JOY – AND A TEARAMID THE CELEBRATION, TEAM LOSES RICK MAHORN

Just a minute ago, he was dancing. Just a minute ago, he was spritzing champagne on his teammates, laughing with those gap-teeth, shaking his big nasty body and singing “BAAAD BOYS! BAAAD BOYS!” Just a minute ago, Rick Mahorn was the muscle around the heart of the Pistons’ brand-new NBA championship team.

And now he is gone.

So much for fantasy. Welcome back to real life. On the day of their championship parade, their love dance with the city of Detroit, Pistons management rolled the dice and lost: Mahorn was left unprotected in the expansion draft — which for some ridiculous reason is held before the hangovers wear off from the NBA Finals — and the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that doesn’t even have uniforms yet, plucked the baddest of our Bad Boys right off the shelf.

“It’s . . . a business deal,’ said a crushed Mahorn as he tried to drive away from the Palace celebration Thursday afternoon, amid throngs of people who were cheering and waving banners, not even aware that their hero had just been stolen.

Mahorn looked away. He had his hands on the wheel and a bag of souvenirs on the seat and he was trying not to cry in front of a TV camera and this was wrong, all wrong. It doesn’t matter how mean and nasty his reputation, it doesn’t matter if his back injury makes him questionable. He had just touched the end of the rainbow, the dream of every kid who ever laced up a basketball sneaker. This, all this — the cheers, the parade, the glory — was paradise.

And he was being thrown out.

Shouldn’t there be a moratorium on this kind of news? Shouldn’t we be able to celebrate for one solid day, for 24 hours, without some poke in the ribs from the real world? Is that asking too much?

Instead this. No more Rickey. He goes from the best team in basketball to surely one of the worst. Just a minute ago, he was on the podium in front of a delirious crowd, leading them in a Bad Boys cheer. He walked over to coach Chuck Daly, shook his hand, and said, “Thank you for having faith in me.” He walked over to general manager Jack McCloskey, grabbed his hand and said,
“Thanks for sticking with me through my weight problem.” He was the Bad Boy turned good, the thug in the movies who, in the final scene, reveals his tender side.

And gets shot in the heart.
“It’s a sad, sad day,” said McCloskey, backed against a wall in the Palace hallway. “We feel like we’re being penalized for having depth.”

He shook his head. He tried to explain. He said he had been on the phone all morning and afternoon — even on the parade float — trying to work out a deal with Minnesota to keep the Timberwolves from taking Mahorn. But it was his decision to leave Mahorn unprotected in the first place, and there is no way to minimize that or its impact. It was like throwing teargas at a wedding.

Why Rickey? The starting forward? McCloskey says his bad back was part of the reason. Maybe. But there is more to a player than his anatomy. What about his heart? On the court, Mahorn was the symbol of Pistons toughness. You did not mess with him and you did not mess with this team. Intimidation plays a big part in victory; the Pistons just got a lot less vicious.

Not to mention Mahorn’s basketball skills. “What he does won’t show up in the stat sheet,” said a saddened Joe Dumars. Things like setting picks. And defense, the essence of Pistons basketball. It was Mahorn who drew assignments like Patrick Ewing of the Knicks and James Worthy of the Lakers. Who will do that now?

The Pistons knew they’d have to leave some good player unprotected (each team could protect eight; this year’s expansion teams, Miami and Charlotte, did not have to give up any players), in order to preserve the likes of Dennis Rodman, John Salley and the starters. Vinnie Johnson’s playoff performance almost guaranteed his protection. So many thought the man to go would be James Edwards, the backup center.

No knock on Edwards, who is a wonderful player and a class guy, but he is

33 years old (Mahorn is 30), he does earn $800,000 a year (as opposed to Mahorn’s $600,000) and he is mostly effective off the bench. An expansion team looking for starters, leaders and affordable salaries might be more likely to pass on Edwards.

But Mahorn? A veteran? A starter? An outspoken leader in the locker room?

He was gone like ice cream on a hot afternoon. Just a minute ago he was throwing elbows, then laughing when the opponent tried to retaliate. Just a minute ago he was backing in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and canning a jumper. Just a minute ago he was screaming in the time-out huddle: “ONE MORE MINUTE! NO LETUP!”

He was a symbol of what the right team can do for the wrong guy. He came in fat, unhappy, traded from Washington four years ago. He did not want to be here. That first season he kept to himself, and fans wondered if the Pistons had picked up a flabby, mean-looking mistake.

But teammates. They’ll get you. And the fellow Pistons got to Mahorn, implored him to play harder, convinced him he was needed, but that he had to pull his share. He lost weight, he improved his defense, he signed on for the long haul. And he became a player.

Now, before they even put the ring on his finger, he is gone. The news jolted the Pistons in mid-celebration. They entered their locker room drunk with glee, the whole city loved them, this was the best. And they emerged, minutes later, as if there had been adeath in the family.

Which, in a way, there was.

Perhaps, in time, this will be seen as an unavoidable business move. Today it just stinks. Why Rickey? Why now? Why must a harmless, wonderful day of celebration take a shot to the stomach?

It doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair. Just a minute ago, he was on the Palace podium, microphone in hand, leading the crowd in a chorus of “BAAAD BOYS!” Suddenly, to everyone’s delight, he leaned over and kissed each of his teammates, one at a time, cheek to cheek. The toughest, roughest Piston? Cheek to cheek?

How sad.

He had no idea he was kissing them all good-bye.

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