by | May 30, 1989 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CHICAGO — The bottle came flying from the stands. It narrowly missed the Pistons’ players and smashed on the court into a thousand pieces. The crowd erupted into an ugly roar. Joe Dumars felt a ping in his back and spun around. “Somebody threw a quarter at me,” he said. “I picked it up and put it in my sock.”

War. Chicago-style. Deep-dish, grind-’em-up, arms, legs, bottles and quarters battle. What do you do when you are attacked? What else? Whip out your defense. With its reputation bloodied and its season suddenly in the balance, here was the Detroit team that plugged its way to the best record in basketball this season, doing, in the city of Al Capone, what Capone did best.

Stick ’em up.

“This was one of those games where you’re concentrating so hard on defense, you’re even thinking defense when you’re on offense,” said Isiah Thomas, who helped lead the Pistons to an 86-80 victory over Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, tying this Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece. “Even when you’re dribbling up court, you’re thinking, ‘That guy is not going to score on me when we go down the other end. He won’t score!’ “

Steal the ball. Slap it away. Deny. Overplay. Tap, bump, shove if you can.

There are only so many ways to win basketball games when you shoot, as the Pistons did Monday, only 36 percent from the field. One is to have the other team’s bus go off a mountain. The other is to play defense the way women mud-wrestle: sticky, and all over your opponent.

“How did you stop Jordan today?” someone asked Dennis Rodman, who, along with Joe Dumars, put the clamps on the NBA’s reigning Mr. Wonderful, holding him to 23 points on 5- for-15 shooting.

“Well, first you take away his first option, then you take away his second option,” said Rodman, who also had a remarkable 18 rebounds. “Then you try and stop his third option. That takes a lot of concentration. But I would have gone through a brick wall for the ball today. We had to have this game. We had to come in here and tell these people, ‘Hey, this is our gym for the next 2 1/2 hours, folks.’ “

Stick ’em up.

Make no mistake. This was the critical moment in the Pistons’ season. To everyone’s surprise, they suddenly trailed Chicago, two games to one. The monster Bulls — which the Pistons helped create with a sloppy loss in Game 1, giving Chicago unexpected hope — were threatening now to eat them alive. Logic was useless. On Saturday, the Bulls had won a game they never should have won, coming from behind in the closing minutes for a 99-97 buzzer beater.

Down that stretch, it was all Chicago, every call, every bounce, every critical shot. And Monday, in the fourth quarter, with the Pistons leading, 76-69, the crowd rose to its feet and began the war chant once again. Teeth rattled. Eardrums bled.

“I heard them roar and looked up at the clock and saw 4:42 left and I said,
‘Oh, Jesus, not again,’ ” Rodman admitted. “Let’s not have that nightmare.”

All his teammates were thinking the same thing. Dumars thought it. Thomas thought it. James Edwards thought it. These are the moments when you face your athletic character. You either fold it up, or come out swinging. Concentrate, was the Pistons’ response. Lightning will not strike twice.

And it did not. This time, instead of Jordan throwing magic balls through magic rims, it was Thomas sinking an 18-foot jump shot.

This time, instead of Vinnie Johnson being slapped with a questionable foul, it was Johnson flying under the backboard for a reverse scoop that almost took his arm off.

This time, instead of Bill Laimbeer drawing a controversial offensive foul in the final seconds, it was Laimbeer swooping in from out of nowhere and blocking a shot by Horace Grant with 54 ticks left.

This time, instead of Jordan slicing through the Detroit defense with the referees in his pocket, it was Jordan shadowed by Dumars, Rodman, Edwards, it was Jordan missing free throws, it was Jordan picking up his fifth foul by bumping Thomas.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about how Michael Jordan is the best player in the NBA and how he’s going to take his team to the finals,” Johnson said.
“Well, the guy is a great player, but no one player is going to beat our whole team. We didn’t win all those games this year just to lose to one guy, you know.”

They proved it Monday. In an unfriendly arena, with the series likely in the balance, the Pistons did not score a basket in the last 3:57 of the game
— and they still won. Hands in the face. Take a charge. Block a shot. Body-check. Defense, defense, defense.

Stick ’em up. It was not a pretty game,” admitted Pistons coach Chuck Daly. “But if you’re a true fan, you know you saw a great defensive effort. When you have to work for your points, bounce off screens, make shifts, stick your man, those things can be kind of beautiful. Don’t forget, that’s how we got here.”

That, and a great bench. Never was that more in evidence than Monday. Want proof? Mark Aguirre and Rick Mahorn, the two starting forwards, played a total of 29 minutes, with a total of six points. Rodman and John Salley, the sixth and seventh men, played for more than an hour combined and did all the critical rebounding and stopping. Johnson, the third guard, scored or assisted on the Pistons’ final four baskets. Edwards, the backup center, was the offensive lift when the Pistons desperately needed one, scoring six quick points at the end of the third quarter.

If you can’t outshoot ’em, outdeep ’em.

And, as a result, the series is tied. Maybe better than that. It seemed with Monday’s game that the Pistons finally woke up, finally realized the Bulls indeed are a formidable opponent (with some crazy fans), they must be taken seriously, at least as long as the Pistons continue to shoot as if it were Sunday night at the YMCA. Detroit’s offensive woes are a concern, and absolutely nobody on this team can be considered a hot shooter right now.

But dance with the one that brung ya. Defense tends to win big games in almost all sports, and as long as the Pistons can smother, bother, poke, slap,

block, strip, bump and switch, they will be alive for an NBA championship. Provided they survive the hurling objects of Chicago Stadium.

“Still got that quarter?” someone asked Joe Dumars later.


“What are you gonna do with it?”


Maybe buy a helmet.


Piston Mark Aguirre leaps off the bench in celebration Monday at Chicago Stadium after Detroit beat the Chicago Bulls, 86-80, to even the Eastern Conference championship series at two games. Pistons defenders held Chicago’s Michael Jordan to 23 points.


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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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