As long time readers of this blog know, basketball is the one sport I really am crazy about, college basketball in particular. But over the last 2 weeks, I’ve been glued to the TV watching the Pistons do what everyone, including me, assumed was impossible – beat the Lakers for the NBA championship. At the beginning of the series, I predicted it would only go 5 games, but with the Lakers winning. It only went 5 games, alright, but the Pistons – improbably, miraculously – came out on top. And without a miracle shot from Kobe in game 2, it would have been a sweep! I don’t know what the odds would have been on a Vegas bet on that outcome, but I’m guessing you could have gotten 25-1 odds that the Pistons would win in 5. No one, even diehard Pistons fans, saw this coming.
So how did they do it? With beautiful team basketball and great defense. Before the series started, I saw several commentators on ESPN discussing the series. Every one of them said the Lakers would win, and one of them said, “The only way the Pistons can win this series is by making it so ugly that it’s unwatchable, by hacking and fouling and disrupting the flow of the game.” At the end of a series in which the Lakers committed far more fouls than the Pistons, there is crow on the menu. The Pistons didn’t play ugly. Their defense was incredible throughout the series and the effort they gave was great to watch, but the offense was what shocked the world.
Larry Brown, the Pistons coach, has a mantra about basketball – play the right way. Brown is a basketball purist, taught the game first by the legendary Knicks coach Red Holtzman and then by the even more legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith. He is the definition of “old school”, constantly preaching good spacing and ball movement and unselfish play. In his first season with the Pistons, you could see the team, especially point guard Chauncey Billups, buy into this system more and more as the year went on. They knew that if they played as a team, they could beat the Lakers.
I think it speaks volumes about Larry Brown that at 63 years old, he still refuses to refer to Dean Smith by his first name, even in person, even after 45 years of close friendship. He peppers his interviews with “Coach always said this” or “Coach taught me the importance of that”, and everyone knows who he’s talking about. Dean Smith was, for some 40 years, the coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels and he won more games than any other college coach in history (though Bobby Knight will break that record in the next three years and Coach K sometime after that). As a diehard Duke fan, I should probably hate him (if you’re not into college basketball, you simply can’t imagine the intensity of the Duke/North Carolina rivalry – the Hatfields and the McCoys look like peace-living hippies by comparison). But I have enormous respect for Dean Smith. He is beyond a doubt one of the 4 or 5 greatest basketball coaches in history, and he has always handled himself with enormous dignity, much like his protege` Larry Brown. And I give him a great deal of credit for his very public advocacy of the civil rights movement, something that was not only anachronistic but potentially dangerous in his home state in the 1960s. His players graduated, behaved like gentlemen, and played the game the right way. And he taught two generations of students how to coach the game. Larry Brown is his star pupil.
The biggest credit for this championship, though, goes to Joe Dumars. Dumars is one of the all time great Pistons players, leading them to two NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. When he retired, Bill Davidson named him President of the team and he has been an incredible success story. The most amazing thing about the job Dumars has done running this team is not that he repeatedly made the right moves, but that he did it when almost everyone else, again including me, thought they were the wrong moves. Every single starter on the Pistons championship team was a controversial signing at the time. When he traded Grant Hill to Orlando for Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins, Piston fans said, “Who?”. Hill was an all-NBA player and Ben Wallace was an undrafted nobody who couldn’t throw a basketball into the ocean if he was in a liferaft. Well since that time, Hill has played in about 15 games due to injury, while Ben Wallace has turned into an all-NBA player and the heart and soul of a championship team.
