by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

At the buzzer, they hugged each other. Isn’t that the right reaction? You’re happy, you hug each other. You’re grateful, you hug each other. Joe Dumars was hugging John Salley and coach Chuck Daly was hugging assistant coach Dick Versace and Isiah Thomas was hugging Adrian Dantley at midcourt, as the crowd mobbed them both, hugging as if they’d never let each other go.

Gloryoski! Somebody up there finally heard us. Whatever magic power decides what’s fair is fair, what’s due is due, was surely pressing on that final buzzer Friday night at the Silverdome, the one that sent a dozen Detroit

basketball players into a heavenly leap, and an entire state into unbridled ecstasy.

Move over, green men.

Our turn now.

“WE DID IT! WE DID IT!” screamed the Pistons, after beating Boston 95-90 in Game 6 to capture the Eastern Conference title. “WE DID IT!”

Over and in. How about that? The Pistons will play for the NBA championship; they are sliding down the rainbow and the Boston Celtics are finally — count the seconds, one to 10, check for breath, take a pulse, poke their eyes, it’s true, it’s true — dead. And if it feels this morning like the final seconds of a monster movie, when the sun comes out and the monster is history and your heart can finally come out of your throat, well, that’s because that’s what this series was like.

Everybody . . .

. . . breathe!

Our turn now.

What a series! Did you ever believe the Pistons were home free until that final buzzer? Have you ever lost more sleep, endured more goose bumps, suffered more stomach aches over any other dumb old sporting event? This thing took on dimensions beyond the court; it became an obsession. “Beat the Celtics!” “Kill the Celtics!”

So fervent was that wish that Bill Laimbeer brought an iron sickle in his gym bag Friday night, and he showed it to his team upon arrival.

“Chuck said the Celtics are like a snake, you have to cut their head off to kill them. Well . . .”

Well. That’ll do it. People in Boston will not understand why this victory meant so much. But then, as they say, people in Boston don’t live around here.

Try 31 years without a basketball champion. Try four years since any major Detroit team has reached a final in anything. Try the sting of defeat by a stolen pass, by a pair of banged heads, by a little green leprechaun. How much of that can one team take? You try living with that for a year.

This time, it was the Celtics — minus center Robert Parish, out with a knee injury — falling apart in the clutch. They looked old, they shot poorly,

they missed open baskets. (Larry Bird actually missed a lay-up and two consecutive free throws; does that tell you something?) As the minutes wore down, it was the Boston players making faces of defeat, brows creased, mouths hanging open in disbelief. They haven’t missed the finals in four seasons. Losing hurts, huh, fellahs? Tell us about it.

Your turn now.

This was Detroit glory, beautiful, sweat-soaked effort: Here were the Pistons running the breaks, Isiah to Dumars to Dantley, lay-up, Isiah to Edwards, lay-up, Isiah to Laimbeer, lay-up. And Vinnie Johnson scoring from outside, from inside, from New Jersey, from Paris. And the defense! John Salley, playing the game of his career, soaring to block Danny Ainge, soaring to block Kevin McHale, soaring to block Bird, twice. There was even a little hockey, which is appropriate for Detroit, a fight down by the boards that resulted in the ejection of Dennis Rodman and Brad Lohaus.

What there was none of was nerves. No fear of success. No flat shooting, no dry throats.

Our turn now. Think of all the stories that marched triumphantly into that locker room Friday night. There was Daly, 57, the coach without a contract, his voice shot, his eyes baggy, but finally, after a lifetime of finishing second, a smile on his face.

There was Dantley, the “old man,” the quiet superstar who discovered that sometimes playing co-star can take you further than all the statistics in the world.

And alongside him, slapping his back, his new-found best friend, Dumars, quiet man No. 2, who will simply smile and take this all in, although somewhere down in Louisiana, the little town of Lake Charles is having a hell of a party.

There was Rickey Mahorn, who hurt so bad he had to lie down whenever he was taken out of the game, and James Edwards, the sleepy-eyed giant who never thought he’d see champagne is his career. There was Salley and Rodman,
“Spider” and the “Worm,” the “kids” of the team who are kids no longer, and may they never forget how good this feels, because they will be the ones to help do it again.

There was Johnson, the streak shooter, who had a magnificent game, and Laimbeer, the nation’s villain, who has the reputation of the class bully, but, deep down, the personality of a mischievous kid. So what if everybody out there hates his guts? He’s home. Pop the corks.

And finally, Thomas. This has been his team, for better or worse, his play has swayed it. You could make a case that the angel-faced guard really wasn’t ready for a title before this, things had gone too well; but the events of the past year — the loss last season to Boston, the Bird incident, the criticism from the media — have seasoned him, matured him, and yes, hardened him. You may need that to become champion. “We couldn’t have won this game without having lost it last year,” he said after the pivotal Game 5 victory.

Same goes for the championship.

Twelve men. One thought.

Our turn now. So the series that would not end finally ends, to the delicious noise of 38,912 fans singing and dancing and stomping their feet. It was rainbows and lollipops and sunshine for Detroit. A happy ending. Like a Dorothy in sneakers, the Pistons may have had the power to do what they needed to do all along; they just had to believe in themselves. And click their heels three times. And say there’s no place like Dome.

“Who will you call first if you win?” Dantley was asked before the game.

He smiled.

“They’ll be calling me,” he said.

“What would this mean to you if you win?” Salley was asked.

“I’ve been here two years, and we went to the Eastern Conference final once, and we’re going to the final now. It means I joined a winning team.”

A winning team. And more than that. They have crossed a bridge now, these Pistons, jumped over the broom of expectations. Simply put, they have grown up. Give them long pants and a corsage and send them to the prom. They beat the Celtics because they beat the demons inside themselves. They believed.

Whatever happens next, never forget the sweetness of that sentence, or this one Saturday morning when the sun is out, the nice music swells, and a little-train-that-could has finally pulled into the station. Green is gone, blue goes on. Twelve men. One thought.

Our turn now.

Over and in. CUTLINE Adrian Dantley drives the lane for a lay-up as Boston’s Kevin McHale tries to block the shot Friday night at the Silverdome.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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