True Blue Pistons - July 2011
Posted Friday, July 29, 2011
The 1986 draft was transformational for the Pistons. In an off-season that began with a frustrated Isiah Thomas declaring that “something has to change next year,” something did. The headline-grabbing move was the trade of Kelly Tripucka that netted Adrian Dantley.
What turned out to be even more significant, though, was the ’86 draft, where Jack McCloskey nabbed John Salley with the 11th pick and Dennis Rodman with the 27th, which at the time was four picks deep into the second round of a 23-team NBA.
Rodman would go on to be one of only two players from that draft who would become Hall of Famers, and the other – the great Russian center Arvydas Sabonis – was inducted more for what he did in international play.
But there should have been at least a few more Hall of Famers to come from that draft. One of them played for the Pistons. William Bedford was the No. 6 pick of Phoenix in ’86. At 7-foot-1, Bedford ran like a greyhound, possessed a great shooting stroke and had everything a big man needed to become a defensive force.
Posted Wednesday, July 27, 2011
In the haze that accumulates over 25 years of memories, the way it might seem is that the Pistons rose to NBA champions in three orderly steps: lose in 1987 conference finals, lose in ’88 NBA Finals, win in ’89 NBA Finals. The memory says it was the Pistons’ destiny. And maybe it was. But the Celtics had other ideas.
We look back now and understand that 1987-88 was the year the Pistons clearly passed the Celtics. Boston went 22 years between NBA titles. Only when 1986 cast member Danny Ainge added Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, combining them with holdover Paul Pierce, did the Celtics pull out of a two-decades funk administered by the Bad Boys.
There was a sense that the baton was being passed the night of June 3, 1988, when Kevin McHale stopped on his way to the Silverdome locker room to shake the hand of Isiah Thomas – they’d been Big Ten rivals at Minnesota and Indiana before landing in the NBA – and tell him to take the NBA title back to the Eastern Conference from the Lakers.
Posted Monday, July 25, 2011
The visitor’s locker room at Boston Garden was legendary – for its quarters (cramped), for its amenities (non-existent) and for the water temperature of its showers (often frigid, though I rely on second-hand information on the latter count). It was especially crowded on May 30, 1987, given the media crush covering Game 7 of an epic playoff series, and it was unbearably hot and unforgivingly humid.
The bitterness meter ran hot in the Pistons’ locker room after they lost that deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals. Who could blame them? They felt they’d outplayed the Celtics in five games of that series. They believed they were the better team, capable of winning it all. They felt robbed.
No one had much room to move as reporters moved in to talk to the principles of what had not only been an unbelievably taut series, but one that had grown dangerously contentious. As I leaned in as part of the interview session with Dennis Rodman at his locker, my arms were pinned to my side, with barely enough mobility to be able to scratch his words onto my notepad. Rodman, unknown just a year earlier as an NAIA product of Southeastern Oklahoma State, was asked about Larry Bird, a giant of the game who had been pushed and tested by the Pistons’ rookie.
“Larry Bird is overrated in a lot of areas,” Rodman responded. “Why does he get so much publicity? Because he’s white. You never hear about a black player being the greatest.”
Posted Friday, July 22, 2011
The leprechauns that legend suggests inhabited Boston Garden and lived to influence the outcome of basketball games didn’t do much for their beloved Celtics in 1978-79. They won all of 29 games. Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald crossed 30 that year and the young core behind them no longer was littered with future Hall of Famers.
Bob McAdoo led the Celtics in scoring. At 27, he should have been just entering the best years of his career. That’s what Dick Vitale believed, at least, and Red Auerbach was thrilled to accommodate Vitale’s desire to pair McAdoo with Bob Lanier as he launched a new era of Pistons basketball at the Silverdome.
Vitale’s infatuation with McAdoo altered the course of two franchises for years – and set the Celtics up as the team the Pistons had to conquer in order to win the first two NBA titles in franchise history. Auerbach merely turned the McAdoo trade into Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.
Two NBA titles could well have been three – or even four – for the Pistons had history played out just a little differently.
