Casey’s speaker series aims to imbue Pistons with a Detroit ‘grind, grit’

Blake Griffin appreciates both playing for a team with an NBA championship history and the speakers Dwane Casey has invited to address the Pistons.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – When the Los Angeles Clippers made Blake Griffin the NBA’s No. 1 pick in 2009, he joined a franchise that had won the sum total of two – count ’em – playoff series in the 31 years since the franchise moved to California from Buffalo, first settling in San Diego, later in Orange County and finally in downtown Los Angeles.

He might need the least reminding of all Dwane Casey’s players about the value of pulling on the same uniform as players who have NBA championship rings in their jewelry boxes.

And Griffin might cherish a little more than most the wisdom Casey is intent on tapping from people who can speak to the tradition not only of the Pistons but of Detroit – its work ethic, its values and the place sports heroes and championship eras hold in the hearts of its people.

“This city appreciates hard work. They appreciate teams that play hard,” Griffin said. “I think that’s part of the identity that we want to have. I said at the beginning of the season, this city will support a team that comes out and plays as hard as they can, gives everything every night. I think they’re smart enough to know not every team is going to win every game, but you give them a product to be proud of and they’ll come support it.”

As part of Casey’s mission to fan the embers of the Pistons’ championship history, he plans to continue bringing in speakers who lend his message authenticity. A few weeks ago, it was Pistons Hall of Famer and former Detroit mayor Dave Bing. This week it was boxing great Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, a fixture at Pistons games since his championship heyday in the 1980s.

“He’s a Detroit legend,” Casey said. “That’s what I want to try to do is bring as many people here that represent the city of Detroit and give our guys a sense of understanding, a sense of pride that we can be a part of this. Let’s contribute to being a part of Detroit pride. The Hit Man was great.”

Casey and Griffin both were struck by Hearns’ message. Casey even brought it up to the Pistons after he was less than pleased with what he called a “lethargic” Thursday practice following a day off on Wednesday.

“Really applicable to today’s practice,” he said. “We asked, ‘Tommy, what made you get back in the gym and work every night?’ He said, ‘I didn’t want to go back where I came from.’ That’s what we said today. You don’t want to have a three-game losing streak. That’s why we’ve got to have focus in practice every day. He was great.”

“I’m a big believer in you can take something away from anybody, especially people who have accomplished a lot, been at the top of his profession like he was,” Griffin said. “The thing about him is he was obsessed with being the best. It’s a special quality to have. It’s always good to hear people like that.”

Casey said players are usually eager to bolt after practice and their individual work is finished, but players – none of them old enough to have seen Hearns fight – sat in rapt attention as he spoke. Applause broke out a few times near the end. Casey grew up in Kentucky with remnants of the Jim Crow era in place idolizing a native son who happened to be Hearns’ role model, as well.

“I’m a Muhammad Ali fan, as was the Hit Man,” Casey said. “He talks about how Muhammad Ali inspired him. That was my idol as a young African-American kid in Kentucky and Muhammad Ali being from Louisville. He was our hope. The first couple of fights, didn’t have a television to watch it, listened to it on the radio. You could tell how old I am and how much money we didn’t have. I asked the guys how many have seen the Hit Man fight. None of ’em had seen him because they’re too young, but I told them to go home and watch on YouTube and they did. Guys were excited to see him.”

This is Casey’s third tour of duty as an NBA head coach but the first time he’s actively recruited speakers to connect his team to its city – mostly because he didn’t have much tradition to sell in Minnesota or Toronto, he said. Griffin, too, can appreciate the stark differences after his time with the Clippers, which only since drafting him and changing ownership has managed to shed the label of NBA laughingstock.

“Franchises like this that have won a lot, there’s a standard and that doesn’t go away,” he said. “There’s people here from the Bad Boys era and that mentality is what you want to keep around. It is important to guys. You come to practice every day and look up and see however many retired jerseys up there, you see all the division championships, the conference championships and, obviously, you see the three championships. You know this is a place that knows how to get it done.”

Casey’s aim is to draw out every ounce of that institutional knowledge – from the Pistons network, from the city’s fabric – and confer it on his team so it becomes a sustaining quality.

“Detroit is about hard work – the grind, the grit. Even though the game has changed since the Bad Boys, it’s still about that grind, the grit, the edge they played with,” he said. “Not one night, not one possession, but every night, every possession. That’s what we’re trying to build. That’s why we brought the Hit Man, that’s what Dave Bing talked about. The pride you have in representing the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.”