana before blowing them out 83-65 in Game 5 in Indy and gutting out a grueling 69-65 win in Game 6 at the Palace. We all remember what happened after that. The Pistons dominated the Lakers in every facet. Honestly, maybe that's why they hold some sort of special place in my heart. Michigan football is always expected to contend for championships. The Red Wings are always expected to hoist the Cup. Hell, even the Tigers in 2006 were expected to roll over the Cardinals in the World Series. But the Pistons in 2004 were decided underdogs against the Hall of Fame Lakers, and took them apart with brutal, deadly efficiency. That might be the only time in my life my team wins a championship as an underdog.

It's sad to think that that was the pinnacle. Five seasons have passed since that glorious June night where the Pistons reigned as champions. The next season was sort of crooked. The expected championship hangover was there, but it was compounded by the Malice at the Palace between the Pistons and Pacers and the constant, never-ending rumors of Larry Brown looking for other jobs. They eventually picked it up, duplicated their 54-28 record, and reclaimed the Central Division crown. They dispatched Philadelphia in round 1, retired Reggie Miller and Indiana in round 2, and then, for the third straight year, went on the road for the Eastern Finals, this time against Miami. It was this series that produced one of my proudest moments as a Pistons fan. After splitting the first four, the Pistons lost their cool and were dusted in Game 5, again facing elimination. They responded cooly in Game 6 at home with an easy 91-66 win. Game 7 was in South Beach, and the odds were definitely stacked against Detroit; history is almost unanimously on the home team's side in Game 7. And the Pistons won anyway. 88-82, to be precise. Going into hostile territory against Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade in a win-or-go-home situation and coming out the other side as conference champions...I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a team of mine. When my brother, who was living here at the time, returned home, I just gave him a bro-hug and said "they did it." Nothing else had to be said.

Everybody knows what followed. Four games, four blowouts, a 2-2 tie with San Antonio. Game 5 being considerably closer. Rasheed leaving Horry is something I guess I have to live with. It's one of those sports moments that never leaves you. All big sports fans experience some. There are always games or moments that haunt you throughout the years, like you're just randomly doing work or watching TV one day years later, and suddenly it pops into your head. For me, there are a handful. The Michigan/Texas Rose Bowl. The 2006 Michigan/Ohio State game. Forsberg's OT goal in Game 5 of the 2002 Red Wings/Avalanche Western Finals. And Robert Horry's shot. In a way, that shot stings me more than Game 7 of that same series does. Weird, I guess. But I was just...lost after that game. As the game went deeper and deeper into the 4th quarter and overtime, my brother and I gradually got closer to the TV screen, first inching toward the edges of our seats, and then up to our feet and still moving closer to the screen....until Horry's shot sent us both into fits of despair. When it was over, I wandered the neighborhood. That's become a tradition of mine, too. I can't stay at the scene of the crime whenever a gutshot like that happens to one of my teams. So I just walk. In this case, it was like, 12:30 at night. And I just walked.

Per my other unusual tradition, I stayed away from Game 6. It was one of those frustrating nights where it's hot out, but not hot enough to justify having the air conditioner on, so I ended up sitting by myself in my pitch black living room with the lights out to keep the heat down. And of course, I caved. I ended up turning it on with like, 90 seconds left, in time to see Rasheed drain a shot from the perimeter. The image of Chauncey looking at the ABC camera with a look of supreme confidence on his face and one finger extended on his hand after the game still lingers with me. I was sold. They were going to do it. They were going to defy the odds and finish the Spurs deep in the heart of Texas.

It almost happened, too. They led by nine midway through the 3rd quarter of Game 7. It was tied after three quarters. And the defending champions finally succumbed. Part of me is almost afraid that this is the fate that awaits the Red Wings this year. That the pressure to repeat and having everyone gunning for you and having to face tight game after tight game will finally catch up to them at the end.

