Oh, What a Night

Pistons show off a 50-year history worth celebrating

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Gene Shue passed to Bailey Howell who passed to Ray Scott. And so it began. After all the introductions and the unveilings of the Pistons’ All-Time Team, the capstone of the season-long celebration of the franchise’s first half-century in Detroit, it came down to basketball, a ceremonial fast break that compressed 50 years into 94 feet and 24 seconds.

On it went. Around mid-court, the ball went from Chris Ford to Dave Bing to Bob Lanier, and then to Bill Laimbeer and Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas, who kicked the transition game into high gear, the eras seamlessly slipping from the Bad Boys to today’s Goin’ to Work Pistons, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince funneling the ball to Rip Hamilton at the free-throw line, Hamilton feeding Chauncey Billups for a layup 50 years in the making.

Mr. Big Shot made it, by the way. Of course he did.

Back row: Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Chris Ford, Dave Bing, Chuck Daly, Bailey Howell, John Long, Kelly Tripucka
Middle row: Bill Laimbeer, Mark Aguirre, Rick Mahorn, Terry Tyler, Ray Scott, Tayshaun Prince, John Salley, James Edwards, Rasheed Wallace, Bob Lanier
Front row: Jack McCloskey, Bill Davidson, Isiah Thomas, Gene Shue, Vinnie Johnson, Joe Dumars

Like all good stories, this one made you laugh, made you cry and hit every note on the nostalgic spectrum in between.

There was a time it would have seemed a hollow exercise, I suppose, celebrating 50 years of a franchise that struggled to find its way in a league similarly struggling for a foothold in an American sporting scene then dominated by baseball and boxing and horse racing, before even the NFL became the behemoth it would become.

But not anymore. On an intellectual level, we already knew that. The Pistons became players for real in the ’80s, pulling themselves up to a relevance impossible to deny the hard way – by beating the twin pillars of the NBA, the Lakers and Celtics.

On a gut level, seeing the men who made it possible in one place at one time in various stages of life lent texture to the story of the Pistons and their rise, their transformation from an indistinguishable entity to an organic one. Detroiters were not only proud to be associated with the Pistons, all of a sudden, but pointed to their team as something that defined them – that team, they’re like us, they work hard and pull together and share the blame as readily as the glory.

George Blaha, there for 32 of the 50 years, got the pregame ceremony started with his typical scene-setting aplomb. “To borrow from the Dells,” he said, as a crowd that buzzed palpably with anticipation settled into their seats for just this moment, “Oh, what a night!”

To the accompaniment of Bob Seger’s “In Your Time” – perfect – a video montage of the 50 years played out, from the grainy black and white of George Yardley to the grace of Dave Bing to the Bad Boys’ fury to the cradling of the 2004 NBA championship trophy at The Palace.

And then three of the greatest guards of their generations, encompassing nearly all of the 50 years in Detroit, spoke from the heart. And from the heart came this: It’s nice to be able to go anywhere and identify yourself as a Detroit Piston with pride.

Bing, rightfully and thoughtfully, saluted the few members of the All-Time Team that preceded him in Pistons red, white and blue – Yardley, Shue, Howell, Scott – for laying the foundation, for persevering long before the NBA was a league of charter flights and five-star hotels and national TV showcases. And then he said this:

“Our franchise started to turn around when we had the fortune of drafting the No. 1 player in college, Bob Lanier. … We’ve taken a lot of pride in watching one of the greatest teams that donned the floor for a long time and that was the Isiah Thomas Bad Boys.

“Now there’s a lot of conversation about which team is best – was it the Bad Boys or the team led by Chauncey Billups right now? I don’t know who would beat who, but I’d like to be a fan and watch them compete against each other. We’ve come a long way and with the franchise that we have in place today, I’m sure there are great things that are going to happen in our future.”

Thomas talked about pushing the franchise a little farther along. When he arrived in Detroit in 1981, the Pistons were coming off a 21-win season. Championship banners were fluttering above Boston Garden’s parquet and over the Forum’s hardwood in Los Angeles. Not here. Isiah had no championship legacy to tap in Detroit, but he sought the counsel of Bing – then, as now, a highly respected civic leader and businessman, a mentor with more than basketball wisdom to impart.

“I couldn’t walk in and get historical information from Jerry West or John Havlicek,” Thomas told the crowd. “I came and got information from Dave Bing and asked Dave, ‘What is it you want to do?’ And he said, ‘One day, when you talk about the Celtics and the Lakers, we want to be mentioned in that conversation.’ And I’m proud to stand here before you today, with all of my teammates and our Pistons family and you as our fans, because it took a long time before we built our house in ’89 and won our first championship.

“The most important thing is when Dave Bing said which team will win, Chauncey’s team or our team. I don’t know which team would win. However, I do know this. When I first came into the league and we talked about building our house and laying our foundation, the discussion they were having about the Celtics and the Lakers was which team was better – was it Larry Bird’s team or was it John Havlicek’s team? Was it the Magic Johnson-led Lakers team or was it the Jerry West team? And I’m proud to stand before you today and say that we as a Pistons franchise, now we can debate which team is better.”

And then it was Chauncey Billups’ turn, and he seemed equal parts awestruck and appreciative as he followed Bing and Thomas, Hall of Famers.

“It’s an unbelievable honor to be mentioned and be able to sit on the same stage with the greats of the Pistons organization. I know I can speak for my teammates when I say that. … We will continue to carry on and uphold the tradition of this franchise and we are going, in two weeks here, to start up a very, very successful, long playoff run. And hopefully at the end of that playoff run, we’re going to put another banner up there. Thank you.”

Which would have been a great way to end his speech.

Except, just as he’d handed the microphone back to Blaha to wrap things up, he thought of something else, grabbing the mike back.

“One more thing,” Mr. Big Shot said, an irrepressible smile splitting his face, “Zeke, Joe, Vinnie, Laimbeer, Salley – this isn’t for the old school, this is for the middle school. I don’t know what would have happened in the early ’90s, but in 2008, 2007, I’d take us, baby.”

And that was an even better way to end it.

With a laugh, on top of the heartstrings that got pulled, amid the seeds for a debate about which great championship team would beat which other great championship team. It’s nice to have that kind of history. And it humbles those who made it possible to honor it.