When he traded the team’s only remaining star, Jerry Stackhouse, to the Washington Wizards for Rip Hamilton the fans said, “Why?”. Stackhouse was a star, coming off his best season ever and he had led the Pistons to the playoffs for the first time in years. Hamilton was considered a third tier guard who could shoot from short range and that’s about it. Plus he was too skinny to take the physical play in the NBA. That was a trade I liked at the time while a lot of fans did not. I liked Hamilton as a player and thought that Stackhouse was too selfish to lead the Pistons any further. It turned out to be a brilliant trade. Since that time, Stackhouse has slid to the point where the Wizards are begging anyone to take him and his bloated contract off their hands. Hamilton, meanwhile, has become one of the league’s best guards and he was huge in these playoffs. He’s the energizer bunny, never at a standstill, and he simply runs the opponent’s best defender until their tongue is dragging on the ground and they’re gasping for air. I’ll tell you one thing – Dumars is happy as hell that he signed Rip to a long term contract last year, because this year he has become a star and resigning him now would cost many millions more.
When he drafted Tayshaun Prince, everyone panned the move. Prince was too skinny to play in the NBA, he didn’t have a natural position, and let’s face it – the guy just looks gawky and uncoordinated with those cartoonishly long arms and chicken-bone shoulders. All he’s done is become the Pistons’ utility player, a guy who does a little bit of everything well enough to make a difference. He guards the opponent’s best player, he blocks shots, he gets big offensive rebounds, he helps break the press, he hits big shots. He’s a glue guy, a guy whose numbers on the stat sheet may not look overwhelming but without whom there’s no way the team wins.
When he signed Chauncey Billups to a large contract as a free agent from Minnesota, fans were shocked. Billups had been a major disappointment in the NBA. After the Celtics made him the #3 pick in the draft, he was a bust, bouncing from team to team – 5 teams in 5 years – before he had half a good season with the Timberwolves. But Dumars signed him to a free agent contract that seemed outragous at the time and now looks like a steal. All he did was become the NBA Finals MVP.
But the most controversial move was the mid-season trade for Rasheed Wallace. In Portland, Wallace was the poster boy for professional dysfunction, breaking the NBA record for most technical fouls in a season, getting fined repeatedly for confrontations with fans and officials, and generally gaining a reputation as a guy with million dollar talent and a 50 cent attitude. He said stupid things to the media constantly, he threw temper tantrums on the court. He was a mess and the Blazers were dying to get rid of him when Atlanta took him off their hands because his contract would expire after this year and they could clear cap space. But in stepped Dumars to trade 4 role players to Atlanta for the rights to Wallace, and I was stunned. Why on earth would you trade for a problem child who could disrupt the locker room, a 6’11” player who likes to play on the perimeter and gives you nothing inside, and a guy who will leave at the end of the season for another team anyway? The lesson, as always – Joey D knows more than I do. Wallace has been a model citizen with the Pistons. No technical fouls, no ejections, no fines. He immediately bonded with Ben Wallace and started to play like him, with all out effort on the defensive end and unselfish play on offense. To a man, his teammates love playing with him and they all praise his passion and his work ethic. And after making a run to a championship, chances are good that he’ll resign with the Pistons to come back and do it again. Wallace has resurrected his reputation and made a believer out of me, and I hated the guy.
Even the hiring of Larry Brown was controversial. At the end of last season, Dumars fired Rick Carlisle after two consecutive 50-win seasons and division championships. Carlisle is considered one of the premier young coaches in the league and I was stunned. Brown had quit as coach of the 76ers and was being wooed by Houston. His wife was even looking for a home there. But Dumars called Brown and talked him into coming to Detroit instead. He told him that they could win a championship with him as the coach. He was right.
The MVP of this championship should be Joe Dumars. The man that Michael Jordan called the best defensive player he ever faced has built a Pistons team in his own image. A team that is physically and mentally tough, a team that is extraordinarily unselfish in an era when we just expect rich athletes to look out for themselves first and the team rarely, and a team that, as Larry Brown says, plays the right way. Starting with Ben Wallace, Dumars built a team full of overachieving warriors, guys who played their asses off on every possession. Ben Wallace is the engine that drives this Pistons team. In a blue collar town, he’s a blue collar guy and the Detroit fans absolutely love him. And fittingly, he has the last word:
“You know, me and the City of Detroit, we kind of formed a bond with each other. This was meant to be.”