AMERICA’S TEAM

They may, one day, win it all again, sooner than people think, maybe even next year, but they will never again have a night like this. Rasheed Wallace, giddy, dumping champagne on the team’s PR man, Kevin Grigg, then yelling, “Don’t worry, K.G., I’ll pay for the dry cleaning!” Tayshaun Prince, leaning into a mob of reporters, saying “I’ve been speechless since that buzzer went off.” Chauncey Billups, wandering the halls with his MVP trophy, gripping it tightly, like Linus with his blanket. Joe Dumars, handling a victory cigar, jokingly asking if anyone had a light, then admitting he didn’t smoke. Lindsey Hunter, in a sideways baseball cap, brim dripping with the bubbly, telling people, “This is the best. This is my home.’

This was all their homes, this moment, this night, this place, a locker room humid with stale sweat and pungent with the smell of a booze-soaked carpet. The first night of championship noise, like a first kiss, you get only once. But while it felt like a cocoon, the room had company, more than the Pistons anticipated.

It had nearly the whole country.

Bill Davidson, the team owner, may have said it best. “I’m not criticizing the Lakers,” he mused in the hallway, wearing a Pistons championship T-shirt, “but what went on with Gary Payton and Karl Malone, I think that kind of turned off the rest of the country. . . . The only place anyone wanted the Lakers to win was in L.A. The rest of the country was rooting for us.”

So, wait. Does that make the Pistons — gulp — “America’s team”?

Davidson smiled. “I guess it does.”

Well, they may not put a star on their helmets — or their headbands — but Davidson is right. The Pistons — or at least the idea of the Pistons — is, for now, popular enough to win the November election. It exemplifies a prototype that fans nostalgically pine for, a group of players who don’t just talk about teamwork, they employ it.

It was both sad and funny to hear Kobe Bryant tell a group of reporters after elimination Tuesday night that “we had a great run and showed what we can do when we play together,” when in fact it was nearly the opposite, the Lakers had an awful NBA Finals, due to how little they played together.

But it’s precisely that double-speak from the jaded L.A. Glitzmobile that made the Pistons so attractive. When Detroit players said “nobody expected us to win” they were not only telling the truth, they were understating. When Detroit players said, “Lots of people didn’t believe in us,” they have the pink slips to prove it: Ben Wallace, undrafted, traded twice; Chauncey Billups, six different teams; Rip Hamilton, traded on the lip of his prime; Rasheed Wallace, three teams in three days.

The sports world is so full of cliches, that when a cliche proves true, it’s too unique to be a cliche anymore. Here is the stock phrase that makes something like the Pistons so out of stock.

“Nobody is bigger than anyone else.”

America’s Team?

The members of the crew

“What about people who say you can’t win without a high-priced superstar?” someone asked Dumars in the jammed Detroit locker room.

“I guess they’re gonna have to find something else to say now,” he beamed.

Could it be? Will “America’s Team” become a new industry standard? Will other NBA franchises try to copy the Detroit mold, eschew a Grant Hill or Jerry Stackhouse for a younger, hungrier, more moldable group?

“Well, let’s not be extreme,” Dumars said. “When people said, ‘You don’t have any superstars,’ I was like, OK, but we do have some star players. They may not be superstars, but maybe four or five stars equals two superstars. . . .

“The thing is, I think people really looked at us and started to appreciate ‘team,’ you know? That’s been so forgotten, especially in basketball, it was all about one-on-one, who’s the man, is he gonna get 30 points tonight?

“We wrote a different story.”

Here is their story: one hyperactive shooting guard, one proud but ignored point guard, one quietly determined small forward, one passionate, hot-tempered power forward, and one hard-jawed, oak tree of a center, backed by one unflappable immigrant big man, two boyishly energetic reserve guards, one nasty, muscled backup forward, one senior citizen backup center, several other role players, and a coach who has called a lot of NBA places his “last stop,” but only here could actually say that from a mountaintop.

Together — and you can’t say that word enough — they wove an improbable postseason, in which nearly all of them had a gold-star moment, Tayshaun’s block of Reggie Miller in the Indiana series, Chauncey’s three-point nights against Milwaukee, Rip’s pull-up explosions during Game 1 against the Lakers, Rasheed’s 26 points in Game 4, Ben’s jaw-dropping 22 rebounds in the clincher Tuesday night.

Billups won the MVP award, but honestly, would it have been wrong to give it to Prince, for the way he shut down Bryant? Would it have been wrong to give it to Hamilton, who chewed up so much L.A. defensive effort, his teammates had open shots and easier drives? Would it have been wrong to give it to Ben, who battled Shaquille O’Neal like a tree battles an ax, yet still managed to get his own game in every night, grabbing rebounds and intimidating any lane-dwellers?

They all could have gotten that trophy. How many teams can you say that about? They are a roster of the possible, interchanging parts, a band of brothers.

America’s Team?

Time for another party

There will be a parade today downtown. And a rally at the Palace. And you can measure the team concept by the raucous applause every player will receive, no rank, no one 10 times louder than the other, just endless noise.

“I may go with the ‘fro,” Ben said. “But y’all have to come out and see for yourselves.”

That won’t be a problem today. And thanks to their perseverance, it wasn’t a problem during the NBA Finals. People did come and see it for themselves. Out-of-town sports writers. Out-of-town broadcasters. Out-of-town fans. You couldn’t travel anywhere by Game 4 of this championship series and not find people around America saying, “I like that Detroit team. I hope they win.”

Maybe some of it is Lakers hating. Maybe lots of it is. But if so, think about what fans hate. They hate the superstar mentality. They hate gifted players who refuse to recognize other players’ gifts. They hate arrogance. They hate entitlement. They hate smirking, the Jack Nicholson kind. They hate fame and fortune when it appears to be rubbed in their faces.

So the Pistons locker room early Wednesday morning was not only full of players, their kids, their cousins, their friends, but also Kid Rock, the singer, saying “Bleep L.A.! You want me to say it louder?” And John Salley, the ex-Piston, throwing champagne and wearing a championship T-shirt as surely as if he’d just won the thing himself. These are guys who spend lots of time in L.A. Have places to stay or live in L.A. But identify with the Pistons. And they are but a small sampling.

We in the Motor City are more accustomed to people trying to beat us, not join us. So this is new, this role of role model. It won’t last, of course, because the New York and Los Angeles network people are already back home, and out of sight, out of mind, until, perhaps, next June.

But for one night, anyhow, the team from Detroit was the team from everywhere, the public school kids beating the preppy private school kids, the beer league softball team beating the stiffly uniformed semi-pro squad, the local bowler outrolling the visiting pro, the duffer playing a winning round against the club champion.

“I don’t really want to be America’s team,” Hunter said. “They did that with the Cowboys, and then half the people liked them and half the people hated them and who cares? Forget about being America’s team. I want to be Detroit’s team. This is about the people of Detroit.”

And psst. Don’t tell anyone. But according to Dumars, the architect of this whole squad, next year, and the year after that? They will be even better.

How’s that for burying the lead?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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