We interrupt this hockey season for a message from the Pistons. You remember the Pistons? Basketball team? Play up at the Palace? Once, they were April, May and June in this city. They owned the spring, and everything else had to get in line for crumbs. There were basketball titles here and basketball parties, and, everywhere you looked, people wore Pistons shirts, and their cars had Pistons bumper stickers. Then the Pistons lost their crown, an graceless exit in the 1991 conference finals against the Chicago Bulls, and things collapsed. They drowned the next year before they even got wet, a first-round loss to the Knicks, and after that, the Pistons did not own the spring anymore. They became bad, then awful, then, even worse, forgotten.
Which is when Detroit became Hockey Town.
Well, in case you haven’t noticed, we wake up this morning with something not seen in these parts since George Bush was president: an NBA playoff team. The Pistons confirmed it Sunday night, winning their season-ending game, their 46th victory of the year. Just to show you how big that is, in the two seasons before this, they won a total of 48 games.
And in the locker room afterward, you saw something you rarely see: Doug Collins, the new coach, went to each player, put his arm around him or shook his hand, thanked him for believing. And the players, led by Joe Dumars, responded. “Thanks for getting us back to the playoffs,” Dumars said. He meant, of course, thanks also for getting him back to the playoffs. Dumars is the only holdover from the glory years, when the Pistons owned the spring. He thought seriously about quitting after this year. Now, he says he’ll be back. Most of that is because of what has happened to this team this year. Like an injured sprinter learning to walk all over again, the Pistons have found a stride, they are picking up speed, and it all feels very fresh, with a definite sense of direction.
Rising. New guys, meet playoffs
“Do you remember what you were doing the last two years after the final game?” Alan Houston was asked in the locker room after the game.
“Oh, yeah, I remember,” he said. “I had a plane flight home. I knew I was going a home a month before the season ended. And I couldn’t wait for the last game to be over.
“Tonight, I couldn’t wait either. But it was a different kind of feeling.”
Finally, there were no suitcases after the home closer, no locker sweeps, no tight-lipped good-byes. There will be an 83rd game of the season, and an 84th and 85th. Friday night, against Orlando, the playoffs will say hello, for the first time, to Houston, Lindsey Hunter, Theo Ratliff, Don Reid, Lou Roe.
And yes, to Grant Hill. He is already one of the most recognized faces in his sport. Last year he was rookie of the year, the leading vote-getter in the All-Star Game — and was home by the third week of April. He was embarrassed and frustrated, so much so, he couldn’t even bear to watch the playoffs on TV.
“That was the first time in my life that I didn’t have some kind of post-season,” Hill said Sunday. “High school, college, we always went to something.”
“Do you feel like you belong in the playoffs?” he was asked.
“I feel like the Pistons belong in the playoffs. Three years away? The Detroit Pistons? That just doesn’t seem right.”
Rising. No letdown from this team
Midway through the third quarter Sunday night, the public address man announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Pistons will open the playoffs against the Orlando Magic Friday night.” Collins went berserk. He screamed at the table, “Why are you announcing that now? Why can’t you do that after the game, for bleep’s sakes!”
He was angry, because his team didn’t know the outcome of an Atlanta-Miami game that would determine their playoff opponent — didn’t know it, that is, until it was boomed over the loudspeakers. Collins fretted over a letdown.
Instead, Houston continued to bury aesthetic jump shots, and Otis Thorpe slammed one-handed harder than most men can slam with two, and Hill grabbed rebounds, and Dumars sank jump shots, and the Pistons, rather than let down, actually increased their lead over Milwaukee.
And later, Collins, the man who stirs the stew, seemed on the verge of tears when he talked about his troops. “We lost three in a row to open the season and we never lost three in a row again. You know what that says about this team? They never get down. They keep lifting themselves up.
“It’s been six years for me since I’ve coached in the playoffs. I pride myself on picking people I want to be in the foxhole with, and I think I’ve picked a good group here.”
That he has. Not the most talented. Not a playoff favorite. But a contender. A worthy entrant. Spring is here, and hockey will have to share the stage. There is, once again, a basketball team in this town. Look up. You can see it rising.