The "Pistons" as we grew to know them died that night in San Antonio. Their last shot at glory, their chance to repeat as champions. When it ended, so did they. The relationship between Larry Brown and the Pistons ownership was fractured beyond repair. To this day, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why he wanted to leave. He had the perfect job. A group of players that would go to war for him, that had completely bought into what he taught them, that had delivered a championship for him. And yet he wasn't content. Maybe it's just the way he was wired. But for whatever reason, he flirted with too many jobs, and couldn't stay. And for that, I hate him. And I miss him. And I hate him because I miss him.

At the start, hiring Flip Saunders looked like a genius move. The players were motivated by their loss in San Antonio, the fire still there. The motivation to "get the belts back" was there, so the defensive intensity would remain while Flip's offense pushed them. Nobody was complaining after a 37-5 start. But the truth was, the loss of Larry Brown was the death knell to the Pistons' title hopes. Flip couldn't get through to the players, because deep down, the players felt like he wasn't needed. I don't know if it was ego fueled by chips on their shoulders from being slighted earlier in their careers, but for whatever reason, the players put it in their heads that they could operate by themselves, without a coach's leadership.

The 05-06 Pistons finished 64-18, the best record in basketball. That was one of their goals, as they felt that if Game 7 in 2005 had been in Detroit and not San Antonio, they'd be going for a three-peat. But the fact was, they were burned out. Flip was a terrible bench manager, and he had alienated the starters even further by running them ragged. Combine this with the growing sense of entitlement in the players and the thought that they could police themselves, and you get a ticking time bomb. It didn't go off in the first round, as the Pistons dealt Milwaukee away in five games. But after winning the first two games against Cleveland with relative ease...the lights went out. The Pistons dropped the next three, and were suddenly up against it against a team that featured LeBron James and little else. Even with their killer instinct slipping away in front of our eyes, the Pistons went to the well and pulled out another gritty one, beating Cleveland 84-82 in Game 6, forcing another Game 7 at the Palace. And like past Game Sevens against Orlando and New Jersey, the Pistons took no prisoners, holding the Cavs to a stunning 23 second half points in a 79-61 win.

But they were done. They had senselessly toyed around with Cleveland, taking their foot off the gas and needing seven games to win a series that should've been over in five. Miami was fresher, and Pat Riley coached circles around Flip, who was in way over his head. After splitting the first two, the Pistons were drilled twice in Miami, and faced elimination at home. Their reign as Eastern Champions was ending, and in front of the home crowd for the final time, Ben Wallace laid claim to his kingdom. The bell tolled for Big Ben one more time.



But that was the end. There were no dramatic Game 6 heroics this time. From 2003 to 2006, the Pistons won eight Game 6s in a row against Orlando, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Indiana, Indiana (again), Miami, San Antonio and Cleveland. Six of those eight were on the road, and five of them (all on the road) staved off elimination and forced Game 7. But that luck ran out in the 2006 Eastern Finals, as Miami crushed the Pistons 95-78, ending the Pistons two year run as Eastern Conference Champions and ending Ben Wallace's tenure as a Piston. Big Ben couldn't stand Flip, he didn't respect him, and in the end, he took Chicago's blood money and left. He could've sat atop the Detroit sports throne with Stevie Y and Barry Sanders. Instead he left. And while Larry Brown took the Pistons' soul with him when he left, Ben Wallace took the heart. He took the defense. He took the sledgehammer.

And yet still, somehow, the Pistons convinced their fans that things would be different, that they would regroup and be better. Flip utilized the bench more. The starters got less minutes and would be fresher come playoff time. Chris Webber was added in January in a move many compared to the addition of Rasheed Wallace three years earlier that put the Pistons over the top. The record was only 53-29 compared to the previous season's 64-18, but the Central Division and #1 seed was still Detroit's. And the early returns in the playoffs were excellent. The Pistons breezed past the Magic in a four-game sweep, something they hadn't accomplished in their multi-year run yet. In the second round the Pistons revved their engines, beating the Bulls 95-69 and 108-87 in Games 1 and 2. They then staged a huge comeback in Game 3 in Chicago, erasing a 16-point halftime deficit to win 81-74. Seven games, seven wins. One sweep, with another imminent.

