Late in the 2012 season, Ben Wallace and I sat in the coffee shop of a Charlotte hotel. I was writing a Courtside Quarterly article to send him into retirement and he said he could give me 30 minutes after we landed late that afternoon from Orlando. We wound up talking about three times that long.
It’s because the subject turned to the Goin’ to Work Pistons he anchored as the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. And he turned nostalgic, philosophical and wistful while choking up once or twice along the way.
“I don’t think there are too many teams in any sport that ever won a championship with a team like we had,” he said. “Guys that truly cared about each other and didn’t care who scores as long as the points were going up on the board, don’t care who’s getting the stops as long as they’re not scoring.”
Early last season, I pushed the 45-minute locker room rule while sitting in a corner at Staples Center with Chauncey Billups, talking about the same thing.
“We all literally became brothers,” he said. “People say that. It’s a good cliché, but it was real with us. It was real. Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t ever see that happening like we did it. I think that’s the last time it’ll happen like that.”
Not all championship teams – Sunday was the 10th anniversary of the Game 5 title-clinching win over the Lakers – are created equal. They all take home the same trophy and get the same historical one-line acknowledgment on the list of champions, but they aren’t all held as dear as the 2004 Pistons title team. They so perfectly reflected the city they called home.
Detroit was Wallace’s third NBA stop and Billups’ sixth. So they knew that what they experienced – no, what they created – with the Pistons was rare, if not downright unique. And when they left the Pistons – Wallace as a free agent in 2006, Billups via trade two years later – they knew the likelihood of recapturing that level of unity anywhere else was slim.
A big part of what hardened them and accelerated their closing of the ranks – five fingers becoming one iron fist – was their common denominator of having been castoffs and misfits.. Billups had gone from the No. 3 pick in 1997 to a human pinball, rolling through Boston, Toronto, Denver, Orlando and Minnesota before landing with the Pistons as a free agent in 2002.
Wallace went undrafted before trying to convert to shooting guard (!) with Boston’s Summer League team and subsequently hooking on with Washington, which traded him to Orlando, which in turn peddled him to the Pistons in the sign-and-trade deal for Grant Hill.
(Interesting sidebar: Orlando wanted to sign both Hill and Tracy McGrady to free-agent deals and brought both to town selling them on that idea. Hill wanted to sign with the Magic but for the seven-year, $93 million maximum deal he could only get via a sign-and-trade agreement that would require the cooperation of the Pistons. The Pistons wanted Ben Wallace in return, but Doc Rivers didn’t want to give him up. Orlando offered a package that didn’t interest the Pistons. They essentially said good luck and were ready to move on. The best Hill could do without a sign-and-trade would have been a six-year deal with 10 percent annual raises, not the 12.5 percent hikes the old bargaining agreement allowed. So, six years with 10 percent raises or seven years with 12.5 percent raises – the difference was about $20 million. Hill’s agent, Lon Babby, told Orlando they would think about it and go to on their next recruiting visit. That’s when Orlando relented and agreed to give up Wallace so they wouldn’t run the risk of losing Hill altogether. Only by calling Orlando’s bluff did the Pistons come away with the first piece of their five interlocking parts.)
Same with Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton. Rasheed, always a volatile personality, became tainted by the Portland “Jail Blazers” slur. The Pistons were his third NBA stop – fourth, technically, though he played only one game for Atlanta before the Hawks flipped him to Detroit at the ’04 trade deadline. Hamilton had spent three years in Washington under the withering scrutiny of player/team president Michael Jordan, an impossible situation for a young shooting guard trying to emerge from Jordan’s immense shadow.
Even Tayshaun Prince had reason for a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality. In a 2002 draft that produced very little star power, Prince – despite spending four years under the NCAA’s brightest lights at Kentucky – lasted until the 22nd pick, watching these seven players go directly in front of him: Jiri Welsch, Juan Dixon, Curtis Borchardt, Ryan Humphrey, Kareem Rush, Qyntel Woods and Casey Jacobsen.
They were a solid team but less than a contender until Joe Dumars twisted arms in Atlanta and Boston to beat the clock by minutes in a three-team deal that cost the Pistons ridiculously little, on balance, to add Rasheed Wallace at the ’04 trade deadline.. (Bonus: They also got Mike James in the deal, and he proved a key figure in the playoff run.)
And for as wondrous as the package he brought to Detroit truly was, it was really more about how dropping him into the puzzle completed the picture. He took them from a good defensive team to an all-time great one. His low-post presence complemented the offensive rebounding of Ben Wallace and the perimeter precision of Billups, Hamilton and Prince.
Remarkably, their personalities suited the whole just as their skill sets meshed. In both respects, the total exceeded the sum of considerable parts.
Theirs was a collective leadership. When a need arose, either during a game or within the dynamic of the locker room, whoever had the ability to fill it instinctively stepped forward to do so. Larry Brown was the ideal coach for them, not only brilliant at fitting the puzzle pieces together but – as a guy who so naturally commanded respect – among the very few who could push as hard as he pushed without turning off a bunch of players who came to Detroit feeling unappreciated.
That was what always resonated with their fans about that team. It was an underdog team for an underdog town. They’ll always lament the near-miss repeat – the Game 7 loss at San Antonio in the 2005 Finals – and always regret not matching or exceeding the Bad Boys’ two titles. But they won the hearts of their fans, a hold on their city that isn’t showing any signs of lessening a decade out.