Posted Wednesday, July 20, 2011
With Madison Square Garden undergoing its second major renovation since The Palace opened in 1988 and the Nets now having abandoned the dank barn at Exit 16W off the New Jersey Turnpike, biding their time in Newark until their gleaming new home in Brooklyn is ready, the Pistons are playing in the NBA’s oldest arena, remarkably enough.
But The Palace is very much a modern NBA arena. In fact, it is the progenitor of the modern NBA arena, the one that made the others instantly obsolete. Even the original homes of the two expansion teams that came into the NBA the year The Palace opened, Miami Arena and Charlotte Coliseum, have long size been razed to accommodate new, splashier, Palace-type meccas.
What the new palaces yield in amenities, some lack in sheer character. And none of them can match the great old barns for sheer noise.
Posted Tuesday, July 19, 2011
If the Pistons hope to end their two-year playoff drought, they would do well to get out of the gate fast in 2011-12. The schedule won’t do them any favors late, when the Pistons finish by playing 12 of their final 18 on the road.
That includes a brutal March stretch in which the Pistons play nine of 10 games away from The Palace. It starts with a five-game, 10-day Western road trip that sees them visit Utah, Sacramento, Phoenix, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver. After a brief Palace layover to face the Cleveland Cavaliers on a Friday night, the Pistons hit the road again for an unusual four-game Eastern Conference road trip to New York, Washington, Cleveland and Chicago.
That 10-game stretch includes only one back-to-back set – the Friday night Cleveland home game is followed by a Saturday date at New York. The Pistons will play 19 back-to-back sets in 2011-12, split almost evenly among the four variations. They’ll play four back to backs with both games at home and five each of home-road, road-home and road-road back-to-back sets.
The Pistons will open the season at home on Wednesday, Nov. 2 against Central Division rival Indiana, coming off a season in which the young Pacers qualified for the playoffs.
Posted Monday, July 18, 2011
In making the case for an underrated player, the tendency is to overstate his importance. Rick Mahorn wasn’t the MVP of the Bad Boys. Isiah Thomas was, though not by a landslide, and on the days he wasn’t the star, Joe Dumars would be, or sometimes Bill Laimbeer, or Adrian Dantley.
Five Pistons from that era have their numbers hanging in The Palace rafters – Isiah, Joe D, Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and Dennis Rodman. By the time the Pistons got to their second consecutive NBA Finals in 1989, the contributions of all five were necessary for them to win the franchise’s first NBA title. Three of them are Hall of Famers and Laimbeer has a solid case to make it four.
The Pistons possibly would have won the 1989 title without Mahorn. They just never would have gotten that far without him. Maybe Mahorn didn’t put them over the top. Maybe that was the athleticism Salley and Rodman (mostly) provided. But Mahorn pushed them up the side of the mountain.
Posted Friday, July 15, 2011
Who was Bill Laimbeer’s sidekick when the Pistons started flexing their muscles and throwing scares into East bully Boston before finally overthrowing the Celtics? Why, Rick Mahorn, of course.
Except it took Chuck Daly quite a while to come to that conclusion. You know how many regular-season games Mahorn started in the 1986-87 season – the one that ended with the Pistons losing to Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals?
The power forward position had bedeviled the Pistons as they were building to challenge the NBA’s best. Jack McCloskey had found his point guard (Isiah Thomas) in the 1981 draft, his shooting guard (Joe Dumars) in the draft four years later, his center (Bill Laimbeer) in a brilliant trade-deadline deal in February 1982 and his small forward (Adrian Dantley) in a 1986 trade that involved his first crack (Kelly Tripucka) at a remedy there.
But power forward … McCloskey was burning through them at a feverish rate. He was giving Daly lots of options, but nobody really staked their claim to the spot.
Posted Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Five years into his NBA career, frustration started to gnaw at Isiah Thomas. The individual accolades had come early and often. The Pistons were a mess when Isiah joined them, fresh off of leading Indiana to the NCAA title as a sophomore. They had won 16 and 21 games, digging out from the Dick Vitale era, in the two years before Jack McCloskey used the No. 2 pick in the 1981 draft to land him.