And then the lights went out. The Bulls buried the Pistons again in Game 4, and this time they stayed buried (102-87). In past seasons, the Pistons would circle the wagons, regroup, and pummel the Bulls in Game 5 back home. This time? The lights were still out, the Bulls humbled them 108-92. The Pistons did finally gather themselves and dispatch Chicago 95-85 in Game 6, but here's the difference between Larry Brown's Pistons and Flip Saunders' Pistons: where LB's teams would fight and scrap and deliver the killing blow when it was there (7-1 in games where they could eliminate their opponent), Flip's teams would lose focus and get lazy and eventually have to scramble.

What SHOULD'VE been the nail in Flip's coffin was the 2007 Eastern Finals against Cleveland. The Cavaliers were still pretty much LeBron and a bunch of guys. After two close wins at home, the Pistons were in good shape. Except where the fatigue issue killed them against Miami in 2006, in its place was mental fatigue. The Pistons had become mentally weak. They were soft. There was no killer instinct. And they lost Games 3 and 4. And they lost Game 5 in spectacular, meltdown, double-OT fashion, thanks to Flip's ridiculous defense that allowed LeBron to destroy them. Shame on Joe Dumars. How could you justify keeping someone so obviously incompetent?

This was one time I DID bail on my team. I was filled with rage and betrayal. I knew it didn't matter if I watched or didn't watch - the Pistons weren't winning Game 6 in Cleveland this time. And I was right. In the past when the chips were down and their backs were against the wall, the Pistons would flex their muscles and punch the other guy in the mouth. But this time, just like the previous season in Miami, the Pistons folded. Cleveland won, 98-82. The addition of Webber had failed. Two years, two meltdowns from Flip. And yet he was retained.

I was pretty bitter by this point. I had lost faith in Flip. And yet still, once again, they managed to hook me back in, because Boston was the talk of the NBA. The Celtics, with their "Big Three", won 66 games, while the Pistons were a stout 59-23. I looked at that and thought, okay, they're the underdog again. The chip is back on their shoulder. They'll be out to prove something.

Wrong. They lost Game 1 in the first round to Philadelphia, fell down 2-1, and needed a miraculous comeback from 14 down to win Game 4. That seemed to wake them up, as they won Game 5 by 17 and Game 6 by 23. Against Orlando, they lost by 27 in Game 3 and fell behind by 15 in Game 4, but Chauncey was hurt early in Game 3 and missed Game 4, so I excused that too. Besides, they rallied to win Game 4 and won Game 5 to win the series on another brilliant block by Tayshaun Prince. And the fatigue wouldn't matter, since they ended up waiting around for Boston to finish Cleveland in seven games.

In an ironic twist, it was rust that got them in Game 1. They came out flat and looked lost. So they DID lose. And then they showed some of that old Piston grit, manning up and stealing home court with a 103-97 win in Game 2 at Boston. Now consider this: Game 3 of the Eastern Finals was on the same night as Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals with the Red Wings hosting Pittsburgh...and I opted to watch the Pistons. And they opted to get blown off their own court. Those weren't the same Pistons. The old Pistons that I knew would never squander homecourt advantage like that.

They bounced back again, blasting the Celtics in Game 4. But this was so typical of a team coached by Flip - there was no consistency. The light would flicker on and off. They fell behind by 17 in Game 5 before trying to rally, only to lose by four. I was incensed. How dare they. How dare they try to come back, like they were toying with everybody. And then came the final nail, in Game 6. Up until then, throughout the run that started in 2003, the Pistons had never been eliminated on their home court. And here they were, facing elimination, trying for one final gasp to preserve their legacy - and there it was, a 10 point lead on their home court in the 4th quarter.

And there it went. 29-13 Boston in the 4th. 89-81 for the game. 4-2 for the series. What the Pistons proved in that 4th quarter was that they had indeed lost any semblance of a heart in the three years under Flip. He was done. They were done.

