PISTONS JUST DESERVE THIS NBA TITLE MORE

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — So this is what it comes down to for the Detroit Pistons: 48 minutes to live or die. They are skin and bone now, a cornered animal, a team without its captain that is relying on prayers, guts and the power within.

One game. The world championship.

“Are you hoping for a miracle?” someone asked Isiah Thomas, their star, as he sat beside his crutches during a press conference Monday.

“Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, I am.”

Isn’t everybody? Every basketball fan who doesn’t wear purple, anyhow. What kind of justice is it when Thomas, the guy who has waited longest as a Piston to reach this glorious moment — Game 7, all or nothing — likely can’t play because of a sprained ankle?

What kind of fairness is it when Joe Dumars, who has done everything right for so long, misses the final shot in Game 6 and has to walk around wondering if he blew a championship?

What kind of balance is it when Lakers coach Pat Riley, he of the greasy hair and hollow, if pretty, philosophy, is favored for yet another championship ring, while Chuck Daly, a second- banana his whole life, seems, once again, at age 57, crippled by fate?

Where is the payoff? Tell me. I have been with these guys for nearly a month straight now, and in the last 24 hours I’ve watched them sigh, watched Thomas hobble around on crutches, watched Dumars and Adrian Dantley and John Salley and Vinnie Johnson walk around the hotel lobby, trying to smile and act as if they’re not going crazy with anticipation.

And, I still feel — heaven help me — that the Pistons are going to win this thing. And I think this is why:

I think it’s because they deserve it. Dreams just can’t fizzle

Now, that doesn’t count for much. Certainly not in basketball. It didn’t stop the Boston Celtics from stealing Detroit’s glory last year, on a devilish interception and a freak head-butt. It didn’t keep Thomas from landing funny Sunday afternoon, and spending all day Monday hooked to machines trying to reverse the swelling of his ankle.

It hasn’t kept this series, which should be over already, from reaching its final game tonight, with the Lakers healthy and the Pistons scrambling.

And yet there are certain scenes I can’t get out of my mind. Like before the game Sunday, when Daly took a seat outside the Detroit locker room, the one where the security guard normally sits.

“Got a pass, fella?” he said to me.

I smiled. I asked him how he felt about his chances. For the first time since I’ve known him, he actually looked optimistic.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve developed this theory about coaching. If you stick around long enough, you get your slice of cake. No matter who you are.”

I see that scene. And I see this one: Dantley, before Game 5, in the Pistons’ locker room, saying, “Man, oh man, what do we gotta do to win this championship?” And then going out and showing everybody what they had to do, taking control, scoring and screaming and dragging his team to the lip of the glory.

I see Bill Laimbeer saying, “It’s my fault, I played badly,” after Game 6, and Dumars saying, “I thought it was a good shot,” after that ill-fated drive, and Thomas, lying there, across the room, in so much pain he couldn’t keep his eyes open, yet saying, “We still have a chance, we have one more game.”

I see all that, and I just can’t believe it all goes down the drain. They’ve all waited a career

Who knows? Tonight will be the hardest thing the Pistons have ever tried. Johnson, who will start if Thomas can’t go, is calling it “the biggest game of my life.” Can it be any less for Dantley, who has waited a career for this, or Daly, who has waited a career for this, or James Edwards, who has waited a career for this?

No. It can’t. Every player who steps out for Detroit tonight knows that one false breath, one let-up, one Laker who isn’t defended, one rebound that isn’t chased, could be the one that sends him home to an unforgiving summer.

Know that they are up against world champions. Know that these Lakers are not strangers to Game 7s. Know that Magic and Kareem and Worthy all possess the executioner’s touch.

Know also that Detroit, a city that has never seen an NBA champion, sent Joe Diroff, the superfan nicknamed “The Brow,” all the way to LA. And he was here Monday, with his construction paper signs and funny hats and ties, trying to organize a pep rally. For the Pistons. In the lobby. No doubt the Californians watching must have wondered what hurricane from the Midwest blew this guy in.

Call it a hurricane that is long overdue. The Pistons — and I say this with no anger toward the Lakers — simply deserve this championship more. And I guess somewhere deep down, I still figure right makes might, and not the other away around. It’s probably a stupid philosophy. And, because I’m a journalist, I’m not supposed to care anyhow. But late tonight, when this war is finally over, if the Pistons are the ones left standing, I’ll tell you this: I’m gonna feel pretty damn good. And I bet I’m not alone.

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