He immediately drove them to 39 wins in a rookie season so impressive he became the rare first-year player to be named to the All-Star team. He’d earned first team All-NBA honors in 1984, ’85 and ’86 (and never again, a testament to both the star quality of the NBA at that time, with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan putting the first-team backcourt spots in a vise grip, and to the depth and talent the Pistons would subsequently surround him with as his gaudy numbers dipped to accommodate those talented teammates). He was All-Star MVP in both 1984 and ’86.
Isiah loved the acclaim all of those individual achievements delivered for him. But he had come to know, if he hadn’t always known as much, that the only thing that confers greatness on star players is leading his team to an NBA championship. I’m not sure what drove him more: winning an NBA championship or achieving the exclusive status that automatically attaches itself to the leaders of NBA champions, but it hardly matters.
Posted Monday, July 11, 2011
Six summers before Joe Dumars and Terry Porter would share the same court as key figures for their teams in the 1990 NBA Finals, the two small-college stars shared a van ride up State Road 37 from Bloomington, Ind., to Indianapolis.
There were four pretty other fair basketball players in the van Bobby Knight had graciously arranged for the last cuts from the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that would romp to the gold medal in Los Angeles, the field greatly weakened by the Soviet bloc boycott: Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and A.C. Green.
Twenty-two years later, Barkley and Dumars returned to Indianapolis, site of the 2006 Final Four, to be introduced as the stars of that year’s Hall of Fame class. I was there, covering that Final Four, when Dumars reminisced about that van ride.
In a hotel ballroom, Dumars – who by that point had won two NBA titles as a player and one as the architect of the 2004 Pistons – could afford to smile about missing out on his one and only shot at an Olympic medal. He remembers the emotion he and Stockton, seated side by side in that van, shared.
Posted Friday, July 8, 2011
Jack McCloskey’s first stab at landing a point guard ended with the Lakers’ rejection of his offer to take the entire Pistons roster in exchange for Magic Johnson. He wound up settling for a slightly more modest alternative: Larry Drew.
If you’re ever on “Jeopardy,” the category is “Pistons History” and the answer is “Larry Drew,” then the correct question will be: “Who was Jack McCloskey’s first No 1 draft pick as Pistons general manager?”
That would be Larry Drew, current Atlanta Hawks head coach.
And Larry Drew is at the very core of McCloskey’s go-for-broke mentality.
Posted Thursday, July 7, 2011
I’ve never conceded the point that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player who ever lived. My vote still goes to Magic Johnson, a kid I first saw win a high school state title at Lansing Everett before carrying Michigan State to a magical national championship in a game that transcended college basketball and delivered it to America’s main stage.
If TV had re-created those halftime one-on-one games that drew all of the NBA’s heavy hitters back in the ’70s during the league’s ’80s heyday, my money would have been on Jordan. As long as the context of our discussion is five-on-five basketball, I’ll stick with Magic. His Game 6 stand-in for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the unprecedented position of point-center – remains the single most amazing performance I’ve ever seen, clinching the 1980 NBA title and earning Magic the first of three Finals MVP awards.
(That game, on a Friday night, was shown by CBS via tape delay at 11:30 p.m., the last time that’s happened; if we’re talking historical impact, it would be pretty tough to top Magic’s rookie-season effect on the NBA.)
I had a front-row seat for all the great Pistons-Bulls games of the late ’80s and early ’90s, so I appreciated fully Jordan’s greatness. I just thought Magic was better, at least if the framework for the argument is which player you’d pick to start a team built to win.
Posted Wednesday, July 6, 2011
True story: The only bumper sticker I’ve ever affixed to a car of mine read Re-VITALE-ized. It trumpeted the Pistons’ hiring of Dick Vitale in 1978 and that seemed reason enough to mar my prized ’74 Toyota Celica that had almost taken me through college by then.
I tell that story to suggest that the hiring of Vitale was viewed much differently at the time than it was in hindsight. Late Pistons owner Bill Davidson would come to recall the Vitale hiring as a disaster, a plunge he took on the advice of longtime Detroit sports columnist Joe Falls. (“And that’s the last time I ever took the advice of a sportswriter,” Mr. D would tell me 30 years later. “No offense.”)
At the time, it seemed, at minimum, a worthwhile risk, perhaps even a stroke of genius.