And now here we sit. 39-43, the 8 seed. One beatdown from the top-seeded Cavaliers down, three more to follow. Larry Brown's gone. Ben Wallace is gone. Chauncey Billups is gone. I'm not going to cast stones at Dumars for the Billups trade. The timing was bad, it should've been done before the season, but that's moot. I WILL criticize him for two atrocious hires. Flip Saunders stripped this team of its balls. Michael Curry is in way, way, wayyyyyy over his head, and I'm sure he'll be retained because of some excuse like the trade messed with the chemistry. That's true, but it doesn't excuse Curry for having no clue how to run a rotation. And these players don't respect Curry any more than they respected Flip. They WANTED Curry to be the coach because they still feel like they can run things themselves. Except they don't squawk about it anymore. There are no more Guaransheeds. There is no more bravado in the newspapers about everything being okay. Maybe three years of coming up short has humbled them. Or maybe the reality of 39-43 and being completely overmatched by LeBron has finally reached them. Maybe they finally know that it's over.

Once Cleveland finishes the Pistons, Iverson will walk away, not welcome back and not wanting to come back. I'm sure it's guaranteed that Rasheed will walk too. He's aged, and to be blunt, he has poisoned this team. He put them over the top in 2004...and has done nothing but drag them down since. He continues to hover near the perimeter when he should be in the paint, he was exposed by Garnett last year as having lost a step on defense, and his attitude has left a stain on the entire team. He must go, and like Flip, he will have been gone a year too late. In the three previous seasons, Rasheed has vanished into oblivion in the decisive Game 6s that eliminated the Pistons. Ever since he arrived, the Pistons have gone as he has gone. And now he must BE gone.

What else? There are some nice young pieces in Stuckey, Bynum and Maxiell. Prince and Hamilton still have some years left, but will they be back? There will be an absurd amount of money available for Joe Dumars to use. For me, it boils down to this. Joe D built a title contender. And, and this may not be popular, but he has also had a hand in tearing it down. He sees these guys all the time, he knows the ins and outs. And he still kept Flip in place too long. He kept Rasheed. He put Curry in after Flip. So now, he must fix what he has done. He has a plan, you can be sure of that. He knows who's going to be available with all that money out there to spend. He knows who he wants. All that matters now is getting them. This version of the Pistons is dead. The Pistons themselves don't have to be. It's up to you, Joe D.

In the heyday of 2004 and 2005, I would stay up til around this time, 5:00, 6:00, 6:30 in the morning, and I would wait for the Free Press to arrive, because I couldn't wait to read the front page and the sports section. I loved seeing the headlines and reading the articles. I'm a packrat, so I've kept them all over the years, tucked away. I began to associate these warm spring nights and mornings with the Pistons and reading about them in the paper.

So here's to the Pistons. Here's to the Fro. Here's to the bell tolling after a block. Here's to 20-rebound games. Here's to Mr. Big Shot. Here's to the mask. Here's to Roscoe. Here's to that lanky, long-armed twig from Kentucky. Here's to Mason. Here's to one of the most intimidating venues in sports. Here's to the pyrotechnics and the sirens. Here's to the thundersticks. Here's to "Goin' to Work." Here's to Larry Brown calling timeout late in the 4th quarter of Game 7 in Miami just to tell his team that he loves them.

Here's to Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace - the five warriors that put on those red, white and blue jerseys and went to work. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them.

Here's to those spring nights and mornings, waiting for the paper.

2 comments:

Terrance said...

Nice job man. Look, I do agree that Joe D. deserves the criticisms he gets. Yes he waited too long to replace Flip, but still, there was no better person for the job at the time. Even in hindsight, it was a smart move, it just so happened that the players started reading their own press.

As for Curry, he was faced with a tough situation. On one hand, you have entrenched guard and All Star Rip Hamilton. On the other, you have former MVP and All World Allen Iverson. He was trying to keep all parties happy, and no he didn't do a great job at it. However, I am willing to give the guy another year without that problem over his head.

Nice article man, especially towards the end there. Also, Blaha calling Chauncey's shot still gives me chills.

sam said...

man i miss those pistons.

just wanted to let you all know the tayshaun block is now one of those "where magic happens" slow-mo/black and white nba playoff promo commercials.

sigh....